They peek out of decay and dead places; alive, blush pink and demure as virgin fairies. They're craggy, gray, and ugly as rocks, but look again -- their hundreds of finger-like tendrils are shocking pink as sea coral.
Whispers of feathers threaten to blow apart, precarious as dandelion seeds. They nestle together, lemon-drop yellow, straight off of an anime screen. They're frightening, like something out of a Tim Burton movie.
They manifest as dead ringers for seashells, chickens, lampshades, trumpets, champagne coupes, Kentucky Derby Hats, sea urchins, genitalia, hoola hoops, and hedgehogs.
What else could we be talking about but mushrooms? Their variations are about as many and varied as strands of human DNA -- no two exactly alike.
On his website, the Gentleman Forager, otherwise known as Mike Kempenich, has included these words from Confucious:
"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."
We see it.
And who could argue with the stunning images that scatter across his screen, culled from Kempenich's many years in the field, hunting, cultivating, selling, cooking, and teaching wild mushrooms.
He was once a corporate recruiter but the economy tanked. Ever the gentleman, he puts it this way: "My boss gave me the opportunity to look for another opportunity."
So he spent a lot of time in the woods, soul-searching, like you do when your boss gives you such an "opportunity."
He was 42, what he calls his prime earning years, but he heard a calling that he was no longer to chase the almighty dollar. He would become rich in self-fulfillment instead. He turned to his lifelong love of the mushroom.
Why mushrooms -- and not, say, bananas?
"Well, they're intricate, a little like a snowflake -- no one is like another, and then there's the medicinal aspects -- studies come out all the time showing the health benefits in certain compounds of mushrooms -- and I think as humans we're all innately a little afraid of and fascinated by the mystery of them."
Local chefs jealously protect his name (guess the secret's out now). And for good reason -- his wild and cultivated mushrooms are the best specimens in all the land. He calls them "the most incredible, perfect, unusual, and high quality." Most ordinary mushrooms have been warehoused at least once, and then moved, and moved some more. But Kempenich calls his clients from the woods, and they'll be in hand within five to six hours of forage. In exchange, he can command up to 2.5 times the market rate for his specimens.
But don't get your wheels spinning about gold in them there hills.
"You're not going to get rich hunting mushrooms," he says plainly. He's not in it for the cash, and neither should you be. He's a certified instructor for the Minnesota Wild Mushroom Identification Certification Course, which means if you trust him -- instead of Joe Blow who thinks he just came across the mother load of Chicken of the Woods in his backyard -- you might just stay alive.
"Fortunately no one has ever been poisoned in a restaurant from eating wild mushrooms, but if people continue to buy off of uncertified sellers, its just a matter of time until that happens."
His clientele are some of the finest chefs in Minnesota, people like Alan Bergo of upcoming Salt Cellar who calls himself the "Forager Chef," with a veritable obsession with fungi.
They become obsessed, probably, because of the endless versatility.
"You have the fruitiness of a chantrelle, and the muskiness of a truffle, or the almost rubber ball nature of a button mushroom from the grocery store, and then the relative crunch of a lobster mushroom, which people are often surprised by. If you want to know how unique they are, just think about umami -- where else do you have a flavor element that's devoted to one thing?"
And if you think you don't like mushrooms, prepare to have him laugh you out of the kitchen.
"Would you say you don't like vegetables? All vegetables? I mean just because you don't like beans doesn't mean you don't like tomatoes. That's how varied mushrooms can be."
In addition to providing any chef who has the appropriate level of reverence with the good stuff, he's got other ways to "spread the gospel."
You, yourself may order online many (if not all) of the things that the finest Minnesota restaurants can order: hedgehogs, chantrelles, morels, porcinis, and even a $240 fresh Oregon black truffle if you've got the ching laying around.
But while these mushrooms are very fine to eat, the experience of hunting them cannot be overstated -- its what's kept Kempenich at it all these years.
"It's the kind of feeling you get when you do it. Very few things give me that feeling, regardless of how many times I do it."
He wants you to have that feeling, too. We're almost loathe to put the information out there for fear that his three-day weekend adventures will fill so fast we'll be edged out, but here goes.
Disclaimer: You may have to don a blindfold. It's to protect the identity of his super-secret hunting grounds, which he's naturally protective of. But once there, he and around 30 other game adventurers will set up camp, throw some edibles on the campfire, and happy hour among the trees and the chipmunks.
In the morning, a name chef -- next year it's going to be Cameron Borne, formerly chef de cuisine of Saffron -- cooks up an incredible breakfast and packs a lunch for the forage. "It's not your mom's bag lunch, either," he says enticingly.
Then, the hunt is on.
Back at basecamp in the evening, Chef cooks up the 'shrooms gathered from the day, along with other wild things like local fish and plants. Then! The bands strike up, right there in the woods! He says they've had up to six bands in a single night.
Needless to say, some folks are hungover in the morning, but the ones who aren't can trek back into the woods for a bit more foraging. The whole deal is a mere $250-$300, and it's the way certain local chefs and culinary glitterati clear their heads during mushroom season, so you might even get to bump shoulders and pitch your tent next to theirs.
If you're not ready to get quite that adventurous, there are also guided day tours, and Sunday BBQ tours. Check out the website for details and reserve your spot early as they fill fast.
He's also proprietor of the largest, all original photographic library of Minnesota mushrooms available anywhere -- go to his website for a sampling. Its terribly beautiful.
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