Most mushroom hunters would sell their grandmother to a tribe of malnourished cannibals rather than reveal their best hunting locations.
It’s one of the most secretive outdoor pursuits — possibly the most. Which makes running a business that teaches people all about wild mushrooms while maintaining the secrecy of your own spots a little tricky.
Minnesota native Mike Kempenich is the founder of the Gentlemen Forager. He sells wild harvested as well as cultivated mushrooms commercially, and also hosts wild mushroom identification classes and other informational get-togethers that help people explore wild foods. He is hosting one of those classes this Sunday, September 26 at the Marine Mills Folk School. There will be a mushroom ID class, followed by an afternoon in the field harvesting wild mushrooms. The day will be capped off by sampling the day’s harvest with help from a local chef. For more information on how to attend, visit the Gentlemen Forager on Facebook.
By far the most common question Kempenich gets at his classes as well as online is “Where are you finding all the good mushrooms?”
Kempenich always gives the same answer — Luverne, Minn.
Luverne is a small town in the far Southwest corner of Minnesota, surrounded by the eastern edge of the Great Plains. There’s about four trees in the entire town and it’s one of the last places in the state where you’d find the mother-load of any kind of wild mushroom.
“I’ve often wanted to call the city of Luverne after all these years,” Kempenich chuckled. “To see how many people come out there to pick mushrooms.”
Kempenich’s love of mushrooms began in typical fashion, with springtime morel trips as a kid. Morel season is exceptionally short, and Kempenich eventually realized there were other mushrooms to be had in Minnesota that had a much longer growing season.
“Really the brunt of mushroom season runs from July to October,” he said. “So I would forage for 40 to 50 species of mushrooms throughout Minnesota.”
The hobby continued into adulthood as Kempenich pursued a career as an IT recruiter in the Twin Cities. He worked in that industry for about 15 years, before eventually coming to an impasse with his employer.
“I had a boss who gave me an opportunity — to look for a new opportunity,” he said. “So I found myself out of work. After feeling sorry for myself for several months I found myself in the woods more and more, and I started wondering why I couldn’t buy any of these mushrooms in a store.”
Kempenich founded Gentlemen Forager shortly there after, and has spent over a decade cultivating the business. He also started a brand called Forest to Fork to satisfy the retail portion of his business. Forest to Fork markets and sells wild mushrooms to grocery store chains. This spring Kempenich sold of his majority share of Forest to Fork to focus more on Gentlemen Forager, the educational side of his business.
“Forest to Fork is scaling for national distribution and building new facilities, and that isn’t really something that holds my interest,” Kempenich said. “Now since (selling) it’s really enabled me to put my focus back on Gentlemen Forager, which is where my heart is.”
Kempenich believes in mushrooms, not only as great table fare but as a health super food, and getting the word out about their value is a huge part of Gentlemen Forager.
“To me that’s a big focus now,” he said. “How do we take these mushrooms, many of which have been studied well enough to know that they have measurable impact on health, and put them into a form that is appealing to people?”
Getting that message across can be a tall order. Mushrooms are an often-maligned food. They regularly appear in the company of things like liver, beets and olives on lists of the most hated foods in America.
“Actually I believe everyone does like mushrooms, the people who say they don’t just haven’t met the mushroom they like yet,” Kempenich said. “When I go and do a presentation at a high school I always start by asking who likes mushrooms. There’s usually like two hands that go up. Then we sauté up a bunch of different types of mushrooms and everybody samples them. I ask the question again at the end of the class and virtually every hand goes up.”
The real beauty of mushrooms lies in their variety, according to Kempenich.
“For a lot of people, it doesn’t occur to them that mushrooms are just like vegetables or fruit,” He said. “A carrot doesn’t taste like a potato and a potato doesn’t taste like a rutabaga. They’re all different.”
Chanterelle mushrooms are fruity and taste a little like an apricot. Maitake mushrooms are crunchy. Candy cap mushrooms share the same flavor profile as maple syrup and are a trendy addition to ice cream, cupcakes and other sweets. These and dozens of other species are at our fingertips, and Kempenich wants to make sure Minnesotans take full advantage of the wild and exotic mushrooms available both in the timber and on the shelf.
For those looking to pick their own mushrooms, identification can be one of the most intimidating aspects. Kempenich’s classes focus heavily on identifying edible mushrooms and their often-inedible copycats.
“I don’t want people to feel like mushrooms are scary, they’re not,” he said. “Are there mushrooms that can kill you? Yes. Are there very many of them? No. We talk a lot about those mushrooms here in Minnesota, and they’re easily recognizable once you’re taught about them and you just avoid that genius or species.”
He said learning to ID mushrooms is best done in the company of an experienced forager, and he cautioned against using the many plant/fungi IDing apps that are available today.
“There’s just so many variables in color or shape or size,” he said. “It’s just not reliable.”
Another hurdle for people to clear is how best to prepare mushrooms, especially considering all of the variations available. Kempenich uses wild and exotic mushrooms just like he would portabella or white button mushrooms, and said a quick sauté with a few simple additions is hard to beat.
“There’s kind of a holy trinity for mushrooms,” he said. “Little bit of butter, little bit of thyme (not too much) and shallots. That’s always a very satisfying flavor combination with virtually any mushroom, and it gives you the opportunity to really taste the mushroom without it being overpowered by other things.”
If you’ve ever hunted morel mushrooms, you understand the visceral reaction you get when you lay eyes on one. There’s always a brief moment when your brain hasn’t caught up with your eyes and you stare blankly at what you’ve been looking for all day. Finally the signal reaches its destination — “that’s a morel you idiot!” and you’re pulled out of the semi-trance to revel in your reward. Hunting is truly an appropriate term.
“There’s a lot of factors at play, just like when you go fishing and you’re looking for structure underwater or you go hunting and you’re looking for areas game feeds in. It’s the same principles,” Kempenich said. “And when you put that all together and come upon a flush of great mushrooms, it’s a big, fun rush — and that’ll hook most people.”