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The Mushroom Whisperers

The Mushroom Whisperers

5280 | October 2014

Meet Graham Steinruck and Nick Martinez—two men on a mission to bring the wild foods of the Front Range to Denver kitchens. 

By Kate Siber

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In a loose grove of aspens, on a high ridge not far from downtown Denver, Graham Steinruck walks at an impossibly slow pace. Every few feet, he stops and looks around. He notes the nickel-size leaves on the aspens. He pauses to feel the spongy texture of the soil under his feet. Everywhere, the forest speaks of renewal. Little green shoots of baby huckleberries poke out of the ground next to shrinking snowdrifts. Squirrels dart about, and meltwater turns into rivulets, winking in the brassy light.

With his jeans nearly falling off his reedy frame, Steinruck leaps over a stream and stoops down. From a basket nestled in the crook of his arm, he produces a digital meat thermometer, dusts it off, and plunges it into the soil. He squints, as if in deep concentration.

“Yeah, we’re right at initiation, 50 degrees,” he says, easing the thermometer from the ground. “Any day now, if not right now.” It’s a Saturday in May, and Steinruck, one of Colorado’s top foraging experts, is searching for wild mushrooms, which he and his business partner, Nick Martinez, supply to Denver restaurants. The best mushroom hunters—those like Steinruck and Martinez—not only have a feel for the land, but also an attuned sense of the pattern in which the seasons unfold. Steinruck may look like a gazelle, but in the forest, he acts like a predator—focused and stealthy. He can observe, patient as a cat. Or he can disappear in an instant, wordlessly loping over a hill.

What Steinruck is really seeking is morels, one of the country’s most prized wild edibles. Morels are elusive, fruiting in as quickly as a week and then disappearing—eaten by animals or rotten or squashed—in as little as two. To find them, you must be nimble and clever, solving a constantly shifting puzzle of clues: everything from soil moisture, temperature, and composition to rainfall and elevation.

Steinruck zigzags around the woods in his tattered black boots. He squats to stroke wild strawberry plants and American violets and pops one of the flowers into his mouth. He picks yarrow, a spicy, sage-scented ground plant good for seasoning, and dandelion petals. There are no morels in the woods today—Steinruck is a few days too early—but there are other mushrooms, including an edible variety that grows only in the mountains of certain Western states just after the snow melts: Hygrophorus subalpinus. Standing in a swath of forest carpeted with dull brown needles, it is hard to imagine that anything of great value grows here. But Steinruck is a master at making something out of nothing. Wiggling his hand under a featureless mound, he pulls out a snow-white beauty as magically as if conjuring a rabbit from a hat.

Martinez and Steinruck had known each other for years as line cooks in Denver-area restaurants—Martinez at ChoLon and Steinruck at Pizza Republica—before they founded Hunt & Gather, Denver’s first wild-foods foraging and distribution company, in August 2013. Both 28, they make an odd but uncannily complementary team. Steinruck is slim with a tuft of pale hair, a feeble five o’clock shadow, and delicate features. He often vibrates with excitement when he talks—which is a lot—and walks with a slight stoop that makes him appear constantly interested. Martinez is quiet, serious, and soft-spoken. He’s just over five feet tall with a heart-shaped face and a neatly trimmed beard that suggests the care and respect with which he carries himself. Steinruck is the mushroom savant, while Martinez acts as the liaison between wilderness and plate by helping chefs understand how to handle wild ingredients.

One thing Steinruck and Martinez do share is a tendency toward obsession, and in this case, the shared object is wild food. Having lived in Colorado for years (Steinruck is a native), they believe the state has a bounty of underappreciated ingredients, and with them, they want to help develop a cuisine unlike any other in the country. Establishing a Colorado food tradition using wild foraged edibles may seem like a lofty ambition, but it has already proven seductive to the restaurant community. More than 60 restaurants and food purveyors in Denver, Boulder, and Steamboat Springs—including Fruition, Beatrice & Woodsley, and Acorn—purchase products from Hunt & Gather. And a groundswell of interest in local foods has spurred the team to offer mushroom-hunting clinics and wild-edible cooking classes for home cooks.

But starting a business in foraging isn’t like any other business. The challenges are both copious and unnerving. The regulations related to collecting on public land are still nascent and poorly understood (among foragers and the regulators themselves), and unlicensed competitors can, and do, swoop in from other states. Both chefs and diners can be loathe to move beyond familiar ingredients, and, of course, there’s the inconstancy of nature herself, who sometimes offers a bounty and sometimes offers nothing at all.

