Better Life Thru Fungi

bilet1Last night I had dinner at a very cool space in Seattle called Art for Food, the creation of Maxime Bilet. Bilet is the indefatigable chef, artist, and co-author of Modernist Cuisine (with Nathan Myhrvold), the massive, multi-volume paean to innovative kitchen alchemy. Art for Food is his new 5,600-square-foot storefront on Western Avenue combining test kitchen, art gallery, performance space, retail shop, and a generally groovy hangout spot. Clearly Bilet has a lot of ideas about food and art and education, and his demeanor is laid back and approachable.

Back to the meal. On this night, Bilet was teaming up with New York (by way of India) chef Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti and Mehtaphor restaurants. Their theme: The Magic of Mycology. So you see why I was intrigued.

Bilet and Mehta both talked about their commitment to food policy issues and child nutrition education. When Mehta introduced himself, he said that one of his goals as a restaurateur was to not waste anything, whether making stocks from peelings or finding creative uses for leftovers, explaining that in India this is standard practice. I find it sad that here in the U.S. we’re still trying to grasp this concept. The idea for the mushroom dinner was to showcase how fungi can be both artfully incorporated into a meal and also used as a meat substitute, or at least partial substitute.

One of the courses was a little hamburger slider that was 30 percent fungi. Like all the food, it was delicious. There was a phở appetizer that relied on a savory mushroom broth rather than the typical beef broth. Another dish paired what some might consider a miserly portion of sea scallop singleton with king oyster mushroom medallions; the cultivated fungi bulked up the dish and perfectly accented the wild seafood. A butter-smooth poached Chinook salmon was bathed in enoki butter, peavines, and green garbanzo beans, with tiny pickled mushrooms adding a burst of earthy flavor.

I happened to be seated next to my friend John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant, one of Seattle’s early fungal adopters and an all-around fan of wild foods, and we both agreed the use of a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms added depth and complexity to the meal while also demonstrating the possibilities for fungi to take the pressure off less sustainable foods.

Bilet and Mehta strike me as intensely curious by temperament. Let’s hope their curiosity continues to lead them in creative new directions to bring fungi to the people.

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