If you’re exploring the outdoors in Metro Detroit, you might find Chef Chris Gadulka and his staff raiding a nearby patch of dandelion greens or plucking berries from a local autumn olive bush.
But they’re not just pruning; they’re foraging – and masterminding ideas for using local plants in the pestos, salads, and tartlets at Sylvan Table, the restaurant where Gadulka serves as executive chef.
Gadulka especially likes finding ways to use invasive species like garlic mustard, which threatens to crowd out Michigan’s native forest spring flora, in his cuisine.
“We cook with invasive species because they taste good and are in season and plentiful,” Gadulka said. “And let’s face it, they’re invasive. So many of the benefits are that they’re edible.”
Gadulka grinds the leaves of garlic mustard – a plant in the mustard family with a decidedly garlicky smell – into pestos or incorporates them into bitter salads. He ferments the astringent, gold-speckled berries of autumn olive – a deciduous shrub native to Asia that was initially planted across the Midwest to stem soil erosion – with local honey and incorporates them into tapenades to add tart components to sweet dishes or as a garnish to savory dishes. He’s also been known to use foraged dandelion greens and sunchokes in salads and vegetable plates.
Invasive species are a scourge on Michigan’s natural areas. Not only do they crowd out native species, but they also disrupt ecosystems in other ways – like removing food sources from pollinators that have co-evolved with them.
Dealing with invasive species has become a full-time job for natural area managers who want to preserve Michigan’s outdoor spades. Every year, volunteers descend on forested tracts like the Johnson Nature Center preserve in Bloomfield Hills to pull garlic mustard, clip and treat buckthorn, and participate in prescribed burns.
But a question arises: What to do with all of the offensive (but otherwise mostly perfectly edible) plant material?
It was that question that inspired Erin Watson, president of the Friends of the Johnson Nature Center in Bloomfield Hills, to reach out to Gadulka with a novel idea – why not host an outdoor culinary extravaganza designed to tantalize the tastebuds while also educating participants about the threats and opportunities invasive plants present to local ecosystems.
She figured – if you can’t beat ’em, why not eat ‘em?
“We want guests to come in and engage their senses,” she said. “We want them to see, taste, touch, and understand it. And then they walk away with an understanding a little more about what’s going on in their backyards.”
The event, held on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, will feature Gadulka’s craftiness with invasive plants and include locally grown produce. Guests will stroll through the woods to visit six unique food stations to sample the best of Michigan’s local early autumn fare. Johnson Nature Center naturalists at each station will explain what they see and eat to guests.
While Gadulka is still working out the menu details, he plans to welcome guests with an option of two signature cocktails featuring local invasive plant species, after which they’ll be treated to a salad of local greens. After that, they’ll move through five more food stations, strolling through the entire forest before ending with dessert. The menu will supplement local produce from nearby Bowers Farm, like early-season tomatoes, greens, and cabbage. Bloomfield Hills Schools owns and operates both facilities.
“Guests will be able to walk and traverse the entire property or most of the entire property, getting food and drinks along the way,” Gadulka said. “And at each station, there’ll be different food, and we’ll have descriptors of who, what, where and why we chose those foods for that location. What those foods are, what are the invasive species we’re featuring there, how to best utilize them in culinary preparation, and how to remediate them from the natural landscape.”
Plans for the food stations will also feature proteins like the invasive Michigan wild boar (accompanied with a crisp sage and garlic mustard pesto). And Gadulka is also hoping to feature the mother of all aquatic invasives: the Asian or “Copi” carp, which was imported to the United States in the 1970s to help control nuisance algal blooms in wastewater treatment plants. The massive fish have since taken over the Mississippi river basin and threaten to enter Lake Michigan. It could be game over for native Lake Trout and the Great Lakes’ $7 billion sport salmon fishery if they do.
“People view carp as a trash fish. But you know, at one point, people viewed lobster as an aquatic trash species,” Gadulka said. “It’s very tasty, actually. It is a delicacy. It’s plentiful and eaten because it also tastes good.”
Gadulka said the cuisine at the event would be “a little foodie-centric, but it’s not going to be unapproachable. We want everybody to be able to find something.”
Event sponsorships to guarantee your spot are now available. Ticket sales open on August 1st. Please visit Johnson Nature Center to learn more.