There was a time when hunting, gathering and craftsmanship were the norm, when foragers roamed the forest in search of morels and dried persimmons were massaged into glazed, almost candied Japanese delicacies.
So when Georgia Pellegrini, a Wellesley and Harvard grad who went into finance because that's just what people did, grew disenchanted with Wall Street life -- which was almost immediately -- she turned to the pursuit that had always made her happiest: cooking. She enrolled in culinary school and descended into the "dysfunctional mosh pits," she says, of restaurant kitchens in Manhattan and the South of France.
It was in Provence, as a line cook and peeler-of-grapes at La Chassagnette, that Pellegrini first began roaming the forests and fig orchards with foragers and farmers. It was a revelation and a reconnection, she says, with her earliest memories of growing vegetables, fishing for breakfast trout and raising rabbits and honeybees.
Now with one book under her belt and filming under way on a television pilot, "Girl Hunter," about hunting, gathering and cooking, Pellegrini, 29, is eager to chat about her just-published "Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 240 pages, $24.95). It's an ode to "the sausage makers, mushroom hunters, cheese makers and chance takers," she says, "who make food a craft and a life's meaning." It's a series of tales -- slices of life, tradition and history, accompanied by recipes from people such as Hans-Otto Johnsen, a mechanical engineer-turned-beekeeper in Skjeberg, Norway, and 93-year-old Helen Otow, who massages persimmons in Granite Bay.
We caught up with Pellegrini at home in Berkeley, Calif.
So how does an ex-financier and restaurant chef end up writing about foragers?
I found I was more interested in the people coming into restaurants with their various products than peeling grapes or carrots. I'd go foraging with them, or they'd invite me to their olive oil farm. I found them really inspiring. There are so many people out there who are doing extraordinary things to preserve these food traditions. And many of them had different jobs when they started -- working in statistics or mechanical engineering, living life in the fast lane -- and all of a sudden decided they didn't want to do that anymore. They wanted to raise honeybees. Or olive oil.
Which of these stories most appealed to you?
They're all so cool -- such interesting, warm generous people. They opened their walls to me. But the beekeeper in Norway: He was working as a mechanical engineer in mines when he got very sick, and while he was sick, he fell in love with honeybees. He has spent the last seven years trying to solve the honeybee crisis, and he's able to use his skills as a mechanical engineer to help. These people take their former day jobs and translate them into something they're passionate about.
You've taken a global approach in this book, but there are plenty of culinary artisans here in the Bay Area. Who would you highlight if you were doing a purely San Francisco-centric book?
Farmer Al (Courchesne) and Frog Hollow -- the best peaches in the country and the first to do everything organically. (Soyoung Scanlan), who makes Andante cheese. I met her when I was working at a restaurant, and I still remember tasting her cheese.
What's next for you?I'm starting the book tour, doing "Evenings with Food Heroes." The TV show was optioned, so we're shooting a pilot. And I'm starting a second book about taking it one step further and getting to the heart of the ingredients yourself. So, hunting, gathering -- and recipes.