The Mushroom Whisperers

Meet Graham Steinruck and Nick Martinez—two men on a mission to bring the wild foods of the Front Range to Denver kitchens.

October 2014

—Photography by Morgan Rachel Levy; Lettering by Ian Barnard

In a loose grove of aspens, on a high ridge not far from downtown Denver, Graham Steinruck walks at an impossibly slow pace. Every few feet, he stops and looks around. He notes the nickel-size leaves on the aspens. He pauses to feel the spongy texture of the soil under his feet. Everywhere, the forest speaks of renewal. Little green shoots of baby huckleberries poke out of the ground next to shrinking snowdrifts. Squirrels dart about, and meltwater turns into rivulets, winking in the brassy light.

With his jeans nearly falling off his reedy frame, Steinruck leaps over a stream and stoops down. From a basket nestled in the crook of his arm, he produces a digital meat thermometer, dusts it off, and plunges it into the soil. He squints, as if in deep concentration.

“Yeah, we’re right at initiation, 50 degrees,” he says, easing the thermometer from the ground. “Any day now, if not right now.” It’s a Saturday in May, and Steinruck, one of Colorado’s top foraging experts, is searching for wild mushrooms, which he and his business partner, Nick Martinez, supply to Denver restaurants. The best mushroom hunters—those like Steinruck and Martinez—not only have a feel for the land, but also an attuned sense of the pattern in which the seasons unfold. Steinruck may look like a gazelle, but in the forest, he acts like a predator—focused and stealthy. He can observe, patient as a cat. Or he can disappear in an instant, wordlessly loping over a hill.

What Steinruck is really seeking is morels, one of the country’s most prized wild edibles. Morels are elusive, fruiting in as quickly as a week and then disappearing—eaten by animals or rotten or squashed—in as little as two. To find them, you must be nimble and clever, solving a constantly shifting puzzle of clues: everything from soil moisture, temperature, and composition to rainfall and elevation.

Steinruck zigzags around the woods in his tattered black boots. He squats to stroke wild strawberry plants and American violets and pops one of the flowers into his mouth. He picks yarrow, a spicy, sage-scented ground plant good for seasoning, and dandelion petals. There are no morels in the woods today—Steinruck is a few days too early—but there are other mushrooms, including an edible variety that grows only in the mountains of certain Western states just after the snow melts: Hygrophorus subalpinus. Standing in a swath of forest carpeted with dull brown needles, it is hard to imagine that anything of great value grows here. But Steinruck is a master at making something out of nothing. Wiggling his hand under a featureless mound, he pulls out a snow-white beauty as magically as if conjuring a rabbit from a hat.

Martinez and Steinruck had known each other for years as line cooks in Denver-area restaurants—Martinez at ChoLon and Steinruck at Pizza Republica—before they founded Hunt & Gather, Denver’s first wild-foods foraging and distribution company, in August 2013. Both 28, they make an odd but uncannily complementary team. Steinruck is slim with a tuft of pale hair, a feeble five o’clock shadow, and delicate features. He often vibrates with excitement when he talks—which is a lot—and walks with a slight stoop that makes him appear constantly interested. Martinez is quiet, serious, and soft-spoken. He’s just over five feet tall with a heart-shaped face and a neatly trimmed beard that suggests the care and respect with which he carries himself. Steinruck is the mushroom savant, while Martinez acts as the liaison between wilderness and plate by helping chefs understand how to handle wild ingredients.

One thing Steinruck and Martinez do share is a tendency toward obsession, and in this case, the shared object is wild food. Having lived in Colorado for years (Steinruck is a native), they believe the state has a bounty of underappreciated ingredients, and with them, they want to help develop a cuisine unlike any other in the country. Establishing a Colorado food tradition using wild foraged edibles may seem like a lofty ambition, but it has already proven seductive to the restaurant community. More than 60 restaurants and food purveyors in Denver, Boulder, and Steamboat Springs—including Fruition, Beatrice & Woodsley, and Acorn—purchase products from Hunt & Gather. And a groundswell of interest in local foods has spurred the team to offer mushroom-hunting clinics and wild-edible cooking classes for home cooks.

But starting a business in foraging isn’t like any other business. The challenges are both copious and unnerving. The regulations related to collecting on public land are still nascent and poorly understood (among foragers and the regulators themselves), and unlicensed competitors can, and do, swoop in from other states. Both chefs and diners can be loathe to move beyond familiar ingredients, and, of course, there’s the inconstancy of nature herself, who sometimes offers a bounty and sometimes offers nothing at all.

