A Chef’s Trip Through Oregon’s Mushroom Country
We hit up Portland, Orgeon with two of Canada's most respected chefs to eat, drink, and forage wild mushrooms in a top secret location.
Wild chanterelles foraged in a coastal forest about an hour outside of Portland. Mushrooms in Portland, Oregon. August 2016. Matt Lutton / Boreal Collective for Vice Munchies
Flights and additional support provided by Air Canada.
"The job of a chef is to not fuck up ingredients."
Justin Leboe is holding up a handful of chanterelles with a big ol' grin on his face. "I would just throw these in a pan with garlic and butter and that's it—that's all it needs."
Leboe is executive chef, co-owner, and, according to his business card, "Feudal Lord" at Calgary's Model Milk and Pigeonhole. Joining Leboe on our hunt for the elusive summer mushroom is his buddy, fellow chef Lee Cooper, co-owner of Vancouver's L'Abattoir.
We are in an undisclosed location in the middle of the Oregon woods, about an hour outside of Portland. Air Canada flew our intrepid mushroom hunters here to promote their new non-stop flights to Portland from Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto. Luckily the pair love eating, drinking, and foraging... and heck, a free flight is a free flight. Although at this moment, they may be having second thoughts.
And the deeper we go, the louder the gunshots get. "They're not getting any closer," our mushroom sherpa Ryan reassures us. "It sounds like they're just target practicing with handguns—I wouldn't be too worried."
The chefs and I look at each other with the inherently Canadian unease that comes with being told that handguns are being fired nearby. When you're strolling through what feels like the woods in First Blood, the mental image of target-practicing Oregonian militiamen is a powerful one, and it turned out to be more than just a mental image.
Sure enough, when we finally got out of the bush—with two bags worth of fresh, firm chanterelles, no less—we happened upon a small group of camo-clad survivalist-looking dudes with (presumably registered) handguns who were taking aim at (presumably liberal) human outlines a few yards away from our little patches of fungal growth.
Hours earlier, the chefs had been a little skeptical about finding any mushrooms at all in mid-August. But foragers Ryan Courter and Jonathan Neu of the No Morels Mushroom Club—a self-described "small gang of fungis and fungirls from Portland Oregon who love foraging for choice edibles"—said they knew where to find some, as long as we promised never to tell anyone where their spot was. Deal.
"Oregon is so similar to British Columbia and I live in the woods, basically, so I'm pretty familiar with being in the forest," Cooper later told me. "First off, I definitely wasn't expecting those guys shooting guns (laughs). But I also felt like we were probably there a little too early to find mushrooms, so I wasn't expecting to find much. When we first started walking through the woods, I was like, 'Ah, shit! This is going to be dumb,' because we only found that one little mushroom early on. But then we found the spot."
"There's gold in them hills," Courter promised us before entering the forest, and he was right. What started off as a glorified hike turned into a mushroom hunt that yielded what Leboe and Cooper figured was about six pounds of golden-orange chanterelles, something they would have paid a pretty penny for back home.
So, what do you do when you have six pounds of chanterelles that you've risked life, limb, and, in Leboe's case, a pair of shoes for? You call up a restaurant in the middle of service and ask if you can come over with a bunch of uncleaned wild mushrooms, and have them throw some food together for us. Obviously.
Luckily, chef Jason Hegedus at Portland's Ava Gene's was more than willing to accommodate this very forward request. Our loot was in good hands with chef Hegedus who sent out, among a barrage of other dishes, two standouts made with our beloved fungus.
First, toast and ricotta topped with vinegary chanterelles and fresh parsley, and then a pasta dish made with pork sausage, Dutch bullet beans, pecorino, butter, and, of course, the our hard-earned mushrooms.
It was a fitting end to a two-day shroom hunt that began at a brewery, oddly enough. But what could be more Portland than a microbrewery making a one-off ale infused with mushrooms?
Our first stop was Old Town Brewing in Portland to check out their Mushroom Ale. "Our head brewer Andrew wanted to use pizza ingredients in beer, since we also make pizza here," Old Town owner Adam Milne told us. "People think the beer is going to taste like dirt or fungus, but it's not at all what people are expecting. Candy caps are the only kind of mushroom I'd want to try in a beer, because they're very sweet. The maple syrup cuts through and it's the basis for a sweet, syrupy beer. It just worked really well."
After fermentation, while beer is still warm, is typically the point at which a brewer will add hops. Instead, Old Town's master brewer Andrew Lamont threw in some candy cap mushrooms. This might sound a little strange but neither Lee nor Leboe were very surprised to find these mushrooms in the brew.
