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Evan Strusinski, a professional forager, supplies many of the city's top chefs, like Hugue Dufour of M. Wells Dinette, with wild mushrooms. We travelled to Maine to forage with Evan, then followed his mushrooms back to the kitchen at M. Wells, to discuss fall's wild fruits, and cook them, with Hugue.

It is autumn, in the forest. High above, beneath gray clouds, pale, papery, golden leaves bejewel the canopy. Shaken free by a gentle breeze that sends a great rustle through the woods, they drift, swirling gently down to the floor, to rest with countless others in a great crumbling carpet. There, in the altered time of nature’s slow plane, they are transformed into new, nourishing soil…if anything here can really be called new. Breathe it in – this is the intoxicating smell of our planet’s great fecundity, of decay begetting new life – the aroma of the great mystery of existence.

But all is not waning here. The forest still bears fruit. Yes, you can eat this place and this time, too. All around, as the trappings of life wither and fade before winter, mushrooms are in bloom, flush with the colors and flavors of the woods in fall. You just have to know where to look. This, it turns out, can be more complicated than it might sound.

In search of insight into the pursuit of mushrooms, we drive north, to meet forager Evan Strusinski, who spends the season in a permanent sprint across the vast forest floor of Maine, on the hunt for this most coveted facet of the fall harvest. At the end of each day, with his car’s trunk full of brimming baskets, Evan races to rendez-vous with the local Fed-Ex truck, to deposit his haul into a pipeline of transport that will race them south, delivering them to some of New York’s finest kitchens the following day.

Back home in the city, we visit with Hugue Dufour, a man in whom the soul of a hunter is fused with the mind of a chef, at his celebrated M. Wells Dinette, to cook some of Evan’s mushrooms – an act Hugue calls ‘my vengeance’ against the winds of fate that bind him to a stove in Long Island City while a piece of his heart pines endlessly for the northern woods.


 

From the field, in the forest of midcoast Maine with mushroom forager Evan Strusinski…

Carpets, rings and arcs of mushroom bloom across the forest floor of midcoast Maine in fall. Evan Strusinski makes his living finding them. Here, he holds up a winter chanterelle.

So Evan, mushrooms. Tell us about searching for and finding mushrooms, here in the forests of Maine.

One of the many things that I love about mushrooms is that they’re mercurial. They’ll surprise you again and again. Whenever you think you finally understand most of what there is to know about finding particular varieties of mushrooms, about where and when and how to find them, they’ll make you think again.

When you have a lot of experience looking for mushrooms, you start to recognize trends. You get a sense of the progression of the mushroom season, so you get better at making educated guesses about where you’ll find certain things, or when. But finding mushrooms is never as simple as finding the same things in the same places at the same time every year.

According to Evan, the black trumpet mushrooms from this area are particularly fragrant, floral and earthy.

It never becomes easy. Some years are better than others. Some years mushrooms will pop up in a place where you might expect them to, and in other years they’ll pop up in a place where you wouldn’t expect them to. One spot might be magnificent, prodigious, one year, and then completely barren for five years, ten years after that. The memory of the bounty of one spot in one season will provoke you to keep going back to that spot year after year, or multiple times in one season, in the hope that you’ll find something again. It can be like a mirage. You’re chasing after the past, in a way. Chasing that thing that was once there, hoping to find it, to experience that discovery, again.

When you’re returning to those spots where you’ve found things in the past, it’s not just about finding a mushroom there again. It’s about an experience that can resonate through the years. One time, I was looking for mushrooms with a friend of mine. We had been looking all day, and hadn’t found much. We decided to give up, although you never really give up – we decided we’d just stop looking so intently. We were just going to take a break, build a fire next to the water on the shore of a lake and cook something.

In France, black trumpet mushrooms are called the 'poor man's truffle' - they're prized for their notable earthiness.

Along the trail to that spot, we stumbled across one of the biggest mushrooms I’ve ever found. It was a hen of the woods that was almost knee-high, growing at the base of the stump of a fallen oak, just off the trail. So as soon as we gave up the intent of finding mushrooms, we found the biggest one we’d ever seen. And it was a great moment. A great day. Every year I go back to that same spot, not just because I want to find a mushroom like that, but because I want to be able to call that guy and say, “Guess what? It’s back! It finally came back.” That kind of thing is a real part of foraging for me. The thrill of discovery echoes through many years. But that mushroom has never returned to that spot. I check every year, and it has yet to come back.

