Into the wild world of foraged mushrooms
Chef hunts fresh fungi for upscale dishes
Christopher Coombs is crouched on his knees, jabbing his hand into a pile of tangled thorns. Coombs and I have trekked our DEET-covered bodies to one of his secret foraging locations in the woods - woods, I can only say, that are within Boston city limits - to find wild mushrooms.
And mushrooms are what Coombs finds, poking out from under these prickly twigs. To a foraging novice, they resemble crumpled dog ears. To Coombs, the boyish executive chef at the Back Bay’s upscale Deuxave restaurant, they are highly desirable black trumpets, which he can use in dishes like wild mushroom risotto and New York strip steak served with crispy wild mushrooms.
During the fall mushrooming season, which, around Boston, Coombs says, lasts roughly from Labor Day until the second week of October, Coombs spends up to four mornings each week foraging. Some days he finds nothing. Others, he finds up to 65 pounds. In the past two weeks, he’s pulled in around 200 pounds. He’s one of the few chefs in town - Daniel Bruce from the Boston Harbor Hotel is another - who forages for his own restaurant.
This would be less surprising if Coombs were a mild-mannered chef dishing out local food to hipsters at a Cambridge gastropub. But he’s a high-octane wunderkind, serving the fungi he’s cut from dirt in Boston to money managers who pile into his restaurant from valeted BMWs.
It’s a tension Coombs understands. “If I were to say on my menu ‘city-foraged mushrooms,’ the amount of people who would think that’s awesome is equal to the amount of people who would be afraid,’’ he says.
The next night, when I scoot into one of Deuxave’s sleek booths, I notice that “wild mushrooms’’ dot the menu like pepper scattered on a clean plate. Left off, however, is any mention of how they came to be there.
Not that anyone has anything to worry about, Coombs assures me - several times. The chef learned how to forage during a stint at the Inn at Little Washington, cradled in the fungal paradise of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. As an extra level of precaution, Coombs takes pictures of every mushroom he picks and texts them to the experts at Mikuni Wild Harvest, a company that provides Coombs mushrooms in the off-season.
The appeal of foraging isn’t related to saving money, though the figures are impressive. On our morning together, the chef rounds up 25 pounds of hen-of-the-woods and black trumpets in grocery bags, a haul which could cost about $400.
Foraging is relaxing, he says, “and when I come back into the kitchen with bags filled like these, it makes me happy, it makes my crew happy, and we channel that energy into our food.’’
But there’s also something about the hunt that appeals to a competitive guy like Coombs. While foraging can look very similar to a walk in the woods, to the forager, hunting for the perfect mushroom is a three-pronged war. There’s a battle against nature - decomposition, weather, camouflage; a battle against oneself - pick a wrong mushroom, and it might be your last; and a battle against other foragers - get there too late and you’ll get nothing at all.
Even after one trip out, I sense how the rush of finding a basketball-size ’shroom can turn a hobby into an addiction. When Coombs and I drive off after our three-hour forage, it takes less than 30 seconds for him to pull the car over to the side of the road, his eyes bulging. He thinks he’s spotted some matsutakes, mushrooms prized for their distinct, spicy aroma. He trots over. False alarm.
Much later, back at my desk, my phone vibrates with a text message. “Went back out after I dropped you off, found another 65 pounds!!!!’’