Candy caps, it turns out, are frequently used in restaurant kitchens, but not at the savoury stations where mushrooms are usually found. While we were at the brewery, a bag of candy caps was being passed around, and wafts of maple syrup could be smelled from across the table. Old Town were generous (and confident) enough to let us try their Mushroom Ale as they tasted this year's batch for the first time.
Leboe and Lee were, however, surprised by how good it tasted. "It has to be used for sweets, I think. We cook with candy caps at the restaurant. Actually, our pastry chef introduced it to me," Lee said. "I'm kind of familiar with the flavour and I thought it was going to be super in-your-face. We always use candy caps in sweet applications, so I thought it was going to taste like a really maple syrupy beer but it tasted good." As with other kinds of mushrooms, it's all about dosage.
Leboe agreed, "I fucking hate novelty beer, man. I came in with mixed expectations because I hate people who make beers and think they're clever and make, like, a chocolate, soda, mint double stout and it's so sickly sweet that you take a sip and you can't drink anymore. But I was pleasantly surprised, there was a lot of restraint. The mushroom was there but it was balanced with everything else, which is perfect."
Right off the bat, it became clear that Lee and Leboe had discerning tastes and were brutally honest about the food and booze we were going to consume—not exactly surprising given their respective pedigrees as chefs.
Before pushing the culinary boundaries of their own cities, they trained in some of the most respected kitchens on the planet. Cooper worked in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants in the US and UK, including Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, as did Leboe at The French Laundry, Daniel, and Le Bernardin.
So, first we hit Le Pigeon to try out their take on the season's fungal offerings. Those included a visually stunning smoked oyster and zucchini Vichyssoise topped with lobster-glazed lobster mushrooms, shrimp, and avocado mousse. Next up was a sage-roasted chicken with chanterelle noodles, prosciutto, truffle-pineapple relish, and Parmesan. Soigné stuff and a pretty solid start to a mushroom binge.
After our first dinner, on the advice of our excellent photographer-slash-fixer Matt Lutton, we beelined it to Kachka for blinis and dumplings in mushroom broth. And vodka. Lots of vodka. And there was no shortage of choice at Kachka, whose extensive booze menu even includes a mushroom-infused vodka.
Finally, some beer and wings were in order, and we ended up at Pok Pok. There, we took down whole natural chicken wings, which were marinated in fish sauce and sugar, deep-fried, and tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce. And, of course, we had to have oyster, king oyster, and shiitake mushrooms tossed coated in lime and chili powder dressing, shallots, lemongrass, mint, cilantro, and toasted rice powder.
Walking back to the hotel, the soft glow of pinball lights at My Father's Place was too inviting to resist. We had a big day of foraging ahead of us and sometimes you need a break from the mushroom beat. Plus, it's hard to argue with two-dollar tall boys of Rainier.
Much like pinball, foraging taps into the obsessive, competitive side of chefs. The next day, as the bright orange patches of the forest began revealing themselves to us, Lee and Leboe became more and more fixated with the floor of the forest. "You start moving very carefully and moving moss around very delicately," Leboe confessed. Lee, for his part, was beating himself up a little bit over not having found as many mushrooms as the rest of us; "I only found like three goddamn mushrooms in the first hour!"
In the kitchen, there is a tendency to seek archetypal mushrooms out of Super Mario Bros., but for the discerning chef, pretty does not translate into flavour. But in the woods, the amazing range of shapes, sizes, and colours was way beyond what most chefs are used to.
"A lot of chefs pick the mushroom that looks the best aesthetically, with no real thought as to where it is in its ripeness," Leboe says."Like, is it at the stage where it's going to be most flavourful, or it is just at its prettiest? But my buddy, who 's a mycologist, was explaining to me that, depending on the species, it's better to pick them at different stages, regardless of where they 're at aesthetically."
But for Leboe and Lee, our mushroom trip ended up being about way more than just geeking out over chanterelles. It was a reminder that even the most sought-after restaurant ingredients are just that—ingredients. In this case, ingredients that grow out of the dirt that you have to work your ass off to collect but are well worth it. And a flashback to Leboe's childhood was all it took to put this in perspective.
"My first foray into foraging was when I was a nine- or ten-year-old kid in Port Alberni," Leboe recounts. "We would drive out to the bay and pull out oysters from the beach and then go into the woods and pick out chanterelles. At that age, I was like, 'This is fucking disgusting. The mushrooms that come from a grocery store are white!' I'd refuse to eat them. And now, years later, with what I do for a living, I do realize the irony of the situation."
Lee interrupts, "Yeah, now you've gotta pay $18 a pound for that shit!"