Found: the King of Matsutake Ridge chronicles the culinary perspective of Park Place chef Phil Manganaro and his life-affirming approach to gaining ground by slowing down.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 13, 2023
It’s been a busy year for Chef Phil Manganaro.
In January, Park Place, the Merchantville restaurant he established around wild ingredients, earned him a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
A little less than nine months later, the story of his restaurant — really, of his lifestyle as a foraging chef-restaurateur and single parent — is being told cinematically.
For the past year, Manganaro has been working with filmmakers Steve and Anastasia Forde of Palmyra to help capture the process behind his cooking, visiting the “wild farms” where his seasonal ingredients grow, the better to showcase the way the chef understands their relationship to the land, to each other, to his guests, and to himself.
This fall, that story will be told in private screenings of the independent documentary short, Found: the King of Matsutake Ridge, which Manganaro co-produced with the Fordes, and which he said is the truest depiction of his process of sourcing, sustainably harvesting, and preparing foods grown in nature.
His bottom line to his collaborators: “It’s gotta be a representation of how my life actually is, or else we don’t do it.”
The Fordes started visiting Park Place on a lark some years ago. They quickly realized that, like the foraging chef in its kitchen, they had happened upon something unique and special. Anastasia, who grew up seeking out wild foods with her father in Pennsylvania, began to tear up when she tasted Manganaro’s “escaped mint” ice cream.
“It tasted like the mint that grew in our yard as kids; that my mom would make tea from; that I would take on the way to school to munch on,” Anastasia Forde said.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘We just found something really special by accident.’”
Steve Forde had a comparable experience when Manganaro served them Hen of the Woods, a wild-growing mushroom known for its comparability to the texture and flavor of chicken. He was so hooked that on a return visit to the restaurant, he didn’t grasp why it wasn’t on the menu, even when the chef told him it was because he couldn’t find it.
“Later I got a text from Phil: ‘I found it. Come over Thursday night,’” Steve Forde said. “He plated it with mustard preserves and berries, and said, ‘I found this for you.’
“At that time, it hadn’t hit yet what that meant,” he said.
“We were starting to discover the ephemeral nature of what he does, where this was headed, and what would be next steps.
“We needed to share this with people, Steve Forde said.
“Something important’s happening that’s not about food.”
In producing the documentary with Manganaro, the Fordes’ common goal was to help restaurant-goers “appreciate what he does to get it to the plate,” Anastasia Forde said; “to highlight the beauty, and highlight how hard it is; sharing the quiet and sharing the stillness and the solitude.”
For Steve Forde, part of the process of creating the film was to explore his own fascination with how much closer the dishes Manganaro serves are to their raw, fundamental essence in nature.
“I don’t know how many times we went there and didn’t understand what was being presented,” he said. “You eat that bite and it goes away, and for him, that was months of his life for what was an hour or two [of dining].
“He’s fighting against nature, against developments, against the ignorance of even what some of these things are,” Steve Forde said. “He’s like Ahab, and the white whale is still forming for him. He’s trying to discover something that people have either lost or never found its fullness.
“We need artists in the world who are trying to communicate things that we can’t touch.”
‘This is what you can do with life’
Nailing down that ephemeral quality of food sourcing and cultivation in film form has yielded an overwhelming sense of affirmation for Manganaro, not just a chef, but as an advocate for a life lived in search of self.
“I have people in here who say, ‘You’re an artist, you’re an artist.’ But until you believe that yourself…” he trailed off.
“Now I have to say to myself, ‘I made something that’s on a movie screen,’” Manganaro said.
“I think it took that long so I could be comfortable with it,” he said. “When I think about this, it’s not that I made a movie about myself. This is an extension of the art. Now I’m watching it almost as if it’s not me.”
Manganaro hasn’t seen the final cut of the film yet. He came as close as watching a rough edit — which alone moved him to tears — but is holding off on the finished product until he can see it in the theater with his son, Dean, next to him. Preserving a moment like that is perfectly in keeping with the philosophy of a man who’s made it his work to capture the wild flavors of the season in a moment, and plate it.
“That’s the point of this movie,” Manganaro said: “Find the joy. Just get the joy in your life. All this stuff I’ve been through, and now here I’ve got this restaurant, this successful business, my son next to me. He’s going to be on the big screen.
“What a thing to give a child,” he said, “and what a thing to give myself. The thing I want to share is the beauty. This is what you can do with life. You can believe in yourself. You can take a chance. That’s what this is. Here’s a guy doing what he decided to do, and he’s just doing it, no questions asked, day in, day out.”
To Manganaro, the art of his work is fundamentally connected to the discipline involved in it. Foraging is an all-conditions, year-round effort; in snow, in sleet, humidity, amid swarms of insects, he re-affirms daily his commitment to the work it takes to source his ingredients.
“Everything after that is what I’m trained to do,” Manganaro said: “to cook something, to clean something, to make a dish.”
After three solid years of foraging — to which multiple, packed Park Place freezers will attest — Manganaro has begun keeping historical data on his processes.
He’s slowly building an almanac of when wild items are available, how much of any ingredient they yield when preserved, and notes on flavors and how they change with time.
With the right methods backing his work, Manganaro is able to resurrect flavors that aren’t only out-of-season, but also out of time.
“Last year was the first year I finally figured out how to freeze whole, fresh berries,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to do a summer berry tart in February. They tasted like they were off the tree; so on, so colorful.
“The freshness is so addicting as a chef,” Manganaro said. “The smell and the texture and flavor is so different. There’s nothing like when you pull it out of the ground.”
For ingredients like wild mustard, which has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years, Manganaro’s foraging and preserving methods can capture the entire life cycle of the plant. More than that, they also provide a touchstone memory connecting him to moments spent in the field. The smell of cold soil in February will rush back to his nostrils when he’s serving mustard in November. He might remember whether his son was with him, or if he was in a hurry that day, or what animals he encountered on the way.
“Certain things overtake you when you get there,” Manganaro said. “Certain birds return when you’re looking for mushrooms; certain plants pop up when you’re looking for ramps. When you cut and cut and cut, you don’t smell anything in the air except for this fresh ingredient. It’s like a high.
“Because it’s my life getting them, the food becomes intertwined with the ingredients,” he said. “It’s not just a mustard leaf, it’s all that looking back and moving forward.
“I’ve been doing it long enough now that I could lose Park Place, not do anything else with this, and I would still be out here picking the same stuff all year for personal consumption,” Manganaro said.
“Because what else would I do? I wouldn’t forego being out in nature, hunting for something.”
The film title — Found: the King of Matsutake Ridge — is also rooted in the complex, soul-nourishing feelings of discovery that have shepherded Manganaro through cultivating his ingredients as well as his way of life.
“I feel as though I’ve finally found myself,” he said. “Accepting myself, being myself, portraying myself, and finding the beauty in my life — I feel like I’ve found all that through this.
“It’s the same thing people ask me here about success,” Manganaro continued. “I already obtained that. Where I got was to afford myself a lifestyle where I can be a parent and a professional, and that’s not easy.
“If nothing ever comes of this, I have a professionally-made snapshot of a period of my life, with my son, and my craft, and my art,” he said. “That’s already a success.”
Found: the King of Matsutake Ridge will make its debut in private screenings this fall. Check back with Park Place for events and updates related to the film.
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