It’s a gray fall morning on Siletz Bay outside Depoe Bay. A soft mist trails down off the nearby Coast Range, and high clouds hang over the flat water, promising to burn off by late morning. Along the shoreline, Justin Wills is on the hunt.
Tall and lanky in jeans and rubber boots, Wills strides down the beach, kitchen shears in hand. The shore is strewn with giant gray skeletons of trees, and it bears evidence of a dawn visit from a raccoon. Waterbirds rise and fall with the waves on the bay, and the nearby spit muffles the roar of the ocean.
Wills hunches over a low clumping plant — sea beans, one target for the morning’s hunt. He clips the soft tips of the succulent-like leaves and offers them around. The crunchy greenness produces a burst of salinity. This morning of foraging at the beach will also yield sea lettuce and salal berries to be used at Wills’ Restaurant Beck at the Whale Cove Inn in Depoe Bay.
Foraging on the Oregon Coast is part of Wills’ daily routine. He uses wild and local ingredients to create the cuisine that has made him a rising star in the Oregon food scene. In a state where farm to table has become routine, Wills takes it further: “We go above and beyond the farm. We go into the forest and into the ocean,” he says, spreading his arms. “Mother Nature is amazing. There is so much out here.”
Wills fell for food early in life. Growing up in an Italian family in Iowa, he learned to cook alongside his mother and grandmother, and he witnessed the common sense and great flavor of eating from the kitchen garden. “I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was 12,” he says. He got his first cooking job as a teenager and entered the Culinary Institute of America at 17. After that, Wills worked in fine-dining establishments around the country.
When he opened Restaurant Beck in 2009, he began adding the wild-foraging element to the menu. In addition to getting 95 percent of his ingredients from local farms and fishermen in Lincoln County, Wills delved into the woods and the ocean to see what he could find. “If I can get stuff at its peak of freshness, I am going to use that over everything else,” he says. He’s got his staff comfortable with experimenting. “We try it out; if it doesn’t work, we move on and don’t let it ruin our day.”
It didn’t take long for Wills to feel like he was on the right track. He was nominated “People’s Choice Best New Chef: Pacific Northwest” in 2011 by Food & Wine magazine. He was included in the “Best Chefs America 2013” and 2014, and he made the James Beard Best Chef Northwest semifinalist list in 2012 and 2013. “Obviously we are doing something right.”
A second foraging stop takes us to Cutler City Wetlands Park near Lincoln City. The winding, wooded path of the small green space yields a trove of yellow-footed chanterelle mushrooms, two varieties of huckleberries, oxalis and a cache of oakmoss, which the chef will clean, dehydrate, quick fry and season with sea salt and malt-vinegar powder. “It emulates a sea-salt-and-vinegar chip. It provides a great texture and slight earthiness to a finished dish.”
Later in the day, as the sun sets over the ocean, a mist blows onto the balcony at Restaurant Beck, where we take in the view of terraced gardens and the adjacent Whale Cove while waiting for our table. A dozen or so seals frolic in the sheltered waters, slapping their tails and snorting to the surface.
Inside, the menu reveals the day’s foraging cache: There’s pork belly with fennel-dressed sea beans and hay ice cream; beef flatiron with chanterelle brown butter, pickled chanterelles, grilled zucchini and roasted sun-gold tomatoes; ling cod with bacon dashi, sea beans, sugarloaf chicory, prosciutto di Parma and sea lettuce.
Moving slowly through a five-course tasting menu, we experience the Oregon Coast as Wills sees it. It’s fantastic, and we’re happy that he intends to continue on this path. “The world is our oyster. We can do whatever we want, as long as people like it.”
Go foraging: Mushrooms need moisture to develop, so fall rains bring them popping out of the forest floor. Peak mushroom season for Oregon takes place from September through November. Look for chanterelles, lobster mushrooms and boletes (also known as porcinis) in coastal forests in fall. Morels will appear in the spring, sometimes accompanied by a showing of boletes. Boletes first appear in high altitude environments in the summer and then lower down after the first fall rains. Be careful: Amid the many tasty edible mushrooms available in Oregon’s forests, there are numerous poisonous varieties and look alikes. Make sure to take a good reference guide with you and, better yet, an experienced mushroom hunter so you can enjoy your adventure safely.
What’s cooking: Visit Chef Wills’ latest creation — Sorella in Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood, serving handmade Italian cuisine.