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Dining Haut Naturel

Ours in a time of great experimentation in dining, as chefs and clientele alike seek out variations on a theme to give more intimate eating experiences as well as more daring and flashy ones.  Witness pop-ups, farm-to-table, Dîners en Blanc.  And those of us of a certain age can remember when dining with the chefs at a small table in the kitchen was still a treasured rarity.

I just came back from a trip to Atlantic Canada where I was guest at some of the premier resorts and hotels in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – the Algonquin Resort, Keltic Lodge, Digby Pines, Liscombe Lodge and Westin Nova Scotian – where I had several memorable meals, especially those with fresh seafood.  The planked salmon at Liscombe, scallops Natasha at Digby, oysters on the half with a pepper sauce and kale (plus juicy lobster sliders) at the Keltic, crab cakes at the Algonquin are all tumbling out of my memory bank.

But it was on a damp morning, when there was a long break in the drizzle, that I had my most-memorable meal, one prepared by Chef Alex Haun of the Kingsbrae Garden restaurant next door to the Algonquin in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea and just a few miles from the Maine frontier.  Haun is a young, accomplished and enthusiastic chef who loves playing golf with his buddies and foraging in the thousands of acres of nearby woods and fields.  He invited me to join him on a mushroom hunt.

I met Haun at the entrance to his garden restaurant at 7 a.m. and jumped into his SUV for a 10-minute drive out of town, where we parked next to a rustic golf course.  He handed me a picking basket, took one for himself and donned a small back bag.  “I’m sure we’ll find some chanterelles around here,” he said as we plunged into a grove of pines, the forest floor covered with rocks and ferns.  “I thought we could have breakfast as well – if you’re hungry.”

Before long we were spotting patch after patch of chanterelles, like orange flowers against the greenery, in the open and among the ferns, four to five at a time in small clusters.  We picked two or three from each patch, leaving a couple behind – “they must serve a purpose in being here,” Haun philosophized – being sure to cut them off above ground level.

When we had foraged enough, Haun found an open spot to set up camp.  Soon, a small, portable burner shot up a steady flame as the chef unloaded a half-dozen plastic containers of ingredients.  Next, butter was sizzling in a solo pan along with a handful of chopped garlic.  “I thought we would fix a sauce with the butter and the garlic along with white wine, herbs and cream,” Haun said.  The only accompaniment was bottled water and a small loaf of fresh bread which Haun, trained as a pastry chef, had baked.  Breakfast was simple and delicious – chanterelles in a cream sauce spooned over slices of richly textured bread.  No plates, no utensils.  Just exquisite fresh food.

A few minutes later we were finished, repacked and on our way back to St. Andrews.  An hour later, the rain set in again.

I soon found words for the experience: Dining Haut Naturel, a concept that can be broadened to fit all sorts of foraging and collecting experiences.  The idea: A chef packs minimal ingredients and perhaps a small, portable stove and invites a few guests into the woods, the meadows, the seashore, vegetable gardens in a table-to-farm experience without the table.  Foraging, fishing, clamming, visits to nearby farms and orchards all lend exciting possibilities to cooking on the spot. The temptation to set up tables in advance and get overly ornate should be avoided: just gourmet food in a pristine and unadorned setting.

Of course, as we’re making up the rules as we go along, a couple of bottles of wine and plastic cups would certainly be permissible

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