Forest to Table: Chef Jason Lage Connects Diners to Nature and Beyond

It’s not uncommon for chefs to be anchored to their kitchens 24/7, their days consumed by marinades, sauces, braising, sautéing, broiling, grilling, frying and baking. And that doesn’t include the copious amount of prep work necessary to ready the restaurant for daily service.

But that’s not entirely the case for Chef Jason Lage.

Although he spends many hours a day overseeing his team while they create and perfect lunch and dinner dishes at his popular Lovettsville eatery, Market Table Bistro (and managing his Market Burger restaurant in Purcellville), Lage also devotes a healthy chunk of time to the outdoors. He explores area woods, directly interacting with nature and getting his hands in the soil. Lage says it grounds him and fires his creative energies, but, there’s also a practical purpose to it.

Into the Woods

The chef and his team can often be found foraging for wild edibles that have provided humans a bounty of food for thousands of years. A variety of wild mushrooms, nettles, ramps (a garlicky spring onion) and freshly tapped maple syrup can all be found this time of year. But, these treasures are seasonally limited—their growing period lasts only a few weeks—and must be harvested at just the right time for peak ripeness and taste.

It’s hard work that requires time and commitment. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. It can be bone-chilling cold, damp, muddy. On warm days, there’s often buzzing, biting pests and clingy, infectious ticks. Even the occasional poisonous snake. And while some trips yield rich harvests over which many chefs would salivate and pay top dollar for, others can end up fruitless.

Foraging is just part of Lage’s years-long, well-established commitment to serve the freshest, in-season, locally sourced ingredients. Along with avidly supporting area farmers with purchases of produce and meats and using what he produces at his bountiful 10-acre Fairbrook Farm in Lovettsville, Lage also supplements his daily menu with foraged goods.

“There’s nothing like finding food in your own backyard,” he said. “It connects you to the land and how it has sustained people long before we came along.”

Recently, on their sole day off (Mondays), Lage headed out with a team of eight to hit the woods to tap maple trees. He encourages his employees to embrace a similar philosophy about food and eating and it’s not uncommon for some of them to spend days off working side-by-side with him in the woods or on his farm. Unfortunately, on this day, the results were limited because of the wildly fluctuating early spring temperatures. The overall effect of the warm and cold extremes is that less maple sap flows from the trees.

This forced Lage and his kitchen team to adapt.

“You normally need 50 gallons of tapped maple sap to produce one gallon of syrup,” Lage said. “We’re not anywhere near that kind of haul, so we’re making due, producing a simple syrup that still has amazing qualities and taste.”

[See photo gallery: Harvesting maple syrup.]

Chef Jason Lage and his cook staff head out to harvest maple syrup and other spring ingredients like ramps, mushrooms and stinging nettle plant for his restaurant, Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville. The maple syrup harvesting will be used in specialty cocktails, as well as other dishes at his restaurant. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
They immediately put the maple simple syrup to work, developing a big-hit cocktail—a maple-infused, burnt sage Manhattan—while also incorporating it into a variety of dishes both savory and sweet.

In addition to inspiring his menu (which includes a special foraging section), sometimes these forest ventures also result in unexpected bonanzas.

For example, while tapping maple trees a few weeks ago, Lage and his crew discovered that stinging nettles and ramps, two highly prized foraging gems, were coming up in abundance weeks earlier than normal, in large part because of the unseasonably warm winter weather. Had his team missed that early bloom, they would have lost out on the distinct, subtle freshness of young nettles and ramps, both of which age rapidly in structure and taste.

Young ramps are super tender, possessing a subtle garlic/onion taste. Lage offers them simply prepared: lightly fried in a tempura batter and served with soy sauce aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, along with fresh ginger. The dish was an instant hit—a treasured rarity a diner can’t find just anywhere.

Lage noticed the stinging nettles were coming up at the base of walnut trees. This gave him and his team the idea to make a nettles- and walnut-based pesto, which he served with sweet potato gnocchi finished with a dash of the newly collected maple simple syrup. Another immediate hit with customers.

“Those dishes were totally created in the woods, not in the kitchen,” said Lage, who exudes the deeply serious intensity of a conceptual artist driven by the thoughts behind and act of creating. He’s a chef with big ideas and plans.

Something Special Downtown

In fact, these days, Lage is consumed with opening a new Mexican restaurant in lively downtown Leesburg. He plans to “revolutionize” the concept of traditional, authentic Mexican cuisine.

The restaurant, named “Cucina on Market,” will open in one of Leesburg’s historic buildings, a former bank, at 7 W. Market St. Once renovations are complete, the space will boast a well-stocked tequila bar and a showcase of Lage’s favorite, wildly diverse regional cuisines of Mexico. The restaurant will also be decked out with Meso-American-themed art and architecture, formal and informal dining on two levels, and rooftop dining high above the historic district.

Although Lage isn’t willing to reveal much more just yet, the restaurant is clearly roiling his creative juices. His enthusiasm about the new place is palpable.

“What I love about it is there’s a reason for everything in this restaurant. Nothing was overlooked or unplanned. It’s not just a hodgepodge of Mexican dishes. It’s seriously focused,” he said. “It’s going to be unlike anything anyone has ever seen around here, or even around the nation, that’s for sure.”

Lage said he anticipates Cucina on Market opening in three to four months.

“This place is going to be so much more than just a place to simply come and eat and drink,” he promises. “It’s going to be something special.”

Colt Taylor’s Smoked Sage & Sap Manhattan
Courtesy of Market Table Bistro, Lovettsville

This versatile cocktail was created by mixologist Colt Taylor at Chef Jason Lage’s Market Table Bistro in Lovettsville.

It can stimulate a pre-dinner appetite or serve as a complementary note to an after-dinner dessert. The burning sage imparts a subtle, herbaceous note to the cocktail’s finish, while the innate sweetness of the maple syrup, combined with a dash of citrus acidity, draws out the rich complexity of fine bourbon. The secret ingredient? A pinch of Kosher salt, which harmoniously unites the diverse ingredients.

Obviously, tapping trees for fresh syrup is not possible for most folks. No sweat, says Taylor. He recommends combining high-quality, commercial maple syrup (steer clear of those with corn syrup) with equal parts water. Simmer until the two emulsify, being careful not to let the mixture become too thick. The resulting syrup can also be used for baking, a coffee sweetener or a topping for ice cream.

Mix the cocktail before burning the sage. The latter only takes a few seconds and you’ll want to capture the smoky saturation of the glass immediately with the fully blended drink.

1.5 ounces of Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye or Small Batch Bulleit Rye

¾ ounces of maple syrup

2 dashes of Orange Bitters

A squeeze of a fresh orange wedge

A pinch of Kosher salt

1 gram of dried sage, preferably fresh

An orange peel for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, combine the drink’s ingredients over ice, gently stir and set aside. Take the dried sage and pile compactly into a small nest. In a safe, controlled environment, torch the sage until it alights, waiting for the flames to die out. Once the sage starts smoking, place the serving glass over the smoke for no more than 10-15 seconds. Immediately strain the prepared drink into the smoked glass, position the orange peel garnish and serve.

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