Forager, trained chef, and author Chris Bennett discovered a love of the Alabama wilderness as a child growing up on a family farm outside of Birmingham. He developed his passion for wild edibles into a business and has provided foraged produce to top chefs across the South including Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt. Author of Southeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Angelica to Wild Plums, Bennett has become an authority on foraging across the South and shares his knowledge through speaking engagements and classes. Through public engagement and his relationship with chefs, Bennett has introduced the hidden gardens of the South to the world.
South of Eden
We labor in the field to produce a harvest. With plow and trowel, the farmer must work the land to earn his reward. Seeds are sown with the intention that fruits will come forth, but since the day that Adam and Eve left that perfect garden, the fruit of this labor has not always come easy. Imagine Eden before the fall, when the earth gave its bounty freely; a world where man’s journey on a winding path through the dark, leafy universe yielded wild fruits, flowers, and herbs, untended by hands.
Since that time, the idea of a lost, secret garden is a fascinating thought that has found expression in poems, novels, and art across the centuries. From towers in Babylon to moody English moors, hidden gardens of mythical proportions have captured our imagination since Eden. Today, these magic gardens are only found in the pages of books and on canvases in museums, but would we find these secret gardens still exist in plain sight if only we visited our forests and fields and opened our eyes?
If you follow Chris Bennett through the wild, green expanse of an Alabama woodland during springtime, the answer is yes.
“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden” ~Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Chris Bennett grew up on a family farm just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and he was fascinated by hidden forest worlds from an early age. Many Southern children got their first taste of wildness in roadside blackberry brambles, and Bennett was no different. He had the run of an 84-acre farm in Pell City and his father taught him the basics of foraging, lessons that inspired a deep connection to the land and to Alabama. Today, these connections to farm and family remain central to Bennett’s work.
After studying business and computer science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, Bennett chose a career path unrelated to his studies – but close to his heart.
After college, he began working in restaurants. Although Bennett was focused on developing his culinary skills during this period, he continued to forage in his free time. His passion for finding hidden forest gardens continued to develop alongside his restaurant career when he relocated to Richmond, Virginia. Intense study of French cookbooks and a love of nature deepened his interest in foraging, and soon Bennett began to recognize a void in the culinary world.
“In my heart, I am an Alabamian who went up north to work” ~E.O. Wilson
Bennett moved from Virginia to Chicago and continued his culinary career working in restaurants. During his first year in Illinois, he knew he wanted to be near his family in Alabama again. He also recognized great potential in the Southeastern food scene and believed his ability to connect chefs with wild Southern gardens could fill a void.
In 2005, Bennett returned to Alabama and began building relationships with chefs in and around Birmingham, and he went to work in the kitchen of Hot and Hot Fish Club Restaurant under the tutelage of Chef Chris Hastings. Bennett slowly introduced foraged produce and herbs to the menu there, beginning with wild mushrooms and persimmons. Before long, his reputation grew and he began providing foraged edibles to other chefs around Birmingham, including Chef Frank Stitt.
Another void that did not go unnoticed by Bennett was the lack of a comprehensive book about foraging in the Southeastern United States. He began writing a book on the subject while he was simultaneously working as a chef and developing his skills as a cheesemonger.
From South Carolina, the cheese making business led Bennett to North Carolina for a brief period and then back to his home again. Currently living in the city he knows best, he serves as a buyer for Whole Foods and continues to provide Birmingham’s top chefs with wild, beautiful things. Bennett is dedicated to educating the public about the wonders of hidden Southern gardens, and he periodically hosts foraging classes near Birmingham. If you attend one of his classes or read Bennett’s book, you will learn there is a garden wherever you go.
by Christy Graham, Managing Editor