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September 6, 2022

The Specials | Christina Rasmussen from Ark Collection

After moving to Denmark to work for Noma, Christina Rasmussen now works for the Ark Collection — a Danish restaurant group focused on “conscious dining”.
September 6, 2022

The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.

Christina Rasmussen is a Danish-American forager in Copenhagen. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she moved to Denmark in 2017 to work for Noma. She now works for the Ark Collection — a Danish restaurant group focused on “conscious dining”.

I originally trained to be a chef. I grew up in Princeton and went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. While I was doing an internship in England, I visited Copenhagen with my dad and heard that Noma was closing. I decided I had to return and work there before it did. I applied for an internship and was invited to join Noma in the summer of 2016.

My introduction to foraging was incredible. As part of my internship, I spent time in the kitchen, in service and so on. I also spent couple of weeks foraging. It was September and 26 degrees and sunny for two weeks straight. I was like, “Holy shit, this is a job?” It was so interesting to develop a different relationship with the chefs, where I was a supplier in a way. I was also outside the kitchen, rather than inside all day, which I can't stand.

I persuaded Noma to have me back. After my internship, I got a job at a restaurant in New York City. But it was a basement kitchen where I worked for 18 hours a day. So I wrote to Michael Larsen [Noma’s head forager] and told him I had the means to come back and was willing to help. The following summer, I worked with him every day for three months, honing in on all the small details that you can't grasp during a two-week internship. When Noma reopened, its production needs were greater and Michael couldn't handle all the foraging alone. So they hired me and got another car so we could "divide and conquer”.

Foraging is like a foreign language. You need to practise it and it takes years to refine it. It's also hard to find people who actually want to learn it. I left Noma in spring 2021 and now work with Ark, a restaurant that specialises in plant-based cuisine. I’m teaching the owner how to carry on the practice of foraging. It's not about sending him to all my spots, but about giving him tools to understand what something is, why it grows where it does, and what can help him find new spots.

Foraging isn’t a walk in the forest. That’s something many people don't understand. Foraging is meticulously planned because you only have a certain amount of time. I’ll cover similar routes and drive hundreds of kilometres a day for weeks at time, stopping at forests, beaches, grasslands and farms. In summer, I might be out from 9 am until midnight. When I come back, the last thing I want to hear is, “So, how was your day at the beach?”

Google Maps is the forager’s friend. Foraging isn’t just driving about looking for things. It could never be like that, otherwise you'd be driving forever and making a ton of stops. If I’m on the motorway and I spot something interesting — a pine forest, say —  I'll drop a pin in Google Maps and once I've dropped 10, I'll go out on a day off and check them all out.

Denmark is a good place to start foraging. There aren’t too many things that can kill you. We have hemlock and hogweed, which isn’t something you’d eat, but if you get its juice on your skin, you can effectively get a third-degree burn and have to go to hospital. If I'm unsure about anything, I'll always message other foragers and say: “What is this? I recognise the family but maybe it's something different.”

I’d never pick mushrooms for a restaurant. First, I don't have the time, but I don't have the confidence either. It's way too risky. In Spain not so long ago, a diner died because a forager picked a poisonous mushroom by mistake. I’m like, “Nope, don't need that.”

Foraging is about training your eye. I was walking in Copenhagen once when I spotted an exceptionally good mulberry tree in someone’s garden. There are only a couple of mulberry trees in the city, so this was quite the find. At that point it’s about knocking on the door and saying, “I work for this restaurant, let’s make a deal.” I’d always tell interns that if you train your eye, then you'll soon notice things that you'd always passed by before.

Woodruff cream based on lentils, served with cold-pressed cherry juice, wild cherries, blackberries and mulberries hidden beneath an almond biscuit with rose-hip powder. Dish creation and photo: Ark head chef Brett Lavender.
Blackcurrant wood panna cotta based on coconut milk with violets, wood sorrel and its flowers atop a toasted walnut tartlet shell. Dish creation and photo by Christina Rasmussen

Foraged ingredients aren’t “weeds on a plate”. René [Redzepi] once posted a story about the process of making rose oil. It starts with us picking rose petals and goes through all the steps — cleaning, blending, hanging and so on — to show how it takes something like 30 hours of manpower to create a tiny tablespoon of oil that goes on every plate of this one dish. So it's all these tiny little things that are all intentional, but it's not until you understand that that's what goes into it, that you can appreciate it.

My foraging days are finally over. The truth is I’m never going to find another restaurant that has the resources of Noma. But I’ve learned all the soft skills of management and people and so on, and those are skills I can take and apply in other settings. So next year I’m going to move to Singapore with my partner and run a bar there, with an eye to starting our own place. I would love to do some foraging in Singapore, but I think it’d be very different working for someone else in a very different part of the world.

As told to Superb. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

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