Australian forager Elijah Holland on Noma, wild edibles in Singapore, and battling animals with his bare hands
Young and fearless
If a chef in Sydney is looking to put wild sandpaper figs or river mint on a plate, he is likely to call upon Elijah Holland for help. The 23-year-old forager and owner of Nature's Pick, which supplies wild Australian produce to top restaurants—think Gastro Park, Aria, and Bentley Restaurant and bar—in Australia, has established himself as a local expert on all things wild and edible. It's no surprise that his encyclopedic knowledge of wild produce earned him the accolade of Head Forager for Noma Australia when René Redzepi brought his famed culinary mecca down under earlier this year.
If your idea of a forager calls to mind balletic scenes of a man delicately plucking leaves off a flowering plant, you'll be in for a surprise when you meet Holland. Set him loose in the wild and he kicks into full on Bear Grylls mode. No one in their right mind would voluntarily pick a battle—armed only with bare hands—with a 13kg trout, but Holland did just that on a recent trip to New Zealand. Unfortunately for the trout, the eternal man vs. nature battle tipped in favour of the fearless forager.
Thanks to executive chef Michael Lewis of Tin Hill Social, Holland is now in Singapore, bashing his way through our flora and fauna to gather ingredients for a three-night-only Four Hands dinner with Lewis. From 29 September to 1 October, both chefs will jointly present a five-course dinner at Tin Hill Social showcasing the fruit of Holland's labour alongside produce from local crocodile, quail, and vegetable farms.
When and why did you start foraging?
I first started years ago, not quite knowing it. I grew up learning about native ingredients from my parents and my grandparents who have backgrounds in botany, permaculture and horticulture. I've been a chef for over 13 years now and over the last four years, I've really gotten into using more wild produce from around me as I wanted something that would be more sustainable.
How did you come to be the head forager at Noma Australia?
I started running my business called Nature's Pick in 2014, supplying foraged wild and native produce to top restaurants in Sydney. The executive chef and owner of one of the restaurants that I supply to, Gastro Park, a two-hatted restaurant in the city, worked with some of the guys from Noma and he put them in contact with me. When I met up with them, I brought along about 210 different types of wild produce to the meeting and René [Redzepi] and the team loved it. They offered me a job as head forager and chef de partie in the kitchen as well.
Have you met with unfortunate accidents while foraging?
A couple of months ago, we endured really bad storms in Australia. At that time, I really needed to get some watercress for Brent Savage's restaurant, Bentley. The weather had destroyed all the watercress at Bondi Beach so we headed inland near Terrey Hills to get it. The river I normally get them from was full of rapids, but the watercress was down the river and up on the banks. So I tied some rope around myself and the edge of a tree, and jumped into the river. The rapids swept me 60 to 70 metres downstream, but I managed to gather about six containers of watercress for Brent.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in New Zealand working at some hatcheries, foraging for watercress, wild wasabi, and wild carrot. A brown trout appeared in the river and I jumped in—fully clothed—flipped the trout over, wrestled it, threw it onto the bank, and knifed him in the head. It was about 12.74 kg.
What are some edibles you've come across while foraging in Singapore?
I've only been here for a couple of days and we have already amassed a massive list of edibles that include torched ginger, Malay ginger, noni fruit, cheese fruit, butterfly pea, wild pepper, Asian violets, and pennywort. We found lots of different figs such as red lantern figs and yellow stem figs, too. Some of these will feature in our dishes.
Which books would you recommend to someone who's looking to start foraging?
It really comes down to where you are. Different books are relevant to different areas and regions. Some of my favourites for foraging in Australia include Wild Food Plants of Australia, The Forager Handbook, and The Bush Tucker Food.
What's keeping you busy these days?
I've been really busy working on pop-ups, hunting, spearfishing, and foraging. When I'm not out in the bush, I am usually in the test kitchen back in Australia, making different products with wild produce. I like keeping myself busy. I love learning as much as I can.