Silver City is a mining town in southwest New Mexico, population 10,000 or so, a few hours’ drive from the nearest big city — maybe not the first place you’d open a gourmet grocery store selling $200 bottles of balsamic vinegar and 20 different olive oils.
“It made no sense in a town that small,” admits Rob Connoley, a St. Louis native who with his husband, Tyler, opened the Curious Kumquat in 2004.
Connoley’s career in nonprofit management had brought him to Silver City, but he was also a passionate home cook desperate for the international ingredients necessary to prepare the dishes he loved.
The store was a hit. Sometimes, Connoley says, the line to pay snaked out the front door. And this was merely the first step in his unlikely culinary journey, which would transform the little grocery store into a nationally acclaimed restaurant and has led to the publication last month of his first cookbook, “Acorns & Cattails: a Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field” (Skyhorse, 224 pages, $35).
Connoley had no restaurant experience when he started serving lunch at the Curious Kumquat in 2007. A few months later, he added dinner service, but he struggled to find a middle ground between the kind of food he assumed Silver City residents wanted — “I gotta give them a big hunk of meat,” he remembers thinking — and the ambitious, modernist multi-course meals he wanted to cook.
The solution was not simply a matter of focusing on local produce. He vividly recalls trying a locally grown hothouse tomato. “I took a bite of it as if it were a summer tomato,” he says. “It was flavorless and mealy. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Connoley’s answer was to find quality local purveyors and, crucially, to forage for less familiar ingredients: nuts, berries and plants. Nor did he avoid the modernist techniques used at such world-renowned restaurants as El Bulli and Alinea.
“That’s when things took off,” he says. “I was totally underestimating what locals wanted.”
In December 2012, the influential food magazine Saveur included the Curious Kumquat in its annual Saveur 100 list, and Connoley says, “everything changed overnight.” In 2014, he was a semifinalist for “Best Chef: Southwest” in the annual James Beard Awards.
For “Acorns & Cattails,” Connoley wanted to honor his work at the Curious Kumquat but not to the point where the recipes became specific to the Southwest.
“I want a book that uses ingredients available all over the country, with recipes that are doable by everyone,” he says.
The book also features a primer on foraging. There are practical considerations, of course: “Will your stomach ache because (the ingredient) has too much fiber or because the bitterness is too intense?” But Connoley also addresses the ethics of foraging, from not harming the area to recognizing that an ingredient may also be a food source for wildlife.
Can’t find an ingredient locally? Don’t want to go foraging? The recipes in “Acorns & Cattails” do often suggest substitutions for foraged ingredients and some of Connoley’s go-to (but not so commonly found) meats such as elk and javelina. For hackberry rabbit pté, for example, Connoley recommends dried dates for the hackberries and chicken livers in place of rabbit livers — though, he notes, the chicken livers will impart a stronger flavor.
“Recipes don’t need to be complicated to be delicious and restaurant-quality,” Connoley says.