Another time I was in a different forest and my girlfriend called me. I answered and she said, “Sandy Koufax is coming by the house this afternoon. I thought you’d want to know.” I love baseball. Sandy Koufax is one of the great, legendary players in the history of the game. He used to live not far from here. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, right in the middle of the baseball pennant race. I had been obsessed with baseball for weeks. My mind was reeling. I thought, “I’m going to meet Sandy Koufax!? He’s immortal! What do you say to Sandy Koufax!?” And right at that moment I realized I was staring straight at another beautiful hen of the woods. It was just there, right in front of me, in a beam of sunlight. So now I call that place the Sandy Koufax forest. The tree that produced that mushroom is the Sandy Koufax tree. Its mushroom is the Sandy Koufax mushroom. That mushroom comes back almost every year. So all these places, and the visits I make to them in search of mushrooms, are connected to moments and people and experiences.

A hen of the woods, or maitake, grows at the base of an oak. The appearance of hen of the woods is a harbinger of the season's end. They have a deep, earthy, gamey flavor that's cherished by many chefs.

So when you’re looking for mushrooms, do you mostly return to places where you’ve already found something in the past? Or are you always looking for new places? And if you do look for new places, how do you find them?

I have lists and lists of places that have produced the mushrooms I’m looking for, and lists of places that might produce, many of which I’m sure I’ll never even get to. There are many hundreds of places. And I’m always adding to those lists.

The color of a place is something I really look for. The color of a place can be a powerful indicator of a likely habitat for a particular type of mushroom. And by that I mean the sort of blur of color you’ll find in any given patch of woods based on the light, the trees and the undergrowth. I can be in my car, blowing through a stretch of unfamiliar forest on my way someplace, and I’ll catch a glimpse of a color and I’ll make a note to come back in the season to check it.

Different types of mushrooms grow in different types of places. Hen of the woods grow at the base of oak trees. Black trumpet mushrooms grow in mixed forest, in wetter, mossy places. Porcini like open, grassy places populated by big oaks with plenty of space between them. Matsutake seem to like disturbed areas like deer paths, on steep slopes of spruce or pine. When you first start out looking for mushrooms, you know nothing. As you gain some experience, you develop checklists – “OK this mushroom seems to like to grow in this kind of forest with these kinds of trees in this kind of weather.”

Evan has found hen of the woods up to three feet tall, weighing close to forty pounds.

With more and more experience you start to bypass those checklists. You start to notice patterns and absorb those patterns and you get to a point where you no longer have to literally think through the filters of types of trees or degree of slope or characteristics of the forest floor. You don’t have to articulate those things in your mind. After a while those patterns get distilled into colors. You just see the color of the place and you know. It’s second nature. You’re speeding along a road through a forest and you see a color and you pull over and start looking. That’s it. It sounds simple or intuitive, but it’s actually rooted in knowledge that’s been gained over years of study and experience. It makes it possible to be efficient, and I wouldn’t be able to forage for a living if I wasn’t able to be efficient about it.

So what’s a typical mushroom season like? And the day-to-day within the season?

Most of the mushrooms come in spring or fall. At the beginning of the spring or fall season, there’s a lot of anticipation. A lot of waiting. You’ll know it’s coming. You’ll go into the woods to check your spots, over and over. Waiting. Suddenly you’ll find one, then a few more, and within a few days, the forest will be exploding with mushrooms. At least that’s what you hope. [laughter.] Like I said, they are mercurial, and they do have a habit of defying expectations.

Evan looks for matsutake. Matsutake mushrooms tend to grow on disturbed portions of steep slopes in stands of spruce and pine. They are prized in Japan as the great symbol of fall, much as the cherry blossom is revered in spring.

When it starts, you’re exhilarated. You wait all year for this thing to arrive, but when it finally does, at the same time there’s a sense of sadness. All winter, when the forest is sleeping and nothing is up, I’m thinking about morels. Morels are one of the first sorts of treasures of spring. When I start finding them I feel a little bittersweet because even when I cut the very first one, I can already feel the end of the season. Each mushroom has its own season within the greater season, and sometimes they last only a week or two. So a lot of the pleasure in looking for mushrooms lies not in the actual finding – it’s the anticipation, the possibility of what could be found, that’s exciting.

