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One Woman’s Weeds

Credit: Joshua Paul Tama Matsuoka Wong with an armload of hickory bark. It was among the day’s deliveries to Chef Justin Smillie at New York’s Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria restaurant.

From a securities lawyer, a model for greater food security

Tama Matsuoka Wong ’83 was a securities lawyer in Hong Kong when her toddler began to suffer from such severe allergies that she was hospitalized. When it became clear that the problem was related to processed foods, Wong and her family returned to the U.S., where they could have better control over what they ate. Their new home in New Jersey included a large tract of land, much of it covered with what they thought were weeds. But when Wong’s Japanese relatives visited, they told her these invasive species were actually delicacies in Asia.

Wong set out to learn about the value of these ignored foods, and just five years later, she has become a renowned forager who sells many of these “weeds” to top restaurants in Manhattan, where chefs are wild about using them to create new dishes. She has co-written a book, “Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market,” with Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at Daniel in Manhattan, that was featured in The New York Times and nominated for a James Beard Award.

These weeds hold a key to the food system crisis, Wong says. Instead of the government or private landowners spending millions to try to remove them, they can be harvested and used for delicious and nutritious meals, including for people who don’t get enough to eat. Wong now has five employees, and she has partnered with the National Audubon Society and other land trusts to remove invasive species and help get them plated up.

An energetic visionary, Wong is in high demand. She spoke last spring at TEDx Manhattan. She gives talks at schools, and trains waiters so they can inform patrons about the unusual cuisine. “I tell them, ‘This isn’t just a cool thing—this is your future,’” says Wong. Most surprisingly, perhaps, major multinational food corporations have contacted her for guidance. “They know people aren’t going to be buying more prepackaged cake mixes.” It is, she adds, “a very exciting time.”

To find a recipe for hickory bark ice cream, go to Serious Eats.