It’s very possible that the mushrooms on that crostini you just ordered were hand-picked by a professional forager in the forest. That’s because more and more restaurants have discovered Hunt & Gather, a local business operated by two fungi-loving fellows by the names of Graham Steinruck and Nick Martinez.
Graham and Nick met through the matchmaking efforts of their fellow Colorado Mycological Society members, who were determined to connect the young anomalies to their senior-dominated membership base. Graham, a Denver native and restaurant industry vet, had capitalized on his foraging passion to become a professional mushroom personality of sorts–presenting, writing about, and running mushroom-related businesses. Nick was a chef with a budding interest in wild mushrooms.
When the duo finally did meet in 2011, they hit it off and frequently took foraging trips together in the Rockies. Then, in August of 2012, the pair established Hunt & Gather, a small company specializing in wild product. Today, the business is a larger beast, contracting with independent foragers across the country, supplying to about 80 restaurants, and expanding product offerings to include high-quality cultivated items as well.
We talked to Nick to discover the 10 things you need to know about him, Graham, Hunt & Gather, and eating wild:
1. Nick used to chef at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Sixteen in the Trump Tower.
Working under mushroom-fanatic and award-winning Chef Thomas Lents, Nick always had new seasonal wild mushrooms to work with. When Nick told Lents he wanted to move back to Denver to launch H&G, Lents encouraged him to find a way to source consistently high-quality wild products to gain an edge in the foraging industry. Consistent quality isn’t a hallmark of the industry; foragers tend to adopt a “take it or leave it” approach to doing business.
2. Picking favorite mushrooms is tough.
If Nick had to commit to one, it would probably be the blonde morel, hailing from the Midwest. For two to three months during the blonde morel season, the duo travels to the Midwest to search for the coveted mushroom. For Graham, his favorite varies from season to season, and, unsurprisingly, he also has a hard time picking a favorite. “It’s between porcinis, chanterelles, and morels, and they’re all good for different reasons,” Graham says. “If I had to pick one, I guess I’d pick chanterelles.”
3. Foraging for mushrooms is like storm chasing.
At the beginning of a season, they’ll position themselves centrally within the mushroom’s habitat. Then, they’ll head south until they realize that the season has moved north, operating according to leads and their expert knowledge of the trends and characteristics of each mushroom’s season. “It’s like storm chasing,” Nick says.
4. Foraging is no walk in the woods.
When you think of foraging, do you envision good times strolling through a beautiful forest with a little basket? It’s more like wake up before sunrise, get out into the woods by 7am and don’t come back until it’s dark. You’re working hard to glean as much as you can from the land, and while encountering other pickers is usually friendly business, it can sometimes turn ugly. “Hey, that’s where I pick,” another picker might complain. But if you’re not on private property, open space is fair game for all.
5. The opposite of foraging sustainably is being a Tasmanian devil.
While Nick doesn’t feel there’s call for concern yet about the supply of wild products, sustainable foraging practices are important. According to Nick, it’s about “respecting what the forest has to offer, and knowing what is and isn’t harvestable.” When a picker doesn’t respect the forest–trashing the environment, drinking beer and littering cans, and ripping everything out indiscriminately–he refers to them as a Tasmanian devil. H&G doesn’t hire Tasmanian devils.
“We need to be stewards of the environment so we can harvest for years to come,” Graham says. The continued availability of wild product depends on the preservation of our wild, open spaces. “Some of these ingredients are native to the U.S.,” Graham explains. “This is a unique opportunity to create food heritage here in Colorado. Instead of spraying weeds, we can use them–according to Graham, many of them are “quite delicious.”
6. H&G revolutionizes the industry by actually paying their pickers fairly.
When Nick and Graham first started finding people across America to forage for them, their prospective pickers were flabbergasted when they learned how much they intended to pay. Previously, many made, say, $4 per pound for a certain variety of mushrooms that were sold on the market for $30 per pound.
H&G pays pickers more like $15 per pound so that the folks in the fields get to share in more of the profits. As a result, employee retention improves, and so does business. “One of my Oregon foragers can literally harvest 100 pounds a day with his sons,” Nick says, “and everything is of quality.” He relies on his foragers, communicates with them daily, and respects what they do.
7. Nick and Graham still love getting out in the field.
When business first started, Nick and Graham did it all. Harvest all day. Leave the forest at 8:15pm. Come home. Sort and grade. Deliver to the restaurants first thing in the morning. Repeat. Now, while they still travel during peak seasons to forage, they spend more time managing the business, and contracting with more foragers to cover territory.
Graham does miss being out in the woods full time–after all, the appeal of being outdoors is what initially got him into foraging. He’s been hooked since he found his first porcini by a friend’s cabin near Grand Lake. “Sometimes it’s like the only thing I really want to do, even though there’s accounting and all those things that come with running a business,” he says.
8. H&G gives you wild, but they also give you “the highest quality anything.”
That’s the direction H&G is moving in. The chefs Nick and Graham work with appreciate the quality of their products so deeply, that they encouraged them to diversify. So while H&G will never sell bulk vegetables, and wild ‘shrooms will always be the backbone of business, they’re also adding unique, artisanal products to bring to chefs’ doors–“the highest quality anything,” as Graham puts it. Think cultivated mushrooms, local sheep’s cheese, fiddlehead ferns, wild gooseberries, and wild wood sorrel. “We just want to be purveyors of the best.”
10. You can find H&G’s goods all over town.
Start at Cholon or Cho77, one of the H&G’s biggest and earliest supporters, and where Nick used to chef. Chef Alex Seidel–of Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provisions–is also a big fan of H&G. Among the other 80 restaurants carrying H&G mushrooms, are Blackbelly, Spuntino, Frank Bonnano restaurants, Central Bistro + Bar, Vesta Dipping Grill, Jax Fish House, To the Wind Bistro, Beast + Bottle, Oak and Acorn–where Chef Amos Watts is “insanely crazy about wild mushrooms,” says Nick–and Red Square Bistro. You can also find H&G products at Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe and Marczyk Fine Foods.
Finally, if you want to go try your hand at foraging, Graham has a few pieces of advice:
- Determine whether it’s legal to forage in the area you have in mind. Removing anything–rocks, plants, etc.–from state parks is illegal in Colorado. In national forests, you usually need a permit, which you can acquire at a ranger’s station. Always know before you go.
- Triple check your plant or fungus identification. Otherwise, you might eat the wrong thing and poison yourself.
- Do your research. Learn more about foraging safely and sustainably. Check out the Telluride Mushroom Fest in August or the first annual Eagle Mushroom Fest–H&G will be at both! Or, reach out to the CO Mycological Society or Western Slope Fungophiles.
Happy wild mushroom eating and foraging!
By Maya Silver | Editor
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