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Forager scours Asia for exotic foodstuffs to the delight of many American chefs

Mark Brownstein keeps his hunting trophies in Ziploc bags, plastic bottles and little glass jars with screw-top lids. White labels denote the origin and the local name of what he brings back from his safaris. But antlers or tusks are not what the 50-year-old from Santa Barbara, Calif., is after.

The self-billed "food hunter" is out for culinary curiosities. He has made it his life's mission to deliver little-known delights from Asia to the chefs of some of the most innovative restaurants around the world.

On the stainless-steel table in the kitchen of Moveable Feast, a Geneva catering and retail shop, he shows his prey to Matt Lennert, a good friend and the owner/chef of the place: bunches of Laotian wild pepper, so hot that it numbs the tongue; smoked shrimp from a Chinese market; and what Brownstein calls "fleur de nuoc mam:" little drab salt crystals giving off the pungent smell of fermented anchovies. They accrued during the production of the fish sauce on the Phu Quoc island off the southwestern coast of Vietnam, he explains.

"You have to try this" says Brownstein, handing an orange-colored half of a candied citrus fruit to Lennert. "It's a Bael fruit that I discovered in Bangkok." Then he pulls out yet another bottle from his black bag. "This is the syrup they get as a byproduct from cooking the fruit in sugar," he adds, dripping some drops of the orange-amber colored sticky liquid in the bottle's cap so that the chef can try.

Full of expectation, Brownstein waits for Lennert's reaction.

"Hmm," the chef goes, before displaying a broad smile. "It has a rich sweetness in the finish and, hmm ... , and a bit of a savory character in the middle smoky, woody, a bit like bitter orange and caramel."

Culinary experiments

Only seconds later the two are rattling through what the fruit and its syrup could be used for.

"I immediately thought of a glaze for a duck breast," Brownstein says.

"It could go with a chicken dish," Lennert weighs in, "or maybe a cocktail."

"I can prepare a refreshing drink from it," suggests Brownstein and he begins to do so.

Experimenting with daring chefs to invent new culinary creations that bring his products to a wider audience is an important part of his work. But still first come his alimentary expeditions that most recently took him to hunting grounds in Vietnam, Thailand and the Kashmir region of India. Poking around food markets and cook shops in Bangkok as well as remote villages and homes of ordinary people in the Mekong Delta, he seeks to learn not only about foodstuffs but also about traditional preparation methods and the local culture.

"It takes patience," he says. "You have to build a relationship with the market vendors, even if you don't speak their language. Out of the blue they might reveal a specialty to you that they do not display but only sell to a handful of patrons that are in the know."

Whenever he comes to taste something that he hadn't known before, he starts looking for references and inspirations. "Which other flavors would it combine with? Which dishes and ingredients from the region does it remind me of?"

Importing Californian boutique wines to Hong Kong in 1995 after he followed his wife there helped him refine his tongue. "Tasting dozens of wines in a couple of hours taught me to recognize little nuances and build up a memory for tastes," he recalls.

Hunger for more

But his insatiable interest for anything edible goes back to his youth.

"When I was 17, my mother stopped cooking, although she was very good at it," he says. So he had no choice other than trying out dishes himself. His fascination for foods grew as he started growing all kinds of herbs and vegetables. Working as a landscaper after graduation, he created an entirely edible garden. Not being able to give up his culinary interests, he helped out in restaurant kitchens chopping vegetables and meat and later enrolled for some pastry classes at the Culinary Institute of America.

When he realized that there was not much work for a landscaper in Hong Kong, he was more than happy to turn his knowledge and infectious passion for food into a profession. Ironically, he started by promoting Napa Valley chardonnays in Asia but soon reversed the direction of his business.

Today chefs including Mohammad Islam of Chicago's Aigre Doux praise him for supplying them with rare ingredients.

"He is really unique," says Islam, who purchases essence oils made of lemon grass, lime leaves and bergamot from him. "I use them for dressings and in my poached shrimp salad."

The chef also credits Brownstein for providing him with Kashmiri saffron. "It is really hard to get; you need to have a reliable source."

And it is exactly this precious ingredient that Brownstein chooses to refine the drink that he is preparing for his friend at Movable Feast.

Infused with hot water, the chopped bael fruit, the syrup and the saffron fill the kitchen with a tangy scent. Poured over ice and garnished with fresh mint and basil leaves, it is a fresh but complex summer drink that can only inadequately be described as resembling a blend of ice tea, citrus fruits and a whiff of mint.

With all his knowledge, the food hunter gets it to the point: "Simply delicious!"

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