In many ways, finding mushrooms—the most lucrative of Hunt & Gather’s products—is like storm-chasing. One Sunday morning this past summer, after four days of fruitless searching, Steinruck and Martinez met their friend and occasional employee Brett Smith, a six-foot-four-inch 26-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with a shaggy blond bowl cut, at Crema Coffee House at 29th and Larimer streets. Steinruck had stayed up until 3 a.m. but had already downed two cold-brew coffees (lots of cream, lots of sugar). On Steinruck’s laptop, the trio pored over online maps showing recent rainfall, soil temperatures, and forest fires that had swept through the Front Range in the past few years. Morels like burnt forests and a lot of rain.

The young men homed in on Jefferson County, a sweet spot of charred forest and recent storms. With renewed hope for a mother lode, they set off to the southwest in Steinruck’s taupe Pontiac minivan. This is what the proprietors of Hunt & Gather do nearly every day: pinball around the small towns of the Front Range and bushwhack through woods for up to 16 hours, stopping only to refuel with beef jerky and coffee. Their persistence helps them understand the exact microseasons of the forests and to pinpoint large quantities of high-dollar products. The previous weekend, they gathered about 160 pounds of morels, which sell for more than the priciest cuts of beef—anywhere from $27 to $40 per pound and, on occasion, even more.

On that Sunday, they snaked along Jefferson County’s tangled mountain roads, rubbernecking the steep hillsides outside the car windows. But scorched trees from the Lower North Fork fire that swept through several years before proved difficult to find. Finally, after a couple of hours, they pulled over in the empty parking lot of a closed dentist’s office in Conifer. The sky roiled with clouds as a timid rain began. Coolers and baskets littered the back of the van, but they were all empty. Steinruck stamped out an American Spirit in an ashtray overflowing with butts, laid his head on the steering wheel, and sighed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “I’m just getting a little frustrated. It’s like, really? Do we even know what we’re doing? Do we even know how to read a map?” Smith, dressed in an old combat shirt and silver aviators, was silent. Martinez looked at his phone, trying to pull up better maps. Steinruck has made mistakes before—costly mistakes, like mispackaging a box of morels worth $1,200, all of which rotted. But this sudden paucity of merchandise was not a mistake. It was a whim of nature.

Growing up, Steinruck was sensitive, introverted, and unusually focused. He’d join in normal kid things like soccer games and then exasperate his teammates by inspecting worms on the turf as the ball went whizzing into the goal. His father typically didn’t have much free time to spend with him because of his job, so Steinruck spent a lot of time with his Boy Scout troop. There, he met a scoutmaster who knew many of the plants in the forest and showed Steinruck how to use a field guide. Steinruck became obsessed with biology, and the forest and its creatures became not only a passion, but also a solace.

Later, while working at a medical marijuana dispensary in his early 20s, he had a lot of free time and spent most of it wandering around the woods, often off-trail. He began going to Colorado Mycological Society forays and lectures and devouring mushroom guidebooks: He taught himself how to identify obscure mushrooms by their spore-bearing surfaces, stems, and caps; their habitats; and even their scents. He started leading forays for the Four Seasons Vail and the Little Nell in Aspen and selling some of his finds at Denver restaurants’ back doors. Now, Steinruck is certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to identify more than 40 species of mushrooms, although he can name many more.

Martinez found foraging later. His family, which is of Mexican heritage but has been in the States for generations, was composed of hardworking men and women, but when Martinez was a teenager and a young man in Colorado Springs and Denver, he fell into a life of partying, drugs, and violence. He still bears scars on his forehead and arms that seem to be at odds with his air of quiet integrity. Finally, something propelled him to change course, just as friends and even family members were beginning to lose hope for him. He started working in high-end restaurants, sometimes even toiling for free to gain experience, and became obsessed with haute cuisine. He worked for as long as 18 hours a day and sometimes gave blood twice a week to support himself.

Eventually, Martinez moved to Chicago with nothing to sustain himself but his dream of working in a top restaurant. He landed a job at Sixteen, where he was part of the team that earned two Michelin stars. “Cooking saved my life, hands down,” Martinez says. “I’d be dead or in prison without it.” It wasn’t until he met Steinruck (after moving back to Colorado in 2013) that he started foraging. But whereas Steinruck can get frustrated by fruitless searches, Martinez seems to find peace simply from being outside.

