SOUTHSIDE NATIVE ERIC Neylon was always passionate about food, helping to harvest fruits and wild plants in the yard for his mother to turn into tasty additions to family meals. But he didn’t see a job as a cook in his career path until the chefs he knew told him he should be working for them. Now the part-time forager and avid gardener staffs the line in one of Indy’s top kitchens, Tinker Street, while firing up artisan pies at his occasional funky pop-up, Porch Pizza. Here, he takes a moment to talk the fundamentals of foraging, his lifelong love of pizza, and the joys of both full-time restaurant work and one-off event cooking.
The word “forager” conjures images of a rugged outdoorsman living off of bugs and wild berries. What are some of the misconceptions about “foraging,” and what does the word mean to you?
A lot of people do tend to misunderstand what I do. To me, it’s really a survival type of thing, but it’s a fun way to access nature’s bounty. And it’s not the same as scavenging. People sometimes think I’m going to rummage through their trash to find what’s edible. To forage is simply to gather, and I try to not to overdo it. You can over-forage mushrooms, for example, but I try to leave as many as I take.
How did you get into foraging in the first place?
I grew up in Perry Township, where there isn’t a lot of wild stuff. But we did have mulberry, crabapple, and pear trees, and my mother would send me up the trees to pick the fruit. Seeing my mom transform all of that produce that other people might let go to waste into applesauce and jam really fascinated me, and I started to look for other wild things around that we could eat.
How is foraging a part of your family culture?
My mom is South Korean, and it’s pretty common in the culture. Every Korean has at least one forager in the family. South Korea has almost the same climate as Indiana, so they have a lot of the same wild stuff that we do: ramps, dandelions, etc. It’s all great for making pickles and kimchi. But Hoosiers have long been foragers as well, and there is plenty of stuff around for people to harvest from the wild.
You’ve taught classes on foraging as well. How would you suggest someone get started?
All people really have to do is step out into their yards. Indiana has so many great edible things you wouldn’t notice at first. It’s pretty common to find mulberry trees or black raspberry brambles right where you live. But if you’re out on a bike trail, you’ll probably find elderflower or wild carrot, which you can steep in vodka to make a great cordial or vinegar for a really floral salad dressing. Of course, there are mushrooms all over the place, and it just takes knowing where to look. I also like to use different parts of plants that you might throw out, such as the leaves of tomato plants, which I used for flavored oil or pesto. You can even get a bit more daring and eat things like the berries of some nightshade when they’re ripe. You can find lots of field guides online, which can help you identify what’s edible and what’s not.
How did your foraging hobby lead you into local restaurants’ kitchens?
I was a bartender at the Skyline Club, and we had a lot of really great chefs coming through. I’d get curious and ask questions about what they were cooking, and eventually they just told me I should actually be working on the line. One chef in particular was Ricky Hatfield, who basically said that whether I knew it or not, I needed to be cooking in restaurants. I tried being a forager and mushroom farmer full time, providing some menu items for local kitchens. I even converted a room at my house for growing different kinds of mushrooms. When that didn’t work out as well as I had planned, I eventually went to work for Ricky at Ellison Brewing, where he let me experiment with pizzas.
Is that where the idea for Porch Pizza was born?
It definitely got me started. The pizzas were one of Ricky’s concepts at the brewery, but he would let me help create a special pizza each week. But I’ve always loved pizza. Growing up around Indy, there’s always a Pizza King, and I loved it, as much for the pizza as for being able to go there with friends.
How did Porch Pizza start, and what do you love about pop-ups?
It was kind of a strange thing. For most people, the pandemic was the worst year for everyone where everything in restaurants fell apart. But somehow all of these culinary crossroads came together, and I was able to put all of my passions together in Porch Pizza. Pop-ups are just fun. It’s like, honestly, so cool to see all of these random people show up at once. I guess I’m lucky because my pop-ups were so successful. Seeing the lines form always gets me going. It’s cooking on your own terms, and it feels weird to be the boss or the leader. But I don’t look at it that way. Anyone I bring on to help is an equal, and with all of the customers, it becomes a big party—an event. And doing it out of restaurants that were partially closed made it a legal way for me to cook while using kitchens that were otherwise idle.
How is that different from working full time at Tinker Street?
Tinker Street is absolutely the most intense, highest-level restaurant I’ve been at. It’s so creative. And Tyler [executive chef Tyler Shortt] and Tom [owner Tom Main] are just amazing. They’re positive but not toxically positive. You want to go in, get a big old hug, and know that they’re glad to see you. I knew it was such a family atmosphere from when I was providing mushrooms and other foraged items for Tinker Street before the pandemic. Even if farmers come in just a couple of times a week, we know them all by name, and we treat them like they are part of the family.