In this food-crazy town, more and more chefs are looking for locally grown produce for their menus. Now they can get gourmet, specialty mushrooms grown in the heart of Chicago. Jay Shefsky went to check out Fruiting Mushrooms.
Belkacem El Metennani: My name is Belkacem El Metennani. I am from North Africa. My parents, my grandparents were all farmers. We lived in a big colonial house where we used to go foraging for mushrooms all the time.
Jay Shefsky: Belkacem’s love of mushrooms continues, but he’s not foraging anymore. Today, he is, as far as we know, Chicago’s only commercial grower of specialty mushrooms.
Now I love mushrooms, but aside from the occasional Portobello or shiitake, I generally use the standard grocery store variety.
And I certainly never gave much thought to how mushrooms grow. And I’ve never seen mushrooms like these.
Belkacem El Metennani spent years as a chef and restaurateur in Chicago. Now he grows–or “fruits,” as they call it–mushrooms in an old meatpacking plant.
El Metennani: This used to be a freezer, the old meatpacking freezer, so it's nicely insulated and it’s ideal for mushrooms so I can create the right environment for mushrooms to grow and flourish.
Shefsky: Each kind of mushroom requires a different temperature and humidity.
El Metennani: This is the room where I grow some lion's mane.
Shefsky: Lion's mane? That’s what it's called?
El Metennani: Yes.
Shefsky: The lion’s mane like it cool and damp: 55 degrees and 95 percent humidity–the oyster mushrooms do best at about 70 degrees and 85 percent humidity.
They grow out of these odd punching bag-looking cylinders.
Shefsky (to El Metennani): I had no idea that this was how mushrooms grew.
El Metennani: Well this is one way of growing the mushrooms–imitating nature, creating logs.
Shefsky: In the wild, oyster mushrooms usually grow on rotting logs.
Belkacem’s homemade logs create a comfortable environment for the mushrooms to fruit.
His business is called Fruiting Mushrooms, and it’s just one of some 15 food-related businesses in this old Back of the Yards building they now call The Plant.
Part of the goal of the building is zero waste–and Belkacem makes good use of other companies' leftovers in growing his mushrooms.
El Metennani: For instance we use spent grain from the brewery. We use coffee chaff from the coffee roastery. We use honey from the bee hives on the roof.
Shefsky: The mushrooms start as little bumps on the log. They call it pinning.
Shefsky (to El Metennani): How long did it take to grow this big?
El Metennani: About 72 hours
Shefsky: That's all???
El Metennani: Yep. Once it pins, within 48 hours, 72 hours it gets this big. Just give it humidity and it keeps growing.
Shefsky: Belkacem says growing his mushrooms in the city means he is close to his customers.
El Metennani: We are only a couple of miles away from the tables, from the greatest chefs around the country.
Shefsky: The short distance keeps his C02 footprint low, and the mushroom freshness high.
Shefsky (to El Metennani): Once you harvest it how soon does a restaurant get it?
El Metennani: Within half a day.
Shefsky: To my surprise, the oyster mushrooms and the lion’s mane are delicious to eat right off the log.
To me, mushrooms always have a kind of magical appearance, and none more than reishi mushrooms.
Shefsky (to El Metennani): Is it okay to eat these raw?
El Metennani: No they are hard to eat, they are very hard, they are like very wooden.
Shefsky: In fact, reishi mushrooms are generally used more for tea than cooking.
El Metennani: They drink them all day long as an immune system booster or for disease–cancer and all that stuff.
There is so many kinds of mushrooms and yet, we're still stuck with white buttons and portabellas. It's insane what we are missing out. We should be friends with them and eat them, yeah. Love them so much we eat them, right.
More on the story
Fruiting Mushrooms now offers mushroom growing classes on the third Saturday of each month. You can learn more about the classes here.
Video: How mushroom spores are spread.
Aug. 18: Meet an entrepreneur who is helping Chicagoans compost while growing his business–all by the seat of his bicycle.
Aug. 16: Tomatoes and salad greens that are served in upscale Chicago restaurants are grown in Ogle County, Illinois. We visit the source.
July 6: On the South Side of Chicago some local entrepreneurs are repurposing an old meatpacking plant in an effort to create something very unusual–a way of doing business that creates no trash.