In many ways, finding mushrooms—the most lucrative of Hunt & Gather’s products—is like storm-chasing. One Sunday morning this past summer, after four days of fruitless searching, Steinruck and Martinez met their friend and occasional employee Brett Smith, a six-foot-four-inch 26-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with a shaggy blond bowl cut, at Crema Coffee House at 29th and Larimer streets. Steinruck had stayed up until 3 a.m. but had already downed two cold-brew coffees (lots of cream, lots of sugar). On Steinruck’s laptop, the trio pored over online maps showing recent rainfall, soil temperatures, and forest fires that had swept through the Front Range in the past few years. Morels like burnt forests and a lot of rain.

The young men homed in on Jefferson County, a sweet spot of charred forest and recent storms. With renewed hope for a mother lode, they set off to the southwest in Steinruck’s taupe Pontiac minivan. This is what the proprietors of Hunt & Gather do nearly every day: pinball around the small towns of the Front Range and bushwhack through woods for up to 16 hours, stopping only to refuel with beef jerky and coffee. Their persistence helps them understand the exact microseasons of the forests and to pinpoint large quantities of high-dollar products. The previous weekend, they gathered about 160 pounds of morels, which sell for more than the priciest cuts of beef—anywhere from $27 to $40 per pound and, on occasion, even more.

On that Sunday, they snaked along Jefferson County’s tangled mountain roads, rubbernecking the steep hillsides outside the car windows. But scorched trees from the Lower North Fork fire that swept through several years before proved difficult to find. Finally, after a couple of hours, they pulled over in the empty parking lot of a closed dentist’s office in Conifer. The sky roiled with clouds as a timid rain began. Coolers and baskets littered the back of the van, but they were all empty. Steinruck stamped out an American Spirit in an ashtray overflowing with butts, laid his head on the steering wheel, and sighed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “I’m just getting a little frustrated. It’s like, really? Do we even know what we’re doing? Do we even know how to read a map?” Smith, dressed in an old combat shirt and silver aviators, was silent. Martinez looked at his phone, trying to pull up better maps. Steinruck has made mistakes before—costly mistakes, like mispackaging a box of morels worth $1,200, all of which rotted. But this sudden paucity of merchandise was not a mistake. It was a whim of nature.

Growing up, Steinruck was sensitive, introverted, and unusually focused. He’d join in normal kid things like soccer games and then exasperate his teammates by inspecting worms on the turf as the ball went whizzing into the goal. His father typically didn’t have much free time to spend with him because of his job, so Steinruck spent a lot of time with his Boy Scout troop. There, he met a scoutmaster who knew many of the plants in the forest and showed Steinruck how to use a field guide. Steinruck became obsessed with biology, and the forest and its creatures became not only a passion, but also a solace.

Later, while working at a medical marijuana dispensary in his early 20s, he had a lot of free time and spent most of it wandering around the woods, often off-trail. He began going to Colorado Mycological Society forays and lectures and devouring mushroom guidebooks: He taught himself how to identify obscure mushrooms by their spore-bearing surfaces, stems, and caps; their habitats; and even their scents. He started leading forays for the Four Seasons Vail and the Little Nell in Aspen and selling some of his finds at Denver restaurants’ back doors. Now, Steinruck is certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to identify more than 40 species of mushrooms, although he can name many more.

Martinez found foraging later. His family, which is of Mexican heritage but has been in the States for generations, was composed of hardworking men and women, but when Martinez was a teenager and a young man in Colorado Springs and Denver, he fell into a life of partying, drugs, and violence. He still bears scars on his forehead and arms that seem to be at odds with his air of quiet integrity. Finally, something propelled him to change course, just as friends and even family members were beginning to lose hope for him. He started working in high-end restaurants, sometimes even toiling for free to gain experience, and became obsessed with haute cuisine. He worked for as long as 18 hours a day and sometimes gave blood twice a week to support himself.

Eventually, Martinez moved to Chicago with nothing to sustain himself but his dream of working in a top restaurant. He landed a job at Sixteen, where he was part of the team that earned two Michelin stars. “Cooking saved my life, hands down,” Martinez says. “I’d be dead or in prison without it.” It wasn’t until he met Steinruck (after moving back to Colorado in 2013) that he started foraging. But whereas Steinruck can get frustrated by fruitless searches, Martinez seems to find peace simply from being outside.

Driving around the Front Range, Steinruck often has his head out the window and lets his sentences trail off while he eyes the habitat. Even in the city, he’ll pluck wild chamomile from street curbs and call out the Latin names of lawn mushrooms. I watched as he and Martinez led a Denver couple on a foray and, just off the shoulder of the highway in Golden Gate Canyon, gathered pennycress, wild lettuce, and fairy ring mushrooms. Tiptoeing past a sleeping rattlesnake, they discovered hundreds of watercress plants shimmering in a bog. Nearby, cars whizzed past, oblivious to the buffet just a few yards from their rolled-up windows.