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Zaytinya's Chef Costa Prepares a Forest Feast

June 2017

A forest is like a layer cake. So diners learned at the Food Forest Feast, a community dinner hosted by Forested, an organization whose mission is to "advance forest ecology." From the tree tops to beneath the soil, food can grow at every layer of the cake, providing nuts, fruits, edible leaves, berries, mushrooms, and more.

After meeting Forested founder Lincoln Smith at a conference, Zaytinya Chef Michael Costa was inspired to learn more about the culinary potential of the forest garden, which Chef Costa says is "exploring the intersection of forestry and agriculture." "To experience the lifecycle of a plant this directly is a rare experience for a chef," Chef Costa said. "For example, they have some coriander growing and we got to taste the green fresh berries that would be typically dried and ground as a spice - that was a total mind-blown moment."

The menu was a creative take on dishes familiar to Chef Costa's fans at Zaytinya. Dolmades, the iconic Greek dish of stuffed grape leaves, were made from wild grape leaves harvested from the forest property and filled with a "bulgur" made from acorn flour. A sea kale salad included serviceberries - "kind of like a more exotic blueberry," according to Chef Costa - as well as freshly picked red clover and fresh goat's milk cheese. The meal was vegetarian but included a Persian egg dish made from duck eggs - Lincoln's ducks were visible from the dinner tent - and greens from the field. One star of the dinner were wood-smoked Chicken of the Wood mushrooms, which had the look of perfectly-cooked lobster and the texture and taste of smokey, juicy chicken breast. And the obvious crowd favorite was a falafel made from acorn flour and flavored with Queen Anne's Lace, the wildflower spotted in fields next to highways.

"The acorn flour is a really wonderful ingredient, something that is ubiquitous in the forest and when treated correctly can taste great," said Chef Costa. "For example, the falafel that we make is fantastic - it has a bitter, nutty character that chickpeas don't bring to the party."

Lincoln's business partner, Ben Friton, is excited to be able to introduce these unfamiliar ingredients to a wider audience. "For us, it was more the novelty of being able to try things in this region that people haven't been able to try, in some cases, for a few hundred years. People are trying things that they've never ever tried before, and I'm hearing nothing but great comments."

As a local guitarist picked his way through a stirring rendition of "Shenandoah" and the guests enjoyed a dessert of a duck egg custard with black raspberries and mulberries, Ben looked out at the community gathered at Forested: "The event we're at right now - this is one of the best days of my life."

After plates were cleared and Chef Costa and his sous chefs Efe and Tolgahan served a green walnut liqueur in the setting sun, the chef reflected on Lincoln and Ben's project. "Given that ThinkFoodGroup's stated mission is changing the world through the power of food, I think that getting involved with the agriculture, the ecology, and the community of Forested is is a very direct way to do that."

To learn more about the farm, and to keep in touch for future feasts, check out Forested's website. To taste Chef Costa's dishes, visit Zaytinya in downtown Washington, DC.