But then again, it’s a lot of fun finding them too. [laughter.] Before it begins, I feel the potential of finding the things I want to find and that’s thrilling. When the mushrooms really start coming and you’re madly running into the woods and out of the woods and filling the trunk of the car with baskets and baskets of these beautiful, perfectly mature, edible mushrooms, it’s wonderful. It’s inspiring and revitalizing and all of those things, for sure.

These matsutake are not quite mature. Evan leaves them for another day. Chefs everywhere love the intensely complex flavor and aroma of the matsutake - they often have notes of cinnamon and spruce, alongside a deep earthiness.

You have to make choices throughout the season about which places to check for mushrooms, and when to check them. And you’re kind of taunted by all of those places you aren’t able to check. Even when I’m finding matsutake or hen of the woods, part of the pleasure of finding them lies in a kind of agony of knowing you’re not finding them somewhere else at that same moment. I know they’re growing in a bunch of places I probably do know about and in infinite places that I don’t, and it’s just impossible to check every spot.

Sometimes in those moments I like to think of where I am from high above, looking down at where I’m cutting a mushroom, probably in the woods a relatively short way from a road somewhere, and seeing all of those curves and undulations of the landscape as the forest stretches west to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and beyond to the Green Mountains of Vermont, and imagining all of the carpets and arcs and rings of mushrooms hidden in those folds…

Not all Evan's mushrooms are found in the forest. Here, he finds a large and perfectly mature chicken of the woods mushroom growing on the base of an oak alongside the road - an easy score.

How about best finds, or best moments? Any really memorable discoveries?

Countless. I used to keep a list, but it just kept getting bigger and bigger. There are many best moments within each season. Sometimes within a single day. But part of the whole nature of searching for mushrooms is that every completely exhilarating moment is balanced by a moment of equivalent despair.

I remember the first time I found matsutake mushrooms, when I was just starting to forage. I was beside myself. I had never found one before. I wasn’t even trying to find them. I was looking for porcini. There’s a real lore behind matsutake. I found them for the first time and filled a whole basket, and I was thrilled. I thought, “Now I’ve found them. I’m going to go back tomorrow and find more!” I went back to the same spot the next day and spent the whole day expanding my search outward from that point and didn’t find a single one. And I was totally deflated. So I went from complete elation to complete deflation in one day. And that happens all the time.

This area of midcoast Maine is particularly rich in mushrooms due to its richly varied topography and diverse range of forest.

Then there were morels. Early on, I’d find them, but I’d never found a lot of them at once. It was like a tease. I’d find them here or there in small patches, or just alone. I had found them, but I felt like I hadn’t found them. One spring day, a friend of mine and I were looking for mushrooms. We were at the edge of an apple orchard, near a dirt road in Vermont. The trees were in bloom. And all of a sudden we froze. We both realized at the same moment that we were standing in the middle of two huge interlocking rings of morels. We just became aware of that sandy blonde color of the morels popping out of the lush bright green spring grass everywhere. We were ecstatic. We were literally jumping up and down. It was ridiculous, actually. [laughter.]

I remember the first time I found a giant carpet of chanterelle. Like with the morels, I had found them before here and there, but not in great quantities. There was a forest right next to the place where I was living. I didn’t really know the forest. I would just walk through, looking for mushrooms, finding almost nothing. One day, I was walking through the forest and just stopped. Suddenly, they were everywhere, growing in these long arcs and circles, in huge numbers, as far as the eye could see. I later came to understand that that was a very special forest. I had a lot of amazing finds there, but it’s gone. One year I went back and the whole thing had been cut down. It was pretty heartbreaking because it was a special place. Day after day, week after week, year after year, it would give me baskets and baskets of mushrooms, and then it was gone.

A day's work. Porcinis, chicken of the woods, and hen of the woods fill baskets in Evan's trunk.

