On January 1, 2020 Karl Holl was ready to reap what he had sowed. All the years in the food grinder, all the down-in-the-dirt edibles yanked—all the stars lined up, cashing in at last.
Never mind all his accolades, the rise from unknown California transplant to PoMo's 2018 Chef of the Year at Park Avenue Fine Wines, the new face of a raise-your-own meal mentality. Never mind the passion: not just growing, butchering, and cooking the food, but also handing you the plate—pig-lard cookies and all—inside a downtown wine shop. Never mind that his farm-centric catering arm Spatzle & Speck had newfound “it” status, with 100 events on the books.
Never mind. Didn't matter. Forty days later, like most chefs around the country, he was handing out unemployment notices, even to himself.
Holl's pandemic journey is a now too-familiar FUBAR food industry story: the stops and starts, tears and hope, scrambles and side hustles, take-out plans and meal-kit strategies, and none of it paying the bills.
By December he worried, "What am I going to do?” One thing cheered him up. Posted photos of his foraging adventures were drawing enthusiastic likes. So he decided to dedicate a space for his wild mushroom porn, latest forest finds, and camping cookouts.
In short, when the going gets rough, the rough create an Instagram page. Five days later, he had 1,000 followers. “It was just incredible, all these shares and reshares,” he says. “People are disconnected and cooped up right now. I found this gap and thought alright, let's put some body behind it.”
On Jan 1, 2021, he put Park Avenue in the rearview mirror. Weeks later, Forager Goods & Company was born and Holl found a new language: trademarks, platforms, partnerships, merch. The online company, now in development, is shooting for an Earth Day launch, April 22. Expect a content-driven site at first, with Holl our guide, cooking and foraging across the Northwest. But ultimately, Forager Goods aims to build an outdoor lifestyle brand, inspirational and aspirational. Ideas on the table include a YouTube foraging channel, camper-approved cast-iron skillets, and a house apparel line—boots to flannels.
“I want to inspire people to get out in the woods, to feel comfortable creating their own experiences,” say Holl, who considers himself as much as forager as a cook. “Teaching people to cook wild foraged ingredients is a dream come true. I never want to be chained to a stove again.”
I bristle a bit hearing this. Reality hits: the loss of another Portland restaurant gem. Sliding into Park Avenue was one of life's great joys – forking into a 100-layer mushroom lasagne or flash-fried flowering broccoli rabe bigger than your hands as Holl, pencil behind ear, rhapsodized about his latest porcini hunt or the amazing vegetable his brother just delivered from their plot.
But Holl has a different point of view. “I don't want my old life back.”
He calls his pandemic journey an eye-opening experience. “I just did 15 years [of] 10-12 hour days, six days a week. During Covid I realized you don't have to work that hard. I want to spend time with my girlfriend. What's important is being happy.”
He's not the only prominent chef in search of a different life. The restaurant model, always difficult, is all the more so now as cooks ponder changing dining habits as well as their own desires for sanity and creative freedom. Naomi Pomeroy saw no future in her prix-fixe menued tiny eatery, Beast, which morphed in late November into the Ripe Cooperative, a day time food market with the spirit of a chef's counter and Mister Rogers factory tours. Pok Pok's Andy Ricker bailed altogether, moving to Thailand.
“All my friends are hurting. We can't go back to what we did 13 months ago,” says Holl. “We need to think creatively, to be relevant now. More (industry folks) need to realize that. We can't just marinate on the same thing.”
Forager Goods & Company won't be a full time job to start. Holl, at 35, has several irons in the fire, including collaborations with Portland's Smith Teamaker company. For now, he doesn't want to pigeonhole the new venture—what it might be, where it can go. Not too many weeks ago, he points out, it was just an Instagram page. But he hopes to showcase other foragers, sell products (mushroom salt to pickled wild onions), and earmark some money for forest restoration.
Holl only knows this for certain: “I took the shittiest time of my life and 12 months later turned it into something I'm proud of.”
Call him a pipe dreamer—Holl will not be dissuaded. “I hope to be a global company one day. Maybe I'm unrealistic. But anything is possible. No limits. Walking around in boots I designed! The only walls in my new 'kitchen' will be earth walls. I'm not going to sit around and wait.”