Somewhere in the woods of Oklahoma, mushroom expert Graham Steinruck has uncovered another trove of blonde morels, which he’ll sort and then ship back to Denver. That’s where his business partner, Nick Martinez, uses his restaurant connections to find buyers for these Midwestern delicacies, along with other foraged mushrooms and greens that they sell through their produce company, Hunt & Gather Wildcrafted Foods.
There’s more than one kind of morel, Martinez points out: the blondes, sometimes called yellow or cream morels depending on the intensity of their color, generally come earlier in the season, especially in warmer regions. These are considered “natural” morels as opposed to “burn” morels, which grow in areas that have experienced recent forest fires. Depending on the part of the country and time of year, morels of different species and colors (gray or black) are available to those who know where to look. No matter the color or season, though, none of these morels are cultivated. Techniques for growing the finicky mushroom have only recently been developed, and the process is costly and labor-intensive; cultivated morels sell for more than $60 a pound, compared to about half that for high-quality foraged morels.
Steinruck and Martinez started Hunt & Gather almost two years ago, after mulling the idea over for years. They met through the Colorado Mycological Association, where Steinruck was an active member and respected amateur mycologist who’d served as vice president of the group and editor of its newsletter. More than just a hobbyist, Steinruck had already translated his knowledge and experience into a professional career: Before Hunt & Gather, he ran Mycotours (offering clients foraging experiences in Colorado and beyond) and had developed techniques for forest-floor remediation to help restore ecosystems that benefit wild mushrooms. Over the past decade, he has also worked as a private chef for restaurants and catering companies.
Martinez had joined the Colorado Mycological Association hoping to learn more about mushroom foraging, an activity that matched well with his work as a professional chef and his interest in introducing more native foods to Colorado menus. He was immediately steered toward Steinruck by other members because they were two of the youngest (by far) in the group and because they both cooked professionally. “Everyone kept saying, ‘There’s this guy you’ve gotta meet named Graham,’” Martinez remembers, “and at the same time, they were telling Graham about me.”
Martinez had been cooking professionally for most of his adult life, but he wasn’t passionate about it initially, considering it more of a way to make money. At a certain point, though, he realized that he needed to get serious about a career and so began learning the craft in earnest. He dedicated a year to working in as many kitchens as he could, staging for three days here or staying on for three months there. “I started working at Mizuna, and Frank [Bonanno] would have me fill in at different jobs at all his restaurants,” explains Martinez. “And I worked at Venue with James Rugile.”
It was when he signed on at Lucy (the restaurant above Comedy Works South) and met chef Jeff Stoneking that things really clicked. “At that moment, I realized I could cook for a living and could take pride in it,” he notes. He considers Stoneking a mentor and one of his greatest influences; after Lucy, Martinez worked with him at ChoLon for two and a half years.
That’s when he and Steinruck began foraging together. “We had always talked about Hunt & Gather,” Martinez recalls. “Graham knew the foragers and was really good at foraging, and I had the restaurant connections.” But although they were already concocting plans for what would eventually become their business, Martinez was still looking to take his cooking career to the next level. The urge to test his skills in a new market proved too strong, so he packed up and moved to Chicago with his wife, her father, a dog and two cats. He had no apartment or job lined up, just a strong notion that he wanted to work at Sixteen restaurant, where chef Thomas Lents, who had risen to fame at Joël Robuchon’s Las Vegas restaurants, had just been hired.
“Foraging for black morels was the last thing I did before moving to Chicago,” he recalls. He and Steinruck found a patch and took their harvest back to Martinez’s apartment, where the one thing not packed was a sauté pan. The next morning, Martinez hit the road for Illinois, where a friend had promised to put the group up until they could find their own place.
Getting in at Sixteen wasn’t easy, but he persisted and eventually landed a job; he stayed for a year before deciding to return to Denver. The opportunity to learn about high-end cuisine and service were worth the year, Martinez says, adding that the most important thing he learned was “how to tie the guest emotionally to the dish.”
Back in Denver, Martinez and Steinruck got serious about launching Hunt & Gather. At first it was just the two of them, foraging by day, making long drives back at night, then sorting and grading their mushrooms in order to hit restaurants early in the morning to sell the product. “In the beginning we had to bang on a lot of doors — they weren’t taking us seriously,” Martinez explains. “But some of them got it right away.” Early customers included Fruition, where the two took a cooler full of porcinis harvested from a high-altitude spot where the mushrooms were still sprouting and free of worms. “[Chef de cuisine] Matt Vawter saw them and said, ‘I didn’t even know they were still in season,’ and bought everything we had.”
