Wild at Heart: Cache Cache's Nate King Finds Fulfillment in Foraging
As a kid growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, Nate King played in the dirt, artfully assembling twigs and leaves on Frisbee “plates” and serving imaginary diners. Today, at 38, he’s still getting his hands dirty, but now it’s on Western Slope farms and in the meadows and forests around Aspen where he forages for mushrooms as a hobby, in addition to gathering other seasonal edibles like nettles, wild watercress, lamb’s quarters, rhubarb, currants, raspberries, and rose hips.
King is the longtime chef de cuisine at Aspen’s venerable Cache Cache. He first came to Aspen in 1997 to do an externship at the Caribou Club while a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. After he graduated, he returned to Aspen to work in some of the top kitchens in town, including The Little Nell and the late Conundrum (under James Beard Award winner George Mahaffey), before being tapped as Cache Cache’s sous chef in 2002 by executive chef Chris Lanter, who owns the restaurant with business partner Jodi Larner.
Lanter still works the line every night (both rare and impressive for an executive chef at this point in his career). King, who cooks alongside Lanter and the rest of Cache Cache’s tight-knit crew, develops menus and devotes considerable time to visiting the region’s farms and ranches to educate himself about their growing and livestock management methods.
An ardent supporter of sustainable agriculture (his grandfather worked in ag science, so perhaps it’s in the DNA), King largely sources from family-owned operations like Sustainable Settings, Rendezvous Farm, Rain Crow Farm, and Avalanche Cheese Company. “I like to develop relationships with growers,” he explains, “And have a connection to the ingredients I use.”
King’s achieved much-deserved recognition for his rustic-yet-refined melding of classical French and Italian technique, particularly his housemade pastas, charcuterie (look for items like prosciutto, made from acorn-fed hogs), and exquisite soups and salads.
It’s the local wild foods of summer that inspire King in his free time, however, and his innate desire to “touch the dirt” and be outdoors are behind his passion for foraging, something he got into when he first moved to Aspen. Over the years, he’s become an expert at identifying wild mushrooms (note: Unless you’re an experienced forager, always have a certified mycologist or wild foods expert identify your finds, and be sure to obtain a foraging permit from the appropriate regional Ranger Station or National Forest Office). In summer, King loves to comb the mountains for fungal treasures, which he prepares in myriad ways, from simple sautées to pastas.
This has been a banner year for wild mushrooms, especially porcini. “They were a month early due to all the rain we had early in the season, followed by a hot streak in late June,” King explains. “I usually don’t start looking until late July but I just stumbled across a single porcini at the beginning of the month. At this point, they’re almost done, but the chanterelles are still going strong.”
In preparation for winter, King puts up some of his haul—he spent last week making chanterelle kimchi. He also dries porcini, which he’ll buzz in a spice grinder for use in making pasta, and growing and harvest conditions permitting, he’ll make rose hip jam (they need to be collected after the first frost, when their sugars condense).
This year didn’t yield much in the way of quality currants or huckleberries so King won’t be able to put them up for preserves, but that’s one of the challenges—for better or for worse—of working with wildfoods. “It’s different from farming,” he says with a smile and good-natured shrug. “Nature decides if things are going to grow or not.”