When she moved back to New Jersey from Hong Kong in 2002, after having worked in that concrete jungle for more than a decade, Tama Matsuoka Wong craved only one thing: a garden. "I grew up with a mother who wanted you to feel dirt on your hands," she says. "I missed mucking around."
It turns out juggling a garden, a demanding job (legal counsel at Merrill Lynch), and a family (one husband, three daughters) is hard work; her dream yard became "a wild meadow practically overnight," says Wong, 54. "I have a black thumb."
A few years later, family friends from Tokyo pointed out that her "weeds" were actually delicacies in Japan. "At first I thought, 'Eat weeds?
I'm not a risk-taker like that,' but I couldn't escape the idea." She started collecting books on edible plants, pored over field guides, and took classes on plant identification. "I would explore meadows behind my house for hours."
Still, she couldn't make purslane or knotweed taste good. But one day, before eating at the New York restaurant Daniel, Wong's friends suggested she bring plants along; maybe the chef de cuisine, Eddy Leroux, would know how to prepare them. Leroux (also a plant lover) was fascinated by her varieties. They struck an agreement: "I would bring in plants; Eddy would teach me how to cook them."
Each week, Wong headed to the restaurant during her lunch break. After a year, Leroux insisted that he start buying the plants he used for his menu. Though one account wasn't lucrative enough for her to leave her day job, she was intrigued. "I was doing work that was tangible, that I could see and touch," she says.
Then, in 2011, the two sold a cookbook of their collaboration, Foraged Flavor
, which gave Wong confidence to leave the law office. She found a distributor and now provides her foraged edibles to more than 100 restaurants and schools in the Northeast, and guides farmers on what not to throw away. During the winter, when plants are hard to come by, she takes on freelance business projects. "My law background reminds me to analyze the world, to be curious," Wong says, "which helps as I navigate foraging as an ordinary person. I barely knew a single plant when I started!"
Try her recipe for Dandelion "Popcorn"
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