The Life of Ryan: From field and forest to the kitchen line, this “monster forager” is forging his own path

You don’t hear much about foragers. Perhaps that’s because those who harvest nature’s larder are rather limited in number. Or maybe because foragers prefer to stay under the radar so that they can quietly go about their business, keeping their choice harvesting locations a closely guarded secret. But when you encounter a forager as unique as Ryan Maher – one willing to lay all secrets bare – you turn on the spotlight and roll the tape.

You don’t hear much about foragers. Perhaps that’s because those who harvest nature’s larder are rather limited in number. Or maybe because foragers prefer to stay under the radar so that they can quietly go about their business, keeping their choice harvesting locations a closely guarded secret. But when you encounter a forager as unique as Ryan Maher – one willing to lay all secrets bare – you turn on the spotlight and roll the tape.

I caught up with Maher during the middle of the spring foraging season. It was a wet, rainy day when we met at Greensfelder Park near Six Flags for a mushroom foray.

He stepped out of his green Chevy TrailBlazer and went around the side of the SUV to swap jeans for camouflage pants. Coming back to the trunk, he pushed aside fishing rods and a tackle box in search of a pair of steel-toed boots, methodically tying the laces then tossing the water shoes he had removed into the already-stuffed trunk. He slipped a hunting knife onto his belt, threw a rucksack around his shoulder, straightened his baseball cap and we were off.

Almost immediately, Maher pointed out a half-free morel, carefully cutting it at the base, then slicing it open to show how the cap was attached to the stem only halfway as opposed to a true morel, where the cap is fully attached. Barely had Maher finished giving morel lesson No. 1 before he was off again in search of more fungi.

When chef Josh Galliano of Monarch tipped me off last year to Maher, calling him a “monster forager,” I pictured a gruff, burly, old mountain man, certainly not a soft-spoken 31-year-old whose sandy-blond coif has earned him the nickname “Haircut” because, said Monarch and Herbie’s co-owner Aaron Teitelbaum, “for a cook, he has great hair.” During the last few years, Maher has haphazardly been among the line cooks at both restaurants (that is, when he’s not asking for time off to forage in, say, Texas), and Galliano considers Maher his “encyclopedic source” for all things mushroom.

During our foray, Maher more than proved his knowledge, identifying oyster, Devil’s Urn, wood ear and Dryad’s Saddle mushrooms. He sliced a turkey tail mushroom off a rotting log, commenting that although the species was edible, it was “kind of like for survival. It’s hard to chew – never gets tender,” he said. We found yellow, grey and black morels, Maher leading the search around the bases of ash and elm trees, preferably on south-facing hills. “Every mushroom has a symbiotic relationship with a tree,” he later explained. When we spied at least three morels under one tree, Maher ordered a halt, advising that we first scan the area and then tread lightly. Lucky thing, too, since we encountered a dozen choice morels around that one tree.

As it turns out, Maher knows about a lot more than just mushrooms. Two weeks earlier, I had gone on a preliminary expedition with Maher to a river bottom off of Highway 94 in Defiance. The plan was to check out spots where he thought morels might pop up, to “get a feel for where things are at,” he summed as he drove the SUV along a bumpy gravel road. Once we began hiking through a half-mile of woods, headed toward the Missouri River, it became clear that Maher’s interest in the outdoors extended far beyond mushrooms. He pointed out all sorts of wild edibles: nettles, curly dock, Canadian thistle and May apples whose petals had yet to unfold. At one point, he stopped to indicate how the presence of Sycamore trees and the increasingly spongy carpet beneath our feet were signs that we were getting closer to the river. Once we reached the bank, he pulled out a temperature probe to check the ground temperature, hoping for a 60-degree reading – ideal for morels to make their appearance, according to Maher.
We took a different route back, this time passing through heavy vegetation that turned into a field thick with green reeds that reached shoulder height. Eyeing an old beer can, he commented, with irritation in his voice, “It’s so amazing. No matter how far out you get, you see trash.” Likewise, he is annoyed by foragers who knife a can into a tree to create a visual reference so as not to get lost. His aggravation passed as we emerged from the woods onto a grassy path bordering farmland, where he bent down to taste the sweet petals of pink honeysuckle.

Maher has only been a serious forager for three years, and Missouri Wild Edibles, his business selling mushrooms and other eats wholesale to local vendors and restaurants, has existed for less than 18 months. But he’s exhibited a love for the outdoors since he could barely talk. “His first word was ‘out,’” recalled his mother, Jody Maher, as we sat in the living room of her home in Webster Groves discussing her second-born son’s various childhood pets (dogs, cats, salamanders, newts, snakes, lizards, a chameleon and a walking fish). “For a while I used to think that he was Crocodile Dundee. He would grab a snake by the head. He would love to show it to the neighbors and scare them,” she remembered.