Driving around the Front Range, Steinruck often has his head out the window and lets his sentences trail off while he eyes the habitat. Even in the city, he’ll pluck wild chamomile from street curbs and call out the Latin names of lawn mushrooms. I watched as he and Martinez led a Denver couple on a foray and, just off the shoulder of the highway in Golden Gate Canyon, gathered pennycress, wild lettuce, and fairy ring mushrooms. Tiptoeing past a sleeping rattlesnake, they discovered hundreds of watercress plants shimmering in a bog. Nearby, cars whizzed past, oblivious to the buffet just a few yards from their rolled-up windows.

Of all the edibles he collects, Steinruck is most in love with mushrooms. They are the undersung heroes of the woods, the fruits of a fungal organism called a mycelium. Typically white, cobweblike mycelia hold the soil together and live in symbiosis with roughly 95 percent of all green plants, providing nutrients and protecting them from droughts and invaders. Without them, almost none of the trees in Colorado would exist—the landscape would be a barren wasteland of rock and sand. So it seems to Steinruck an almost mind-boggling and superfluous gift that these fungi also offer some of the most singular flavors of the forest, from deep, nutty porcini to buttery, seafoodlike lobster mushrooms.

But it does take a lot of effort to procure them. Because of the maze of rules on public land, Hunt & Gather mostly collects on private land. (State and national parks forbid gathering; the BLM and each national forest have their own rules about commercial collecting.) More than half of the landowners they approach run them off. Some threaten to shoot them. Others are happy to let the duo collect and often remain oblivious to the value of these edibles.
“I take $2,500 worth of mushrooms and try to give them 10 pounds, and they say ‘Oh, I don’t eat mushrooms, I don’t like them,’ ” says Steinruck one day, smoking a cigarette outside his van on a high ridge. “ ‘These are choice, edible mushrooms,’ I tell them. ‘Do you trip off of them?’ they ask. ‘No? Then I don’t want them.’ ” He rolls his eyes.

There are far more nonpoisonous mushrooms than poisonous ones on this continent, but Americans have a long-standing tradition of mycophobia (perhaps partly because our British forebears feared mushrooms). In Colorado alone, mycologists estimate there are more than 2,500 species, and new ones are discovered regularly. The state also has some of the best porcini habitats in the country, and the mushrooms are so smooth, rich, and delectable that one prominent Denver chef told me they are superior to Italy’s famed crop. “There are places where there are literally dump-truck loads of porcini,” Steinruck says. “Not pickup trucks. Dump trucks.” And yet, few people know about them.

A lot of mushroom hunters would like to keep it that way. Many also oppose commercial gathering because they believe it’s unsustainable and fear land managers will shut down forests in the face of rampant picking. Several members of the Colorado Mycological Society, as well as Steinruck and Martinez, have reported walking into easily accessible areas to find a disaster scene: Every single mushroom has been cleared from the forest floor, and the soil that protects the mycelia has been scattered like discarded wrapping paper. CMS members suspect out-of-state pickers are responsible; they arrive by bus and pick for lucrative Asian markets where a mushroom variety called matsutake can fetch hundreds of dollars per pound. (In Japan, matsutake are prized as gifts, but because the country has few wild forests left—and many have been decimated by nematodes—they must import them.) States such as Oregon have instituted rigorous permitting and accounting systems for these premium mushrooms, but Colorado regulations lag behind.

“It’s such a young industry, and it’s so innovative that it’s not properly regulated. I lose sleep over it,” Steinruck says. “This is what I tell lawmakers: One, you’re missing out on a lot of fees. In Colorado, we’re talking millions of dollars of mushrooms. Two, you’re not properly managing the woods. You’re allowing people to rape them.”

Martinez and Steinruck say they replace the duff—partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor—and leave both young and old mushrooms to regenerate, but little is known about the effects of human picking on mushroom populations, let alone the populations of other wild edibles. Among the scant research, a study in Holland found that overpicking and soil pollution caused the extinction of one species. On the other hand, a study in Oregon found that picking all of the chanterelles in a plot of forest had, surprisingly, no effect on long-term abundance in comparison to a control forest where no mushrooms were picked.

Regardless, Steinruck and Martinez have plans to expand. They’ve already started to incorporate wild edibles from other states during times when Colorado is dormant. Later this year, they hope to open a retail shop, and Steinruck dreams of working with invasive species like crayfish, watercress, and freshwater mussels in order to eradicate them. Steinruck also believes that in the best-case scenario, with all the influential people who pass through Denver restaurants, wild food could be a voice for conservation.