I could go on and on, but the last one I’ll tell you about involved matsutake again. I’d been looking for mushrooms all day. Dusk was falling, and I stopped at a spot I’d been watching for matsutake. It was about a mile into the woods from the road. It was getting dark. It was a really nice soft piney path. And I found a matsutake, then another, and another. I looked up and suddenly I could see them popping up like lights all along the trail. I didn’t have a basket, so I tied up my shirt and started filling it with mushrooms. As I was doing this the moon came up, and I looked up at one point and literally saw the forest floor all around me littered with the white heads of matsutake glowing in the moonlight. I filled up my shirt, then I took off my pants and tied off the legs at the cuff and filled them. Then I kept picking more and hiding little piles of them behind trees along the path. I came back the next day for them. I got about seventy pounds of matsutake from that one flush.

Walking around in the woods right now, it’s remarkable to see that there are mushrooms everywhere. How many species of mushrooms are there in a forest like this? And how many of those would be edible? Approximately, of course…

In a forest like this, with a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, and not a whole lot of undergrowth at this time of year, you could probably find about forty different species of mushrooms. Most of those would technically be edible. You might find six or seven that are very, very good to eat.

At home, the mushrooms are sorted, weighed and packaged for shipment to chefs in New York City.

What makes this place, this big area of forest along mid-coast Maine, special? What makes it a good place to find mushrooms?

What makes this part of Maine a particularly good landscape for mushrooms is that it has a lot of variety. Different mushrooms grow in different types of places. Here you have both evergreen forest and deciduous forest. Evergreens grow in more acidic soil. Deciduous in less acidic. Some mushrooms like acidic soil. Some like less acidic. You have hills and mountains and lakes, and ocean. So there’s a big variety of types of habitat and landscapes, and a wide variety of trees. That allows a pretty wide variety of mushrooms to thrive.

Of course, I’m not the only one who knows that. There are plenty of people around here who like looking for mushrooms. I happen to be one of them and I like to harvest as many as I can and get them as quickly as I can to people who I know really appreciate them. Looking for mushrooms is becoming more popular all the time. As someone who does it for a living, I think the more interest there is and the more appreciation there is for wild mushrooms, the better.

Evan usually finds himself in a race to finish the day's work in time to rendez-vous with the area's Fed-Ex truck, to ship the day's orders overnight to the city.

That said, people sometimes can’t help feeling a little territorial about places they might think of as ‘their’ spot. Myself included, at times. [laughter.] One time, I was on my way to work at a restaurant where I was a server. I was driving past a stretch of forest that I knew was full of maturing chanterelle. I’d been scouting it out for a few days, and watching and waiting and getting ready to go harvest there when the mushrooms were perfect. As I passed, I saw a car pulled over, and a couple getting out of it with baskets. As soon as I saw the baskets I knew they were going to pick mushrooms.

I was late for work as it was, but I couldn’t give up all those chanterelles. I pulled over, jumped out of the car, and ran past them, blazing into the woods with a knife in my hand, and as soon as I got to the mushrooms I started gathering them. When they saw me run past, they started running too. We were running together, collecting mushrooms in a frenzy from opposite sides of the path while muttering unpleasant things at each other. Eventually the woman and the guy decided to split up. He stayed back gathering chanterelles with me and she ran ahead.

I wasn’t going to give up. I knew there was a giant chicken mushroom ahead. I shouted, “Do not pick that chicken of the woods growing on the stump up there! It’s mine! I’ve been waiting for it to mature all week!”

She shouted back, “Fine! Keep it! It’s too old anyway!”

For Evan, it's not just about finding mushrooms. He's been foraging here for years, and the woods are full of memories.

When I got up there a few minutes later, she had taken the part that was perfect and kept picking. They ended up getting a lot more mushrooms than I did, but I felt satisfied that at least they hadn’t gotten all of ‘my’ mushrooms. [laughter.]

There are a lot of places I could go where there would be far fewer people looking for mushrooms, but then I wouldn’t have the experience of going back to these many places in the forest that have become intimate places, where I’ve had these shared experiences with friends or found things on my own. That matters to me. There are many spots like that and many experiences and memories. Beautiful days, rainy days, cold days, hot days, days with this person or that person, finding this mushroom for this person or that mushroom for that person. All of the forest and all of its places are just thick with memories.


 

… To the fork, with Hugue Dufour, in the kitchen at M. Wells Dinette in Long Island City

Hugue grew up in the woods of northern Quebec. To him, nothing evokes the feel and flavor of the forest in fall better than wild mushrooms. He's been working with Evan since the spring.

So Hugue, mushrooms. Talk to us about mushrooms. What do you like about Evan’s mushrooms, foraged from the forest floor?

