FARGO — Chris Wilkes received an unsurprising response from his wife when he pitched his idea to build a DIY mushroom lab in their family's basement.
At first, though, his wife wasn’t sold on the idea of turning three-quarters of their family basement into Chris’s mushroom lair. “My wife wasn’t super keen on the idea at first, as one would imagine,” he told The Forum with a laugh.
Eventually though, she became a fungi convert, appreciating her husband’s new hobby and budding enterprise. “As the summer has progressed and she’s seen the whole process, become more familiar with the process and the business, she’s seen that it’s a hobby and I do really enjoy doing it,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes’s interest in mushrooms began roughly four years ago, he said, sparked by his dissatisfaction for store-bought options. His resume boasts culinary school experience and time cooking at several restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead area. “I’ve got a decent background in cooking and that’s kind of where this all started,” Wilkes explained.
He began Fargo Fungi earlier this year, selling out of the Exit 44 Flowers and More booth at the Red River Market and offering deliveries on Wednesdays. After getting the green light earlier this season, he only had a few months to scale up operations for the weekly market, selling to local chefs as well.
“I had only ever done it for myself and had never done it on a commercial scale,” Wilkes said.
For now, Fargo Fungi is a part-time commitment for Wilkes, who spends 10 to 12 or sometimes even 20 hours per week on the persnickety growth process. “That’s the cool thing about it. You can kind of just set aside an hour or two here or there as needed,” he said. “Then it’s a lot of hurry up and wait.”
The basement is outfitted with HEPA filters to leave nothing to chance. Any outside infestations from mold spores, bacteria or dust can ruin a mushroom. “A lot of the process is super, super sterile,” Wilkes said. “If you don’t do it in a sterile environment, you’re just not going to have any luck.”
If something goes awry, “there’s no saving it,” Wilkes said. “It’s not like a plant where it didn’t get enough water one day, you can just overwater it the next. … If that pops up, then that bag is toast.”
All told, the process takes roughly two months from start to finish. It begins with a culture in a “liquid nutrient broth,” Wilkes said, ending when the mushrooms are finished in a high-humidity, temperature-controlled “fruiting chamber.”
The past year has also included a boatload of research, tweaking his processes and reading various research journals on mushrooms. He even came to discover that lion’s mane, one of the mushroom varieties he grows, was found to prevent against Alzheimer’s and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in animal testing.
The crowd-favorite lion’s mane is a staple culinary mushroom and features a seafood or umami flavor, especially when properly seasoned. It’s why Wilkes has used them in a vegan crabcake recipe. “If you didn’t know you were eating mushrooms, you’d swear it was seafood,” he said.
Fargo Fungi also grows oyster mushrooms, which Wilkes called a “good baseline mushroom” with several applications, such as omelets and stir fry, that can easily be substituted for button mushrooms. “I’ve done a little bit of both,” he said. “I’ve done specific oyster mushroom recipes and I’ve substituted them for button mushrooms and they’ve all worked out great.”
For a richer option, Wilkes uses oyster mushrooms sauteed in tarragon alongside chives as a garnish atop linguine tossed in goat cheese Parmesan sauce. “That’s where the culinary background comes in and I get to play with some of the stuff and make more decadent dishes,” he remarked.
Whereas most mushrooms sold at grocery stores are from the East Coast — Pennsylvania accounts for nearly half of all mushroom production in the United States — Fargo Fungi’s mushrooms are grown and harvested right in the metro area, making for a fresher product. “Going from harvest to a shelf in Fargo, who knows how long that is?” Wilkes asked.
Most of Wilkes’s mushrooms are harvested within two to three days of the market, some even picked the morning of the market, eliminating the need for preservatives found on out-of-state button and portobello mushrooms. When kept in a paper bag in the refrigerator, Wilkes’s mushrooms have a four- to five-day shelf life.
'Huge learning curve'
With the market winding down for the season — the last two Red River Market dates are Oct. 23 and 30 — Wilkes is planning to back down as well, with his eye set on revamping his lab, streamlining the process and adding more fruiting chambers in the hopes of boosting production. The ultimate goal for Wilkes is to add more species and keep Fargo Fungi a year-round operation.
The past year, though, has been a “huge learning curve” for Wilkes, who has needed to adapt to several curveballs along the way like sourcing materials or dealing with equipment malfunctions.
“Even with all the knowledge and everything else, you do what you can,” he commented. “But even then, because it’s a living organism, it’s still a bit of a gamble.”
As much as he’s needed to engross himself in all things mushrooms, he’s also had to educate his customers at the Red River Market just as much. Most customers are unaware that there are more mushroom varieties available beyond what’s sold at grocery stores. Others question whether or not they’re even edible. “Mushrooms aren’t just mushrooms,” Wilkes said. “There are many different varieties and flavor profiles.”
What started as a hobby and a pursuit to bring better mushrooms to the dinner table is blooming into a successful small business for Wilkes. “It’s as much a business as it is a hobby,” he concluded. “It’s been super fun and super stressful.”