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Canada’s top chef leading morel harvest in Fort Providence

Canada’s national champion chef has teamed up with a Fort Providence mushroom harvester to launch a new business.

Ryan O’Flynn, chef at Edmonton’s Westin Hotel, won the Canadian national culinary title in February, with a dish involving NWT morel mushrooms.

Jessica Minoza with a friend, Riel Stevenson-Burke
Jessica Minoza with a friend, Riel Stevenson-Burke, picking mushrooms

O’Flynn acquired the mushrooms from Jessica Minoza, a Fort Providence resident studying at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, who spent the previous summer harvesting morels.

“I wanted to come up with a Canadian dish that didn’t use smoked salmon, bacon or maple syrup,” explained O’Flynn.

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“I had no idea there were wild morel mushrooms growing in the Northwest Territories. I had to see it to believe it. Working in the UK and Europe for more than a decade, I thought they only grew in France, parts of Italy and South Africa.

“She brought them down, I absolutely loved them and I put them on my dish as a garnish.”

O’Flynn won the national contest with a dish that featured pine-smoked sturgeon and cured Quebec foie gras alongside the mushrooms – but the morels left a lasting impression.

Vancouver Sun: O’Flynn wins national culinary title

Now, O’Flynn has teamed up with Minoza to launch a business named Mycelium, dedicated to harvesting and buying morel mushrooms this summer. A vast harvest is expected – the mushrooms grow in the burn areas left behind by forest fires, and 2014 was a devastating wildfire season in the NWT.

Mycelium’s simple idea is turning heads in southern provinces.

Earlier this month, the company entered NAIT’s Hatch startup contest – which put its business plan in front of Edmonton investors and Shark Tank judges.

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O’Flynn and Minoza won the top $5,000 prize, alongside a promise of considerable additional backing from investors. “They are willing to go a lot further with us,” O’Flynn told Moose FM.

Edmonton Journal: NWT mushrooms help startup win at NAIT

Minoza, 27, wants her business to focus on injecting the proceeds of this year’s mushroom harvest back into the territory.

“I’m trying to give the NWT what it deserves. I’m so fortunate to have met someone really cool like Ryan and I just want to have fun with that,” said Minoza, whose father, also an entrepreneur, previously set up mushroom harvesting camps. Minoza ran one such camp in the summer of 2014.

“I enjoy doing it – I had a fabulous time last summer, it’s a joy to pick mushrooms.”

Jessica Minoza and Ryan O'Flynn
Jessica Minoza and Ryan O’Flynn.

O’Flynn added: “We want to do everything right from the beginning and stand by it, rather than go for the money like it’s a gold rush.

“We want the company to be almost 100 percent Aboriginal – we want to use people who are willing to pick who are from the NWT, so the money stays there, unlike other companies from BC or Oregon who go up, pick everything, and take it back down with them.

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“I think that will really give us the edge and get people on our side. If you’re working for somebody else, that money is going elsewhere.”

O’Flynn believes that while morel mushrooms are a sought-after culinary commodity in the first place, the origin of NWT mushrooms is an additional selling point.

“The thing that makes NWT morels unique is that, in Europe and South Africa, they tend to grow in pastures and plains, flat areas of the forest,” he noted.

“In the NWT, mushrooms grow behind forest fires, so they are slightly smokier and a lot cleaner as well – there’s not all the mud and dirt around.”

He also thinks prices are unlikely to drop significantly – despite earlier warnings to that effect.

Read: Morel mushroom warning: prices could drop 50 per cent

In detail: Our guide to morel mushroom picking this year

“Number one, they’re wild and they’re rare. They have a texture and a flavour like nothing else, they kind-of fall in the same area as a truffle, they’re just as elite,” said O’Flynn.

“Even in places where they grow, and even if they have a sensational harvest, the prices – even if the yield is monster-high – tend not to drop at all, because of how chic and elite they are.”

O’Flynn and Minoza are looking to expand their business into related areas, like oils, butters and vinegars made with morel extract, as well as harvesting tree saps in the autumn.

“Saps are really big right now for top-end restaurants, so I’d love to be able to do that,” said Minoza, asked about her future plans.

“Right now, this could well be long-term. The NWT is my home.”

If you’re interested in working for, or with, Mycelium during this summer’s harvest, you can email [email protected].

Morel mushroom in hand

Morel mushroom harvesting
Morel mushroom harvesting in Fort Providence last summer.
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