Other early clients included Frasca, ChoLon, Acorn and Vesta. “They’re always so amped about our stuff,” Martinez says.
Hunt & Gather now counts about fifty restaurants in Denver and Boulder as regular customers that purchase foraged produce at least once a week, with another eighty or so that turn to the company for special events and guest-chef dinners. Steinruck is still regularly out in the field — not so much for manual labor as to scout locations, check the quality of what’s coming up at any time and maintain connections with professional foragers, paid by Hunt & Gather to maintain a steady supply almost year-round.
“Other people say, ‘It’s a wild product, so we can’t control the quality,’ but it should be even higher quality,” Martinez insists, “because this stuff isn’t cheap.” Higher quality means sorting and grading first, then weighing the mushrooms just before delivery, because picked mushrooms lose water weight quickly, he notes, and they don’t want to charge customers for five pounds of mushrooms when the delivery only yields four pounds.
Hunt & Gather’s business model is built on sustainability and working with professional foragers. “We pay a higher price per pound to build a stronger relationship and make it sustainable,” Martinez says. The company works with about fifty or sixty foragers nationally. “Some of them have very free lifestyles or live off the grid,” he adds. “The people we work with, they take themselves very seriously. This is what they identify as. During matsutake season, some guys make $5,000 a week.”
And not only do Martinez and Steinruck rely on connections with foragers, but they’re also at the mercy of nature. “Last season was a horrible porcini season, but it was good for burn morels,” Martinez explains. “One frost comes, and it can wipe out an entire mushroom season.”
Because of that, Hunt & Gather has branched out from mushrooms. While 80 percent of the company’s product is still morels, porcinis, matsutakes, Oregon white truffles in the colder months and other fungi, spring and summer bring wood sorrel, stinging nettle, miner’s lettuce, watercress, fiddlehead ferns and wild onion and garlic, among other offerings. Wild-harvested black walnuts, dried candy caps and king porcini mushrooms, along with frozen wild berries and truffles, keep business going through the winter. Recently, the partners added a few cultivated products to the lineup because of the demand for specialty items such as bergamot oranges and Meyer lemons.
While at Sixteen, Martinez learned about the Santa Monica farmers’ markets because the restaurant had a buyer who would send regular shipments of fresh produce that couldn’t be obtained in Illinois. Now he maintains relationships with organic farmers in California and sources Meyer lemons and jujubes from Fairview Orchards. The owner there only ships fruit that has been handpicked ripe from the tree rather than using the typical method of mechanically shaking every fruit, ripe or unripe, from the branches.
“Looking at the dining scene in Denver and how it’s progressing, we want to be there when a chef is looking for something,” says Martinez. “People are moving here from cities with dining scenes — chefs and customers.”
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Martinez and Steinruck still love to cook and have been running Boomtown, a pop-up restaurant that they try to stage every three to four months. “I’m having the hardest time planning the next Boomtown,” Martinez admits, because the foraging business has grown so quickly. Menu planning usually takes them about three weeks, and they like to incorporate as many foraged products and other Colorado ingredients into the menus as possible. The dinners are small, with only a dozen or so guests, but always include ten dishes paired with cocktails from bartender Stuart Jensen of Mercantile Dining & Provision. “The menu progression takes you through a Colorado story line,” Martinez explains. At a recent event, a dish called “Panning for Gold” featured Colorado trout, porcini consommé, root vegetables pared and cooked to resemble river rocks, and a cocktail sparkling with gold flakes.
Martinez misses being in the kitchen on a daily basis: “I have withdrawals. Those twelve- to sixteen-hour days, six days a week — that’s what your mindset is. But I love every aspect of this, and the quality of life is much better,” he adds, pointing to the boxes of mushrooms and tubs of greens stacked on walk-in shelves at Project Angel Heart, where Hunt & Gather is based. “We would not be where we are without their support,” he says of the nonprofit organization that provides meals for patients living with life-threatening illnesses. In exchange for a few shelves in a walk-in cooler and a prep table for sorting and weighing produce, Hunt & Gather provides items for Project Angel Heart’s silent auction at the annual Taste for Life event as well as product and setup for special fundraiser dinners put on by the organization.
Back in Oklahoma, blonde morel season is winding down, but hundreds of pounds of the spongy mushrooms are stacked in twenty-pound boxes, awaiting the moment when they’ll add their earthy, meaty flavor to dinner plates at some of this city’s top restaurants. For Denver diners, obtaining the rare treasures is simply a matter of pointing at the menu and brandishing a credit card — but for Steinruck and Martinez, that final plating is the end of a long journey.