You know, I grew up like six hours north of Montreal, in the middle of nowhere. I’m a big fan of game and stuff like that. I like to hunt, to be in the woods, hunting for wild game in the autumn. And mushrooms remind me of that. They are wild, and they grow in the forest, in those kinds of places where you hunt, and at that same time of year.

And the flavors. You can find all kinds of flavors in mushrooms – in wild mushrooms, good wild mushrooms. There is nothing like them, really. For me, they are something you don’t have to improve. You don’t have to season them or put spices with mushrooms like that. When you have beautiful mushrooms you take them for what they are, for the taste that they have already in them. And it’s pretty impressive – they can taste like anise sometimes, like so many things. It’s an incredible array of flavors, with mushrooms.

They just grow overnight on the ground of the forest in the fall when everything around them is kind of dying, you know? And all of a sudden one morning you find them there and it’s just beautiful. So like any kind of wild game, mushrooms are things of the forest, of the wild, not cultivated, you know? I like that.

Mushrooms are very versatile as well. There are many things you can do with mushrooms. It’s never ending, really. I used to make nougat with mushrooms. We candied them and made nougat and it was beautiful. We had chanterelle, the little orange ones, and we would pickle them in syrup and serve them with a cake. And raw? Oh, the matsutake are beautiful shaved and raw. Oh my god. You can make a really nice salad with that.

Hugue holds court in the kitchen at M. Wells Dinette, which for a noted New York restaurant, has an uncommonly convivial vibe.

I’ve done so many things with mushrooms. You know what we would do back when we had the Diner? I would get all sorts of porcinis. Rotten porcinis. I would say, “Bring them to me when they’re rotten with worms!” And we’d make a kind of dough. The recipe would call for like eighty pounds of porcinis, like five gallons of red wine, a gallon of shallots, a gallon of peeled garlic, a hay bale worth of thyme. We’d cook it for three days. Slowly, slowly, slowly. It would get really slimy, and then start to dry out. It was pretty incredible – one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever done. [laughter.] I’m serious! Even the little worms would cook for like three days until they tasted just like the mushrooms. We were making a hamburger with that, for a special. A foie gras hamburger with those mushrooms, you know? It was a good hamburger, I tell you.

So tell us about this dish. What are you making today with Evan’s mushrooms?

Well, it’s nice outside today. It’s the middle of the afternoon, around the time for brunch. Autumn is in the air. So, I think I am going to do a mushroom French toast. It’s fairly new to me, this dish. I don’t know if I’ve ever done this one just this way before. But with good, beautiful mushrooms like these, it’s very easy to do whatever. I think I’ll do a nice, savory French toast, made with the drippings from meat, with sautéed mushrooms and some poached eggs. It just makes sense, non?

For the toast, we’re just gonna use this country bread from Balthazar. It’s really pretty good bread. Something we always used to do in Montreal, at Au Pied de Cochon, was we had a tray, under the cooling rack for all of the pieces of meat we would cook, and we would fill it with old bread, stale bread. You always have some blood that will settle out of the meat while it rests, and that is the best stuff you can have to cook with. The best.

So all the meat we would cook would just drip all night over the bread like that. The day after, we would use that bread to make some kind of savory French toast and it was always delicious. Today, I’m going to do the same thing, but I’m going to cheat a little bit. I’m going to use some meat stock that we made and one egg for the bread and then just put that in the pan to toast.

And then, yeah – the mushrooms! Just sauté. They’re beautiful mushrooms. Hen of the woods, chicken mushrooms, black trumpet, these little chanterelles…It would be a sacrilege to do anything else, even to blend them to make a soup or something, even if it would be good. Sometimes you don’t think of mushrooms as being colorful, but look at these. They’re beautiful. Yellow and orange and red and brown…it’s like the forest in fall. If you find a patch of chanterelle in the woods? It’s surreal. It’s extra-terrestrial sometimes, how beautiful it is. It makes sense to just sauté like this because you can see them, see their colors, feel their texture.

Hugue calls having someone like Evan to work with 'invaluable,' because of the diversity and quality of hard-to-find wild ingredients he's able to add to the kitchen's palette.

