New Jersey Forager and Chef Reveals His Wild-Farming Lifestyle

by Lauren Dresner

On a cool autumn morning, Chef Philip Manganaro of Park Place Cafe & Restaurant scans the sandy terroir of the NJ Pine Barrens in search of natural ingredients. With an intuitive connection to nature and understanding of the flora that blossoms each season, he knows exactly where to look. Crouched down, brushing away a heaping pile of prickly pine needles, he reveals a delicacy puncturing the podzol soil with a spicy, earthy aroma that cannot be mistaken—the matsutake mushroom.

Philip Manganaro, humble owner of Park Place Cafe & Restaurant in Merchantville, NJ, earned himself a James Beard nomination for his innovative culinary concept that takes farm-to table-dining to an entirely different level. He is a forager, or as he would like to call it, “wild farmer”— trekking the vast pine barrens of Southern Jersey in search of ingredients that you can’t find at your local supermarket.

From the start of his culinary career, Manganaro has always preferred to cook with high end ingredients. However, he started to realize this feeling of complacency and wanted more agency in the sourcing of his food. Manganaro was inspired by his time spent outdoors and began to closely study South Jersey’s diverse terroir, gradually becoming an expert. He figured, “why order chanterelle mushrooms from a supplier when I can walk 20 minutes from my house and find my own chanterelles?” Now eight years strong, the sandy, astringent soil of the Pine Barrens serves as the bedrock of Park Place’s menu, constantly evolving as the seasons change.

Chef Manganaro explains how his non-conformist lifestyle is inspired by his own spiritual journey. He feels connected to nature’s quiet strength, and is motivated to capture its integrity through its flavors. Relying on nothing but his intuition and own two feet, Manganaro spends 10 months out of the year collecting hundreds of pounds of wild, edible ingredients. He works alone in his kitchen and cleans everything alone. Knowing there is a risk picking from the wild, he says he “does not serve anything that he has not tried several times.”

Manganaro’s menu is dependent on what is in season. However, he has found ways to effectively preserve greens and maintain their fresh flavor as if they were picked yesterday. Ramps, otherwise known as wild leeks, are abundant in the spring. He is able to freeze their bulbs and keep them fresh all year long. He has discovered the best way to preserve whole berries, by pickling, dehydrating, and later pulverizing the fruit.

Lard Seared Squab and Preserved Black Raspberries | photo via @parkplace_nj

Manganaro finds satisfaction in introducing his customers to natural flavors. The teaberry has a flavor reminiscent of wintergreen, and functions as excellent mint infused ice-cream. Passionate about capturing the briny quality of seawater, he elevates a seafood risotto with either dehydrated seaweed, sea rockets, and sea beans collected from the salt marshes in Island Beach State Park. 

Freshly churned tea berry ice cream | photo via @parkplace_nj

Manganaro’s story is being told cinematically with the help of directors Anastasia and Steve Forde. The Fordes visited Park Place a few years back on a whim, and were left speechless after enjoying a meal that unlocked early childhood memories spent foraging in their backyard brushwood. They quickly realized that Park Place represented more than just food on a plate and felt creatively inspired to convey Manganaro’s story. For over a year, the couple followed Manganaro through the Pine Barrens with a camera and a purpose.  

The footage has been adapted into a documentary short titled, “Found: The King of the Matsutake Ridge.” The short is currently being shown through private screenings, and is entering the film festival circuit. When asked how he sees his business growing in the future, Manganaro humbly responds that “as a single father, being a parent is my main priority and I feel that I have already succeeded in life. Seeing my son on the big screen is what makes me happy.” 

Secure a spot for Park Place’s tasting menu experience on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and receive updates on the documentary’s pending official release.

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