The Special Ingredient

Chef Will Harris Dishes on Mushrooms

Chef Will Harris Dishes on Mushrooms

When it comes to mushrooms, people either love them or fear them. Chef Will Harris, who helms the kitchen at Wildflower in Denver, says there's a mushroom dish for everyone.

There are two types of people: mycophiles, those who love mushrooms, and mycophobes, those who fear them. Will Harris, the chef of Wildflower at Life House Lower Highlands, is decidedly a mycophile. Before you write off the fungi, Harris promises there's a mushroom option for you on Wildflower’s menu.

What inspired you to cook with mushrooms?

When I became a cook after high school, my mentor taught me to cook and sauté mushrooms properly. It was a mind-blowing experience. I heated a pan and threw in a bunch of mushrooms. It sounded simple. But he dumped it out and told me to start over with small batches in a super hot pan.

I still use the techniques I learned that day. I add a little bit of oil, and when I add the mushrooms to the pan, I don't salt them right away. I let them get a bit of color, and once they start to sear, I hit them with a bit of salt, fresh herbs, and shallots.

Mushrooms are great because of their richness and umami (savory taste). There are so many varieties and different ways to prepare them. Every time I "butcher" a mushroom, I discover a new way to use it.

Tell us more about the different mushroom varieties and ways to use them.

One of my favorites is the King Trumpet mushroom. I treat it like a steak, grilling it and then slowly roasting it. You cook the trunk one way—almost like the piece of meat. Then you can pickle or sauté the cap. You might think, “It’s just a mushroom!” But it’s almost as involved as preparing a piece of meat.

There are Blue Oyster mushrooms, which I sauté in a hot pan with oil, and the well-known Shitake mushroom, which I use to make broth. The list goes on and on.

Where do you source the mushrooms for Wildflower?

I get our mushrooms from a farm called Kingdom Come in Fort Lupton, Colorado. It’s right up the road from Wildflower, so we’re lucky. A cool guy named Tom Bailey grows the mushrooms. He dropped off a bin of them at my restaurant one day, and my jaw dropped to the ground. I’ve been working with him ever since.

Best time of year to order them?

These beauties are available all year round. Tom chooses to cultivate different varieties based on the climate and weather, so any mushroom dish on the Wildflower menu is always fresh and in-season.

Perfect dish for someone on the fence about mushrooms?

Our mushroom toast. We serve it on our house-made grilled focaccia with a chickpea spread. We lightly pile mushrooms on top. It's a fork and knife dish, so if you're a meat-lover who doesn't necessarily dig on mushrooms, this is an excellent dish to try. It has the same umami as meat, plus local cheese, juniper, and pickled onions.

Most inventive way you're using mushrooms at Wildflower?

I’m always looking for new ways to prepare mushrooms. The most recent is a full-on mushroom salad. It’s one mushroom prepared in two different ways. First, I chiffonade (slice into long, thin strips) the stems of Chestnut mushrooms and flash fry them in locally sourced sunflower oil. Then I lightly poach the caps of the mushrooms in the mushroom's juices. To taste this dish is to experience an overload of umami. The result is always a smile.

Once we’ve tried the mushroom dishes at Wildflower, where else in Denver can we go for interesting mushroom dishes?

Safta Restaurant. It’s a popular Israeli restaurant right across the South Platte River in the River North Art District. Chef Josh Gordon prepares an approachable hummus bowl with sautéed Chestnut mushrooms and wood-oven pita.

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