Climbing Cliffs and Picking Edibles with Noma Australia's Shirtless Forager

A day before Noma Australia's pop up restaurant closed, I spent a day with resident forager Elijah Holland, climbing small mountains in search of wild foods for dinner service. It quickly turned into a Magic Mike photo session.

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Apr 11 2016, 4:04pm

Elijah (EJ) Holland is living off the land, and (sometimes) risking his life for the sake of dinner. The 23-year-old chef and forager began his chef's apprenticeship in the northern beaches of Sydney when he was just thirteen, almost half of his short life ago. The son of a botanist and a potter/horticulturalist, EJ grew up surrounded by plants. Along with his best mate and business partner, Bojan Grdanovic, they own a booming foraging business, Nature's Pick. Yet it is Holland's encyclopedic knowledge of local plants that landed him the dream gig that foragers everywhere want: forager at Noma's Australian pop up restaurant in Sydney.

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Sunset at Bondi Beach. All photos by Nikki To.

René Redzepi's Noma is renowned for it's creative use of locally foraged and sourced seasonal ingredients. In the restaurant's permanent Copenhagen home, forager Michael Larsen works closely with Redzepi and team to develop inimitable dishes, but when Redzepi decided to temporarily bring Noma—one of the best restaurants in the world—to the southern hemisphere, it was essential to source local talent. The Noma crew is known for their ability to make the most of terroir, but much of the outback flora and fauna are foreign to the Danish chef and his mostly European team. As Redzepi told the New York Times, Australia is enormous compared to Denmark; it's about the size of a trip across Denmark down to Morocco. Redzepi put out a call to friends in Australia to find a resident forager, which is how he became connected to Holland. They met for the first time in April of 2015, when the indomitable Holland showed up to a meeting with a colossal haul of Australian plants and delighted Redzepi with his ideas. He was hired on the spot. Hitching his wagon to Redzepi's international star for the ten-week run of Noma Australia has already been invaluable for Holland's career.

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Holland foraging at Bondi Beach.

I flew to Sydney from Melbourne for the first Australian iteration of MAD symposium, Redzepi's G20 of food, which usually takes place in Copenhagen. Two days before the symposium, I went out foraging with Holland to see just how knowledgable the young chef is when he's out on the land. It was also the day before Noma's last service, so Holland and the entire team were in the thick of the final stretches. I met him at Noma, where the rest of the staff was busy working lunch service, sharply dressed in their starched shirts and aprons. Holland was wearing a Stussy tank top, worn black jeans, and tan combat boots. He walked me through through the kitchen to the back parking lot where his beat up flatbed truck was waiting to take us on a bumpy excursion.

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We trundled along Sydney's winding roads towards Bondi Beach—one of the most visited beaches in Australia—as Holland pointed out a mulberry tree on the side of the freeway. "Everyone should know what's around them, and I bet most people don't even know things are there." Should we all be doing this kind of guerrilla foraging, I wondered? Holland acknowledged that not everyone is capable of living off the land like he's been able to, and the general population probably shouldn't. His level of expertise on local plants took years to hone in, and he admitted that it's far from exhaustive. But for those of us who eat meat and plants—regardless of our backgrounds—should try to know more about where our food comes from. "I mean, if push comes to shove, how the fuck are you going to survive?" he asked me. I looked down at my open-toed shoes and plastic water bottle and felt gratified that I was in the best possible hands, and improperly dressed for this occasion.

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If you've ever been to Bondi Beach, you'll remember that while it's beautiful, it requires walking down and then back up a "hill" that should be called a "petite mountain." As we walked down towards the water, Holland was already identifying the beach's abundant plants: warrigal greens, a weed that grows along beaches all over Australia. The wild species is similar to spinach, and is often used in soups, sautéed, or thrown into salads, but at Noma Australia, the salty greens are added to their famous abalone dish, "Nomamite," a playful take on Vegemite served with abalone schnitzel, native nuts, and local seaweeds. I placed one leaf on my tongue and tasted its salty, earthy flavors.

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A few steps further, and Holland noticed some wild watercress and nasturtium leaves—a Noma staple—but not before he stopped mid-sentence to pick some long leaf mat rush for me to chew on. He dug his hand right into the middle of the bush and pulled out a white root bulb. "Chew on this," he commanded. I obliged. As I munched on the starchy, pea-flavored plant, he told me that when European settlers first came to Australia, they snacked on this plant for its familiar taste of spring peas from back home.

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The heat was rising on our walk, and so was Holland's wardrobe. He stripped off his black tank top to expose a tanned set of muscular pecs and an eight-pack. Watercress grows on the side of the cliff that is not fenced off, but the nasturtiums were dangling from the edge of a cliff high above the rocky waters. I stood below, watching a shirtless Holland collect the orange flowers that would later find themselves on top of Noma Australia's scallop tart. As he picked just enough for one night of service, a jogger screamed, "It's not worth it mate!" Another pedestrian sauntered by to stop and ask whether I had told Holland that what he was doing was very dangerous.

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When people talk about the price tag ($485 AUD) of a Noma Australia meal, I understand their frustrations. For most of us, it's unattainable. But watching Holland risk his life to scale a cliff for the sake of flowers—for one dish—made me think twice about the notion of restaurant "food cost."

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As he scaled back down the cliff, we met again and began walking down the beach in search of watercress. Holland echoed the foraging advice we've all heard: "If you're not 100 percent about what it is, don't touch it." He's never picked something he wasn't certain of, and has no patience for foragers and chefs who take risks with wild ingredients. I looked down to realize that I had immediately forgotten which of the two plants he had just shown me was poisonous. Was it the one with the blue flowers or the slightly furry one? "It's like if you see two pills and you know one is aspirin and one is ecstasy. You'd know which is which, or you wouldn't take either." I nodded and kept walking.

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When he's not foraging and cooking, Holland keeps busy with hunting and spearfishing. "It's my everyday life. I love nothing more than going out into the bush. The flavors, tastes, and experiences are completely different when you do it yourself." He is a voracious reader and researcher, and has to be to ensure safety. He showed me which parts of the lantana flowers were edible: the flowers and ripe berries are delicious, but the leaves and unripe berries are poisonous.

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Noma Australia isn't the first restaurant in Sydney to use warrigul greens, finger limes, or quandong; you can find them on the menus at Billy Kwong and Quay, too. But chefs Kylie Kwong and Peter Gilmore rely on contracted farmers to supply native ingredients for their supply and demand. These ingredients are at Sydney's fingertips, or a two-hour drive to the nearby Blue Mountains, where Holland forages every day. There's no need to buy them in bulk if you know where to find them. Holland knows just how much of each plant to pick in order to keep the species healthy, and avoids over picking by cycling through his mental Rolodex of obscure locations.

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Foraging is environmentally friendly, so long as we don't overharvest this stuff. Holland said that 90 percent of what we picked off the cliff were highly abundant weeds. When you farm warrigul greens, for example, and utilize a watering system and a carefully maintained soil, you lose a lot of what makes it delicious, but when the plant is drinking up salt water on the beach—which is naturally a nutrient rich soil—the leaves are more flavorful than the ones growing in fresh water.

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Now that Noma Australia is over, Holland will focus on Nature's Pick, supplying the best local restaurants with wild foods. His days begin around 5:00 AM and finish near midnight, and are very physically demanding, to say the least. When I asked Holland if he'd ever indulged in a Netflix binge session on the couch, he admitted "yes, but not often."