“I know I’ve changed people’s minds about the forest and its importance,” he says. “Once people taste something that amazing and you explain to them that you cannot grow it—it has to be in the forest and you need to have those tracts of land to have them—it’s a perfect argument for conservation.”

This past spring, I visited some of the restaurants Hunt & Gather supplies. At Beast & Bottle, I ate a mushroom paté accompanied by morels and fiddlehead ferns with a deep umami flavor. At Boulder’s Basta, I sipped a “Forage & Raise” cocktail with tequila, brandy, ginger liqueur, lemon, and muddled spruce tips that tasted like the forest just after rain. “The more people figure out these foods are pretty cool, it becomes part of our culture,” says Alex Siedel, owner of Fruition, one of Hunt & Gather’s first customers, and the new Mercantile Dining & Provision in Union Station. “Hopefully this isn’t a trend. It’s the beginning of who we are and who we will be as a food community.”

In midsummer, the wilds of Colorado begin to really come alive. Waves of mushrooms—morels, porcini, matsutake, and chanterelles—sprout across the mountains and meadows. Colonies of wildflowers and edible roots and leaves appear and disappear. For weeks, Martinez and Steinruck had been planning one of their occasional pop-up dinners to showcase some of Colorado’s more unusual products. In the days leading up to it, they were in a frenzy, gathering dishware, finding a trout fisherman, netting crayfish, plucking watercress and cattails, and convincing a local florist to arrange the fistfuls of wildflowers they’d collected for the tables.

On a Sunday evening, 11 guests gathered at the Kitchen Table, a bright cooking school and dining room in Greenwood Village. They were regular people—a couple of engineers, several teachers, a personal chef, and a marketing coordinator—with unusually adventurous appetites. More than half spent weekends and vacations traveling to Michelin-starred restaurants across the country. Martinez, who was acting as chef, was nervous; that night, he wanted everything to be perfect.

Over six hours, Martinez, with the help of Steinruck and several other cooks from Denver restaurants, presented 10 courses with 70 foraged and locally farmed ingredients, each reflecting a unique Colorado theme, while Stuart Jensen, cocktail guru at the new Mercantile, paired libations. A dish called “Wildfire”—melt-in-your-mouth bone marrow, charred onion purée, new-potato chips, and morels—was accompanied by a glass of Cabernet Franc with its rim dipped in a mezcal-and-honey reduction and lapsang souchong tea smoked with pine. “Forest Floor” was a collection of tiny greens—purple sorrel, wild arugula, mustard flower—with fried salsify, crushed almonds made to look like soil, and a fried lichen dusted with pulverized porcini. (“That’s definitely a Michelin star,” said one diner.) To go along with it, Jensen whipped up a sweet, spicy elixir made with local Happy Leaf orange-and-basil kombucha, muscatel sherry, and a tincture Steinruck made from a red-belted conk mushroom. And in a nod to the mining industry, “Panning for Gold” included perfectly browned trout, tiny turnip and lentil “rocks,” gold flakes, and a rich porcini consommé in a gold pan, accompanied by a white Manhattan made with mild moonshine in a test tube with a gold flake in the bottom, evoking the souvenirs bought at schlock shops in mining towns. By the sixth course, the diners were mildly intoxicated, and an air of delight suffused the room like an aroma.

Martinez and Steinruck continued to work silently together, their faces ashen with earnestness. In chef coats, they tweezed edible flowers, one at a time, from plastic bags to dishes. As they carefully set miniature glass herbariums in front of the guests, a hush came over the dining room. Inside the dome, announced Martinez, was a wild-apple gelée topped with house-made creme de violet, pineapple weed, violets, lavender, and edible blooms from Steinruck’s mom’s garden.

The guests gently lifted their domes, and a delicate but unmistakable fragrance, a distillation of some of the tiniest, prettiest things in our state, wafted out. They closed their eyes. They sniffed. They tasted and smiled and looked distant. The flavors of the flowers seemed precious, as if more beautiful because the plants are so fragile and short-lived. I thought about the landscapes where Hunt & Gather collects—alpine meadows freckled with wildflowers too abundant to name; pine forests after a rain, everything awake and alive and dripping; cool cottonwood-shaded ponds crowded with greens. As I let the tart, floral notes linger on my palate, I considered the fact that many of these singular flavors can only be borne of wild places, yet they have always been there, right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.

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