While we sauté them, I’m going to deglaze them with a nice veal stock we happen to have, and then emulsify with this leftover butter from the escargot we are serving, so it makes a quick sauce. It’s a compound butter with tomato, a little pastis, shallots, chives, black pepper, lemon…all sorts of things. It’s gonna be really nice with the mushrooms. Really nice. So when they are done, we put them on the French toast. Then we take these poached eggs and put them on the mushrooms.

At the end, I put some wild, fresh, juniper berries that are pickled in a sauce of vinegar. You should always have a little vinegar at the end. Always. At least when it makes sense. And the last thing, we shave a little bit of the Tete de Moine with the girolle. It’s a beautiful cheese, like a very strong kind of Swiss mountain cheese. When you shave it like this, it’s very beautiful.

It’s a very simple dish, but very earthy, very meaty, very autumnal. That’s what it’s all about for me. For me, that’s the best kind of food. I’m a hunter. At this time of year, I want to be out in the woods, with my rifle. I love to just smell the forest in the fall, you know? That’s where I want to be. But now I’m stuck here with this new restaurant. I cannot go out, and it sucks. This kind of dish? It’s my vengeance. [laughter.]

How did you end up working with Evan?

He sent an email to Sarah, my wife, one day. He said he had mushrooms. She told him to come by sometime. He came here with his car a little while later. We were dining at Tournesol, over there on the Boulevard. He called Sarah. He said he was in the neighborhood. He came to meet us at the restaurant. His trunk was full of morels, the first mushrooms of the spring. Really full of them – big baskets of them. It was impressive. The stuff was really good. He ended up dining with us, and we got totally wasted. It was beautiful. I took everything he had.

The restaurant is housed in MoMA's PS 1 outpost in Long Island City. The dining room is set up cafeteria-style, in a nod to the building's former life as a public school.

After that he would just call us and say, “Look, I’ve got this thing, and that thing, and some other thing that I think you will like.” He finds a lot of things – not just mushrooms. When it wasn’t mushrooms, usually I didn’t know anything about these other things he was picking. So I just said, “Just send me everything.” With Evan, that’s always how it is. I always say, “Just send me everything. We will find something to do with it.” That’s the way I like to deal. I like to have too much shit and then have to figure it all out. That’s how I like to cook.

It’s an incredible thing to work with a forager like Evan. I’m from Quebec. America is pretty big. Pretty huge, actually. I don’t know too much about it. Evan is in Maine, in Vermont. I don’t know those places. He does. He goes into the woods and finds all of these things I’ve never heard about. Things that grow in the forest. Things that are delicious, amazing. This guy knows everything about the forest.

In America today it’s kind of strange. If you have a restaurant and you work with a big distributor, it’s like there are only three different things you can eat here. If you want meat, it’s chicken, beef or pork. Vegetables? It’s what? Corn? Potato? We wanted to serve horse and everybody flipped out. I didn’t think it would be that way. In America, it’s so diverse. You have people from all over the world who come here. They bring their cuisine here. The world is a pretty huge place. There are all kinds of animals out there, hundreds, thousands of them, and people eat them. There are so many things growing, all over the world. So I was kind of surprised at how much everyone just eats the same couple of things all the time over here. I don’t really understand why it’s that way, you know?

So to have someone like Evan that you can work with? It’s invaluable. Evan finds all kinds of these wild, beautiful things that you can’t get any other way, from anybody else. I like to cook with things like that. If you have only a few things to cook with, it’s gets very boring, you know? To have someone with that much knowledge and experience out in the woods that you can work with is very rare. Sometimes you work with someone like that and they burn out and stop doing it. It’s really heartbreaking when that happens. Evan told me recently, “It’s done for this year. I’m done. There’s nothing left out there. I’ll see you in the spring.” And then like one week later he sends this huge box of mushrooms! [laughter.]

Hugue's 'simple' savory French toast: bread dipped in a meaty stock and egg wash, toasted in a pan, topped with mushrooms from Evan sautéed in a compound butter with tomato, pastis, shallots, chives, black pepper, and lemon, and deglazed with veal stock, topped with poached egg, pickled wild juniper berries, and a bit of Tête de Moine cheese, shaved on the girolle.

So Hugue, how did you end up doing this? Cooking?

Oh god. Like I said I grew up in Quebec, six hours north of Montreal, in a place where I would never have imagined that anyone spoke anything other than French. I grew up on a dairy farm. I always wanted to cook. We had nothing up there – just one Greek restaurant in the whole town. It was awful. So we would always cook at home. I guess that’s why I ended up cooking.

