Growing up in Racine, Mike Jozwik learned to forage with his parents, and loved it. So leading a gaggle of newbies on an expedition 100 miles west of Milwaukee is as natural to Jozwik as breathing.
On land owned by an amiable dairy farmer Jozwik befriended on Craigslist, Jozwik and the group comb wooded parcels. “We’ll be picking basically a bunch of different stuff out there today. Morels should be pretty good out there right now. This is probably the best chunk of the woods,” he explains.
As Jozwik distributes netted bags to his nine apprentices, most work for Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater Group and are on a group outing on this day, he says morels should be “waiting for them” beneath the trees. Very specific trees to be exact: elms that have recently died.
The group dutifully fans out, picking up long sticks and begins sweeping away tall grasses, hoping to unearth the coveted mushroom.
“The ground looks perfect in terms of moisture content. You should be seeing mostly blondes in terms of morels," he says. "Just start working your way up the hill. Whoever is going to be closest to that tree start working out away from it."
Pabst Theater chef Kevin Sloan, who cooks up meals for the array of artists and bands, says he’s been buying foraged and other fresh ingredients from Jozwik for years. This is his second foraging excursion.
Sloan remembers the first time Jozwik made a delivery, in a totally different environment. “He showed up in the alley and was talking to security. The walkie talkies are going and somebody says ‘Somebody’s here for Kevin. They have some mushrooms.’" He laughs, “Obviously, everyone on the tour is like ‘What kind of mushrooms?'”
While Sloan and the others continue their quest, Jozwik searches for the perfect burdock plant. Shovel in hand, he says it’s not the leaves he’s after but the roots.
"You have to go straight down with the burdock because it’s got a very straight root," Jozwik explains. He carefully extracts and gently shakes the roots free of soil.
"So you trim it off right here. You clean it up, wash it down. You can shave it like with a carrot peeler and you can roast it, or you can just roast them with roots and all and then shave it off and use it as a starch substitute," he explains.
Jozwik discovered many chefs like the results as much as he does. So he plucks up the plants and sells them directly to restaurants and at farmers markets.
While chef Sloan’s team happily returns to Milwaukee with boxes brimming with morels, Jozwik returns to another big part of his business in an old warehouse in Walker’s Point. He's set up a state of the art mushroom cultivation operation – where temperature, air and light are highly controlled.
Jozwik’s dad, who was a middle school chemistry teacher in his first life, is critical to the mushroom production. At Mushroom Mike LLC, they are growing 18 varieties and are about to experiment with more.
Van Luu is a more recent addition to the team. He's a chef who is in charge of their microgreens.
Luu says teaming up with Jozwik was a logical next step in his evolution. “Eventually when Mike gives me a day off, I’ll start doing private dinners,” he jokes. "Eventually we’ll expand further once we get another room with new products."
Jozwik’s brain is a never ending reservoir of possible projects - especially when it involves mushrooms.
He's teamed up with fellow Walker’s Point entrepreneur - Indulgence Chocolatier - to create a mushroom infused chocolate bar.
"[Jozwik] brought us these really amazingly fragrant dried candy-capped mushrooms," owner Julie Waterman explains, "and they just burst with savory notes." Pair those mushrooms with chocolate from Ghana, and the candy cap mushroom chocolate bar was born.
Jozwik spends part of nearly every day making deliveries to restaurants – from what his company grows and gathers combined with what he procures from other foragers.
Jozwik's 100 regular customers request everything from spruce tips and wild fennel to mounds of mushrooms and microgreens. If they’re further away than Madison, Jozwik drop ships orders and chefs find their chilled delivery on their doorsteps the next day.
Since morel season has ended, Jozwik has stocked up on specialty morels - two inches in size.
“They’re morchella conica that grow in forest fire zones out west. I found out chefs like the consistency of the morels of Pacific Northwest more than local morels," he explains. "So that’s why I focused a lot of energy five years ago finding pickers out west."
David Magnasco, who owns Chef’s Table in Walker’s Point, is one of the chefs who love Jozwik's imported morels, but oohs and ahs equally over every bit of his order.
“We’re going to be doing a little ragout with the morels," the chef explains. "We’re also going to be sautéing some of these with some of the ramps we have left that we dehydrated as a little powder."
Every bit is used, including mushroom stems. “Normally that’s not edible because of the consistency of it, but we’ll dehydrate those, grind them into a powder to make mushroom pasta," he explains.
Magnasco developed an appreciation for foraged food at a young age. “I grew up on a farm and I remember going out with grandma, it was the wild puff balls early on and the wild rhubarb and the berries and beans growing up all over the farm."
"When you’re in the kitchen, you know what those good ingredients are because you’ve been working with them for a long time," he adds.
Jozwik works with foragers around the U.S. to make sure customers like David Magnasco have what they want, when they want it.
The quest for foraged goods never ends for Jozwik. Soon, he and his uncle and cousins (known as Shroom Team 6) will be heading south for smooth chanterelles and then north to the Canadian border for black trumpets.
It’s a time he cherishes, but Jozwik says, it’s not all that glamorous. “100 degree temperatures most of the time with the heat index. We’ve created body suits basically of battery operated fans to be able to take the bugs and take the heat and be out there as long as possible, carrying usually 50 to 60 pounds on our back."
He’s not suggesting the average forager goes to such extremes. For Jozwik it’s passion, and business.
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