Morel Compass: Mikuni Wild Harvest

Morel Compass: Mikuni Wild Harvest

Mikuni Wild Harvest Morel

Tyler Gray emerges from the charred forest, a small, foldable knife tucked into his pocket, his face covered in black soot. He holds a basket full of finely rippled morel mushrooms—the offerings of a burnt landscape. Lean, stylish, and with a cheerful mop of curly hair, Gray is at home in these woods. He grew up in the spaces between the trees; this forest is where he learned his trade.

Gray is a professional forager, entrepreneur, and president of Mikuni Wild Harvest, a company providing for the North American culinary scene like no other. Founded in British Columbia and now based out of Seattle, Mikuni (meaning “beautiful forest,” the name born of two Japanese words combined) provides wild foods and other unique ingredients to restaurants and retail shops across the continent. When Masaharu Morimoto requires matsutake, Mario Batali wants truffles, or The French Laundry needs to replenish its supply of sustainably harvested wild salmon, they call on Gray and his team. Mikuni has managed to build an eclectic network that includes everyone from Michelin-star chefs in New York to transient foragers in the Pacific Northwest hinterland.

Mikuni Wild Harvest TylerMikuni’s rise from a small group of professional foragers to trans-national supplier began humbly, with little money and no precedent to look to for guidance. Gray started the company in 2001, when he partnered with Tim and Gord Weighill, brothers from Nakusp, British Columbia, who pioneered the export of sought-after matsutake mushrooms to Japan. This was a time when North America’s culinary community wasn’t yet clamoring for locally foraged ingredients, and before internationally famous chefs like René Redzepi were seeking out wild foods. Despite little demand from kitchens, Gray started by selling directly to chefs, showing up with his van full of foraged goods and highlighting their potential. As interest grew, the company expanded its inventory, turning over the task of foraging to others, and developing systems for scouting, sourcing, and distributing their products. Gray upgraded his van to a warehouse in Seattle, which today is filled with astonishing variety: wild ramps, finger limes, black garlic, green almonds, fresh porcini mushrooms, miner’s lettuce, and a vast array of other unusual ingredients. Mikuni has also expanded their offerings to include sustainable seafood and a line of specialty vinegars, maple syrups, and verjus under a brand called “Noble.”

Logistically, the Mikuni Wild Harvest team is tasked with managing what Gray calls “a ridiculous puzzle on a daily basis,” as they attempt to get products from often far-flung regions to market as soon as possible. Mikuni’s supplier is the natural world, an unaccommodating beast that demands constant flexibility and ingenuity when it comes to the company’s daily operations. The availability of foraged foods can change by the hour, with forces like rain and fire dictating what will grow, where it will crop up, and when. To navigate this requires strategy and skill, and Mikuni has a well-established place within a vast network of professional foragers, First Nations communities, and buyers with whom Gray and his partners have worked for decades. To be included within this fold isn’t just about one’s skill within the woods; it requires the nurturing of relationships with people who sometimes operate entirely off-the-grid. Since handshakes can stand in for contracts, and not everyone can be reached with a phone call, trust built and maintained over time has been hugely important to the company’s success.

While their business now spans the continent, Mikuni’s soul lies within the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Gray lives with his wife and two young children in Seattle, and grew up on the aptly named Sunshine Coast, a quiet community north of Vancouver, British Columbia that’s accessible only by ferry or float plane.

Early one spring morning, Gray graciously returns to the Sunshine Coast to take me foraging. Once off the ferry, we drive straight to his childhood home and pick up his mother Laurie, the person who introduced him to foraging as a small child. “It’s something we both loved—and still love—to do,” he explains in the truck, as she directs us down unmarked logging roads to where we’ll be searching for morels. Along the way, they point out various plants at the roadside available for eating, including white-flowered berries that look similar to blackberries. Laurie says they grow well in soil that’s been disturbed, and she picks buckets of them each year to turn into jam.

Mikuni Wild Harvest ForestAt a bend in the road we park the vehicle, then scramble up a steep hillside into somewhat alien terrain. Though the air is cool and fresh, and there’s the familiar trilling of birds, it doesn’t look like the west coast forests I’m used to. Damp greenery has been replaced by a black and rust-colored landscape, the pointed remains of trees shooting upward like spires. The forest floor is usually covered in moss, the kind that absorbs the sound of one’s arrival rather than announcing it. But here, there’s dryness underfoot, and the ground crunches as we walk.

We’ve come to this particular forest because a wildfire swept through it the year prior; and morels typically grow well in these areas, called “burns,” sprouting up through ground that’s become heavily carpeted with pine needles. The mushrooms are inconspicuous little symbols of renewal—a promise that life will return to what has been devastated.

Gray has an intimate understanding of this region, having spent countless days foraging (and sometimes becoming lost within) the verdant wilderness that blankets Oregon, Washington, and southwest British Columbia. Known informally as Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest is home to a plethora of wildlife that includes bears, wolves, and cougars, and is predominantly made up of coniferous-based old-growth forests. They run along the coast and up over mountain ranges, the dense green interrupted by the blue of lakes, streams, rivers, and cloudy hot springs. As a whole, they create an ecosystem that’s unique to the continent, with heavy rainfall supporting an abundance of wild foods. High and low, there are mushrooms, greens, berries, roots, vegetables, and wildflowers of all kinds to be found, some of them brazenly on display, while others are masterfully camouflaged.