Eventually I moved to Montreal. It took me a while to be accepted into culinary school, and then they kicked me out. But it was ok, because I ended up working with this guy Norman Laprise at a place called Toqué. It was really wild. I was working with a lot of mushrooms. Working a lot with local growers and stuff like that. That wasn’t really happening here in the States back then. It was really insane. That really changed me a lot. About five years later I started working at Au Pied du Cochon. I was there for ten years. We did some really wild stuff there too.

A few years ago I met Sarah, in Orlando, at a film festival of all places. It was Orlando – we had nothing to do! So we fell in love. I decided to move down here, to do something different. I didn’t want to do a restaurant. I was done. What I wanted to do was to have a general store where I could sell pelts and furs and toys for kids, maybe have a little butcher counter in the back. You know, that kind of little place. Because there was nothing like that here in New York. There’s a friend of mine in Montreal who has a kitchen store. They sell all the things for cooking, and they sell guns in the back. You have hunters and they come in and they buy a pan to cook with and a box of cartridges. It’s beautiful.

That’s what I wanted to do. But we were living right across the street from this diner here in Long Island City. Every morning when I was having coffee I would look out the window at it. It was just sitting there, kind of like staring back, waiting for us to do something. So of course, we had to just get the space and of course then we fell right back into the restaurant business because it wasn’t a proper space for a general store.

Someday, Hugue says, he'd like to open a restaurant on an island reachable only by canoe, or in a snowmobile cabin deep in the woods.

We really wanted it to be simple, making grapefruit in the morning. I always hated breakfast, but there I was, making breakfast, flipping eggs. And Americans are picky with their eggs! I had no idea about this! When you make breakfast in America, you are a slave! Everyone wants everything just a certain way. Omelette made with just the whites, eggs sunny side up, scrambled, over easy, poached. Lightly toasted bread! They tell you how to toast the bread! You call your restaurant a diner, so you have to say yes. It’s never ending.

But slowly the people started to trust us. We progressively did more and more. We did what we wanted to do, and soon we ended up full throttle, really cooking, you know? And it was good. It was just the people from the neighborhood at first, and we were cooking the way we like to cook and people liked it.

Then all of a sudden one day, everything changed. I was at home. My family was visiting. In the morning I walked over to the diner and there were people everywhere, all around the place. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” I thought, “There must be a fire or something! Something is happening!” I pushed my way through the people saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” to open the door.

I got inside. Everything seemed ok. I called Sarah at home. I was like, “What’s happening? Is something wrong? There are people everywhere! They are surrounding the diner!”

It turned out that the New York Times had written a thing including us on a list of ten restaurants worth flying on an airplane to visit. When we opened, all the people came in, showing me this story in the New York Times. Pointing at it, saying, “Look. This is you!” That’s how I found out. They don’t tell you before they drop a bomb like that, you know? After that there were just more and more stories, more and more people. It’s very strange, for something like that to happen.

And then, you know, it was too many people. Big lines of people, waiting. I never wanted to have a restaurant with lines. I hate to wait in lines, myself. I always thought it would be great to have a place with no lines, that nobody ever comes to. Sometimes I think I would like to have a restaurant on an island in a lake in the middle of a forest. Someplace people have to take a canoe to get to. A canoe they have to paddle themselves! I think that would be great. That’s the kind of place I would like to have.

Or, another one I think about a lot – When I was a kid, my dad, he loved snowmobiling. They had these huts way, way out in the woods for snowmobilers where you could stop to warm up, dry out your snowsuit, have some soup, a glass of cognac, before getting back on your snowmobile. I always thought it would be great to have a restaurant in a place like that. Who knows? Maybe someday it will happen. [laughter.]


 

When he’s not busy finding mushrooms for some of New York’s finest chefs, Evan Strusinsiki holds foraging wokshops for individuals and groups. Contact him foragemaine@gmail.com for more information.

M. Wells Dinette is located at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th St. in Long Island City, Queens. The restaurant is open Thursday, Friday and Monday from noon to 6pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm.

Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Field to Fork: Mushrooms, Gathered From Maine’s Forest Floor, Fuel A Vengeance You Can Eat At M. Wells Dinette

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