Until Ryan was 11 years old, the Maher family – his mother, father Rob, Ryan and his older brother Scott – lived on the outskirts of Kansas City in a new housing development that bordered farmland. His mother recalled the nearby pond where only “the Maher boy” was allowed to fish and catch crawdads because he was “already a fixture.” When Ryan wasn’t in constant motion outside, building forts or playing in cornfields, he read book after book, filling his head with facts about nature. “He’s inquisitive. He’s very good at accumulating knowledge,” she said.
“Absurdly interested,” were the words chef Bryan Flaxbeard used to describe Maher. The two worked together previously at Herbie’s and now at Molly’s in Soulard, where Flaxbeard took the top job last winter. “He can stare at a mushroom he’s seen a thousand times before,” said Flaxbeard. That is, until someone reminds Maher that the mushroom isn’t going to cook itself.

Maher has been working in restaurants since high school, starting as the soda boy at Ryan’s Family Steakhouse on Watson Road, then on to CJ Muggs Bar and Grill, Malone’s Grill & Pub, and The Cheshire Inn. After graduating from Webster Groves High School, he entertained the thought of art school (he’s got a talent for drawing), but after working at places like Café Mira, Seven Gables Inn, Barcelona, The Crossing and Cyrano’s, Maher realized he could satisfy his creative penchant through a culinary outlet. In 2005, Maher left for New Orleans to work at Emeril’s, wanting to “get a solid restaurant” on his résumé. Hurricane Katrina prompted a sooner-than-expected return to St. Louis and a job at Boogaloo in Maplewood.

The wavy, sun-drenched locks that earned Maher his nickname belie the burns and cuts on his hands and arms, the result of 15 years popping in and out of kitchens – which has also earned him the respect of local chefs. “I can trust him on any station,” said Galliano. “I know I won’t have to worry about it. He relieves me of a lot of headaches.” Teitelbaum likewise noted Maher’s dependability and versatility: “He’s one of those weekend warriors, the guy you can call. And he does it among several specific style restaurants. He can adapt well – he can deal with many styles of menus.” Flaxbeard is most appreciative of Maher’s selflessness and team attitude. “He’s the one who notices that the garbage can is full and will take it out,” he explained. “He knows that the dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant. He will go out of his way to help someone. That is not what you find in a kitchen. Ever.”

When he’s not manning a hot station or out foraging, Maher is handling behind-the-scenes duties for the Webster Groves Farmers’ Market, coordinating chef demonstrations and helping marketmaster Angela Foley. Maher has been involved with the farmers’ market since last year, when he took over the marketmaster position mid-season. Why accept that job with a plate already piled high? “It didn’t seem like I had a lot going on,” he said. “It’s terribly fun doing all these things. It’s something new every day. It’s fresh. It seemed like a new opportunity to learn more about food.”

Where will all of the fun lead? “I’m not sure,” responded Maher when pressed to talk about the future. “I’m really happy with what I’m doing. I’m not making much money. There could be something to come of it down the road,” he said of his fledgling Missouri Wild Edibles. “Not wild money, but it could be sustainable.”

Charlie Downs, co-owner of Cyrano’s and a former partner at Boogaloo and the now-defunct Revival, has employed Maher at his restaurants and has acted as a mentor for him. Among Downs’ advice to Maher was that he spend no more than two years at any one restaurant, “otherwise you’re not learning any more,” he explained one day over a cup of coffee. It was Downs who suggested Maher as marketmaster last year to fellow committee members of the New Business Development Commission for Webster Groves. And it was Downs who helped Maher get his foraging company off the ground. “I told him, ‘You are going into business for yourself. Try to be different,’” said Downs.

When I first spoke to Jody Maher about her son’s numerous pursuits, she was supportive of his endeavors but also concerned for his future. “If you are going to be a free spirit, it’s a good time to do it. But there ought to be an age limit,” she said. When I broached the subject again some four months later, she seemed less worried. “You need to be happy within … it’s OK. Life is for living. He’s been out of the house for a long time. He’s self-supporting.”

For now, Maher plans on staying in St. Louis, viewing the city as “an untapped market for a lot of things.” Flaxbeard noted that Maher has “a thumb on the pulse of the entire city as far as food goes,” which Maher could use to his advantage for his wild eats biz, for stints in restaurant kitchens or to make connections with farmers that lead to the growth of the Webster Groves Farmers’ Market.

What is clear is that Maher is deliberate in forging his own path. “Ryan’s going to do whatever Ryan wants to do,” commented Flaxbeard. “The Lord broke the mold when Ryan was created.” Just as a 9-to-5 desk job is no longer an absolute in the corporate world, Maher doesn’t conform to any defined work model or career path in the food world.

It’s not a question of whether Maher is willing to work – no one works harder, agreed chefs and restaurant owners. “He is far from lazy, undedicated and unpassionate,” lauded Teitelbaum. But in creating a schedule that is extemporaneous, one in which Maher can enjoy the arrangement his way – days off to forage and being the “pop-in guy” rather than a five- or six-day-a-week line cook – will his employers and business associates ultimately tire of accommodating him, finally brushing “the nice guy” aside?

Thus far, the answer is no. It’s they who’ve conformed to the life of Ryan.