Forest to Fork and a Call for Wild Food
Mike Kempenich, the Gentleman Forager and founder of Forest to Fork is a self proclaimed maverick and fungi steward. Several years ago he took a risk to pursue a passion for fungi and wild food when an employer “gave him the opportunity”, aka let him go. It was an unlikely choice after spending 17 years in the corporate world that left many of friends and family questioning his sanity. Mike endured with fortitude and passion the judgement of others. After years of being a great employee, he was ready take the hero's journey and in the words of Joseph Campbell “follow his bliss”. Growing up he was surrounded by the woods instilling in him a love of nature. In addition, the time he spent serving both in the military and as a recruiter provided Mike with an unconventional life education that laid the foundation for what was to come.
After humble beginnings cultivating mushrooms in friends’ basements, leading foraging workshops, and educating the community about wild food, Mike is now witnessing the fruits (or mushrooms) of his labor. The newly opened Keg & Case, which houses Forest to Fork in the St. Paul West 7th neighborhood features an impressive 30 ft glass grow room that is drawing the attention of even those who deem themselves mushroom haters.
Mike explains that there is a mushroom for everyone. If you like chicken, try chicken of the woods, if you like the umami richness of miso soup grab a bag of shiitake. Love crab? Try substituting lion's mane mushroom to make crab cakes. Forest to Fork also carries other local goods and oddities such as heirloom vegetables, sea beans, and lotus seeds. As the seasons continue to change so will the offerings they provide.
One thing I’ve noticed that sets Forest to Fork apart from other mushroom cultivators and foragers in the Midwest is their dedication to the community through education, environmental stewardship and a commitment to the local food movement. Mike has spent time in high schools educating those interested in the culinary arts and mycology. Gentleman Foragers workshops have rekindled the fond memories of immigrants who grew up foraging for wild foods, and sparked new interests in people looking to cultivate a closer connection with nature.
Although the interest of local food is growing, the mainstream and some local businesses are misrepresenting the true essence of the movement. "Local", “sustainable”, “organic”, or “natural” are all words that restaurants love to throw on their menus to excite an audience but often hold little merit. Like so many industries, dishonest marketing has polluted food businesses with a lack of integrity as they compromise on ingredients for the sake of the bottom line. Restaurants and food makers are not entirely to blame. They are after all consumer driven and in a culture that has been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, we value more the portion of a meal then the artistry and work that goes into growing and crafting a dish. Every ingredient tells a story and mushrooms are ready to emerge out of the shadowed forest floor to gain the stardom they so deserve, and Forest to Fork is ahead of the game in an innovative way.
Paul Stamets gave a famous TED talk years ago titled “Six ways mushrooms will save the world” and it is my belief that they can. For example, as the population continues to climb so does the demand for meat. It is no secret that our current method of factory farming is a main contributor to atmospheric pollution, antibiotic resistance, and toxicity within water ways, not to mention the inhumane treatment towards animals and workers. There are ways of raising animals that lends to a diverse and thriving ecosystem, however this alternative model of animal agriculture still requires that people adjust the way in which they consume putting quality above quantity. Mike iterates that fungi are some of the most nutrient diverse foods available. They are high in antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, vitamin D and essential amino acids. They promote a strong immune system, defense against cancer, autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and several forms of cancer.
What more can we learn from mushrooms?
Well that everything is interconnected, just as the living network of mycelium (underground “root” system”, we are all part of a bigger ecosystem that is hard to comprehend.
For example, Mike’s careers before finding his “calling” gave him the tools to create and differentiate from other wild crafters. If he had tried to pursue a career in fungi right off the bat, Forest to Fork may have never been able to make it out of the basement. He had an idea and when the environment, market, and timing where conducive it was able to expand.
How do we as a community best go about creating a paradigm shift within the agricultural and local food systems that supports the nourishment of the people, the earth, and the economy? It comes down to education especially in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and community centers where people are not often exposed to alternative ways of eating or consuming. It is more common for people to see and connote mushrooms as an ingredient in a soup can or styrofoam box under grocers fluorescent lights. Vegetables are not recognized unless brown after being cooked to death or packaged in plastic. Let’s find ways to change this and nourish a world deprived of real food and the element of nature.
Power to the people. As consumers and change makers we cannot wait for policy makers to lead, we must make a conscious decision every time we shop as that is where the real vote takes place. We create the demand. Think of the extra dollar you spend and choosing to shop with local businesses as an investment in your health, your family, the local economy and the environment. If you money is too much of a concern (ps it’s cheaper to shop a farmers market then aldis), donate your time creating community gardens to educate neighbors, friends and children about small changes they can make. When we make conscious decisions we empower ourselves and other in our lives.
Mike expressed his belief that everyone has the ability to manifest the life they dream of, but with great power comes great responsibility and humility. In order to rise we must understand the intricacy of how a business operates, no task is too small or too big, we must be willing to do the grunt work as well as play. With dedication, fortitude and innovation we can learn to create more value and share this knowledge with others. It is when we let our ego take over that corruption and foggy attitude can assume the upper hand. Money like food is an exchange of energy which can be expressed positively or negatively. We need eco-conscious entrepreneurs, business owners, and the change makers to come forward. The more money we put in the local economy and with those pure of heart, the more we take back our right to freedom and liberation. Money is just a tool and it is how we use it that determines its impact.
In Kempenich’s early work as a recruiter provided a knowledge and understanding of people, what drove them and what characteristics made them stand out and become indispensable in their industry. He also had an insider's view on how to develop relationships and utilize one's energy efficiently to have the biggest impact on positive work.
After watching the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Mike asked himself, “why does a man go to work everyday to try and perfect the simplest of dishes?” Perhaps because there is a purity, a type of dedication and rhythm to perfecting one’s art that inspires him to live and evolve. This made me think of another quote I saw recently, “The greatest gift you can give yourself is a career built on your own obsession.” When taken in the right context I think this is extremely profound. What if we lived in a world where we were driven to create art in any a craft we were passionate about. Art or obsession may look like painting, but also growing mushrooms, writing, creating solar energy, and the like. For Mike this art is making wild foods more widely accessible. Not everyone can afford a $25 meal at a fancy restaurant, but they can buy a few porcini mushrooms at Forest to Fork to throw on top of a frozen pizza.
When I asked Mike what gave him the strength and determination to take the risk of entrepreneurship he answered that after the loss of his father at the age of twenty-two he realized one thing. Although his father was a wonderful man, he had sacrificed his life to work for the system in order to save for a retirement that promised relaxation and comfort. Mike decided he never wanted to live life on someone else's terms, if we are only guaranteed the present moment then we need to cherish it by creating our art while sharing it with others. Because of this mindset and perseverance, things aren't looking to slow down anytime soon for the Gentleman Forager. Like the mushroom themselves, wild foods continue to spread their mycelial network inoculating new territory and expanding the opportunities in the mainstream food system. Are you ready to take your first bite of the wild possibilities life has for you?
If you’re inspired by my words, check out Forest to Fork at Keg & Case in St. Paul and taste the revolution. If you’re not in Minnesota, there are many resources for finding wild mushrooms, and even learning to cultivate your own. Let you mind take root, become obsessed and be part of the positive change each and everyday!
Peace, plants, and fungi!