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Lenape Heights chef enjoys foraging for food

| Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

Fresh and seasonal ingredients provide inspiration for a chef whose passion for food is deeply rooted in family tradition and in the landscape of home.

Jonathan Nagy, 28, is the executive chef who has brought new flavor to the Grille Room menu at Lenape Heights since his arrival in 2010. His philosophy is all about serving up traditional dishes with a contemporary twist -- using fresh, local and in-season ingredients. The result is a sensory delight that pleases the eye and palate.

Nagy grew up in Rural Valley in a family where his mom cooked every night, and his grandmothers prepared holiday meals.

He associates comfort food with home and said that when he smells roast pork, he is immediately "back in Grandma's kitchen."

In early November, Lenape Heights Golf Course in Manor Township showcased the sleek, newly refurbished restaurant and bar with a wine-pairing menu designed by Nagy.

His strong connection to home is reflected in his commitment to creating satisfying and memorable dishes, incorporating some of the freshest produce the region has to offer. Nagy is one of the only chefs around who infuses late summer, fall and spring specials with the flavors of wild, edible mushrooms.

November's weather yielded an unexpected crop of chanterelles that Nagy and Sous Chef Josh Truitt took advantage of, creating a menu to highlight the season's flavors.

The kitchen sizzled as Truitt seared a Delmonico steak rubbed with ground porcinis. A mushroom infused demi-glace pooled around the slices of beef, vegetables and wild mushroom risotto.

Fresh thyme added a bright note to the velvety lobster bisque, which was topped with succulent lobster claw meat and airy porcini foam.

There are, however, plenty of seasonal delicacies offered that don't involve mushrooms.

Nagy said that all the pasta is made on-site. The fall menu includes a variety of dishes to tempt every taste and includes an acorn squash ravioli served with a citrus brown butter sauce, local fresh sage and roasted butternut squash, topped with a sprinkling of candied pecans.

Yet, Nagy said, a lot of customers have told him how much they enjoy the taste of wild mushrooms. For many, the flavors bring back memories of home and a time when foraging was more widespread than it is today.

He said he didn't know that much about Pennsylvania's wild foods, other than the blackberries he picked as a child, until he worked at a restaurant in Boca Raton, Fla. Nagy worked there from 2003 to 2006 after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Academy of Culinary Arts in Punxsutawney. He said shipments from West Virginia and Pennsylvania would come through the kitchen containing wild leeks (rampions or ramps) and chanterelle mushrooms.

Nagy began to think about the possibility of incorporating Pennsylvania's wild edibles into his cooking and, after returning to his home state, he finally got his chance. In 2009, he became chef at Indiana's Coventry Inn, where he met Indiana native Jonathan Cingota.

Cingota is a mycologist, or mushroom expert, who is experienced in wild mushroom foraging with more than 20 years under his belt. He sells edible wild mushrooms -- which include chanterelles, boletes and maitakes, as well as some cultivated varieties -- to chefs like Nagy.

Nagy has accompanied Cingota on many foraging expeditions and always checks with him first to make sure the mushrooms are safe and not a poisonous look-a-like. Nagy said that foraging for edible mushrooms "is nothing to mess with, until you take a lot of time with an expert."

"I owe a lot of my knowledge to (Cingota)," Nagy said.

Cingota said people often get in trouble by confusing button mushrooms with a poisonous imitator.

"When in doubt, throw it out," said Cingota.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the chances of finding wild edible mushrooms decreases.

Yet Nagy is already looking ahead to spring when a new crop of morels, ramps and tender fiddlehead ferns will make their brief appearance in the landscape and on the plate.

"I love taking advantage of what the land has to offer," he said.

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