Gray possesses the extraordinary amount of knowledge needed to forage well within these woods. He knows where, when, and what to look for; can identify potentially poisonous look-alikes; and understands how to treat the foraged goods once they’ve been harvested. This comes with years of experience and a finely trained eye, capable of seeing the seemingly invisible. Morels, in particular, do an exceptional job of blending in.

Mikuni wild harvest morel with knife

As we walk through the forest, many of its trees now charred, Gray explains how to look for morels. They tend to grow in burns that weren’t completely scorched, and in areas that are damp but not marshy. Once we’ve discovered our first patch—three mushrooms growing within a gnarly circle of roots—he lops them off at their bases. He points to other things we could collect for cooking, like young bracken fern tips and a hefty snail making its way along a branch. We continue deeper into the woods, Gray maneuvering easily through windfall and spotting morels with an efficiency that is dumbfounding. Squinting into the ashy landscape, I can barely spot the mushrooms he points out to me directly, and of the dozens we collect, I discover a grand total of four, one of which I happen upon when I trip over it.

After three or four hours, we emerge from the woods, hair full of twigs and skin covered in a fine layer of black dust. We head to a family friend’s home, where Gray plans to cook up some of the morels we’ve gathered. As we make our way back to the main road, he explains his ultimate vision for Mikuni Wild Harvest: to make wild foods more accessible to the masses. Gray is an innovator, flooded with ideas that marry both traditional and modern sensibilities when it comes to sourcing and distributing food. He speaks of the ways technology could be utilized to share stories from and about the land—the very thing he loves about foraging and wishes more people could experience. Gray envisions customers scanning barcodes on Mikuni’s packages, each connecting them to videos that show where that food comes from, how it’s harvested, and by whom. He is drawn to opportunities to connect consumers with the wilderness, especially those who live within starkly urban landscapes. With his work, it’s clear that Gray prefers to draw his own maps, rather than follow an established route.

Once at the home where we’ll be cooking, Gray pulls a cooler from his truck and carries it into the kitchen. Inside are more wild edibles, including fat porcini, garlicky green ramps, and wild spring chives.

Mikuni Wild Harvest foraged ingredients

As comfortable in the kitchen as he is in the woods, he wraps an apron around his waist and begins unloading the cooler onto the counter. In line with his foraging style, Gray is precise and efficient, toasting baguette slices before dropping a large pat of butter into a hot pan. He soon puts together a meaty wild mushroom ragu, filled with lacy slices of our morels and a generous pour of cream. He finishes it with a splash of Noble sherry vinegar and spoons it over the crostini.

It’s is a simple, elegant dish, one that pulls wild mushrooms — the windfall of erratic wildfires — into the refined world of French cuisine. With his career, Gray has, and continues to, innovate the ways in which the realms of the wilderness and kitchen can come together. There’s no telling what he’ll emerge from the forest with next.

Tyler Gray's Wild Mushroom Ragu

Serves 4
Recipe by Tyler Gray

Total Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 20 minutes

This classic ragu intensifies the flavor of wild mushrooms by glazing them in a sheen of and butter and cream, punctuated with a few aromatics. Though Taylor Gray uses morels, chanterelles, and porcini mushrooms, you can use any mushrooms you like. Verjus and sherry vinegar add a layer of acidity that actually amplifies the richness of this dish. You can find Noble Verjus and Noble Tonic 3: Maple Matured Sherry Bourbon Oak Vinegar available for purchase at mikuniwildharvest.com.

  • 3-4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 pound fresh wild mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 6 sprigs Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 wild ramps or thin shallots, white and green parts divided, minced
  • 2 tablespoons Noble Verjus (or white wine or dry cider)
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1-2 teaspoons Noble Tonic 3: Maple Matured Sherry Bourbon Oak Vinegar
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Salt

In a large frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil together over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, being careful not to crowd them, and sauté, only stirring occasionally, until they’re cooked through and golden brown in places, about 5-6 minutes total. If the pan becomes dry, add another tablespoon of butter.

Remove from the heat, and push the mushrooms to one side of the pan. Add another tablespoon each of butter and olive oil, as well as the shallots, parsley, and whites of the wild ramps. Return the pan to heat, stir, and let cook another 5 to 6 minutes.

Deglaze with the verjus, add the chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, and let reduce, stirring gently.

Once the stock has almost entirely evaporated, stir in the heavy cream, another tablespoon of butter, sherry vinegar, and the wild ramp greens. Cook for another moment, just until the cream coats the mushrooms and remove from heat. Season with more sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper if desired. Serve warm over crostini, pasta, gnocchi, or steak, garnishing with more ramp greens and/or wild spring onion flowers.

For more stories of culinary artisans, including lush, full-color photography, pick up an issue of our Spring ’17 issue, “Air.”

Photos by Lindsay Anderson

Lindsay Anderson is a Vancouver based food and travel writer who traveled across Canada, exploring Canadian food culture for her blog Feast: An Edible Road Trip, winner of a 2014 Saveur Best Food Blog Award. An account of these adventures appears in her first book, Feast: Recipes and Stories from a Canadian Road Trip, debuting Spring 2017.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *