Deep in the forested hills of San Mateo County, Kory Stewart stops suddenly in the middle of a shady trail.
“Let’s go this way,” the 28-year-old said, turning downhill on another path. His eyes scan the woods for a few seconds until he spots his prize: a candy-cap mushroom, underneath a fern frond at the base of a moss-covered redwood tree.
“It should snap cleanly, like a piece of chalk,” said Stewart, the executive chef at San Francisco’s high-end Americano restaurant in the Hotel Vitale, as he crouches and plucks the burnt-orange-colored, inch-tall fungus.
He checks it quickly for the candy cap’s other signatures — a texture like a cat’s tongue and a color that fades gradually to a yellowish tint — and drops it into a cloth bag.
Along with being a rising star in the Bay Area’s restaurant scene, Stewart is a devoted mushroom forager on the Peninsula. He has found it to be a reliable place to find candy caps, chanterelles and the occasional black trumpet — if you know where to look. (Like other foragers, Stewart keeps the exact location of his favorite spots a secret.)
Americano buys its mushrooms, but Stewart has found a passion for finding them for his own uses.
“It just keeps us connected to where food comes from,” he said, “because when you’re cooking in the kitchen and you have food coming into the kitchen, you lose touch with that.”
Still, officials from public agencies that own vast stretches of Peninsula forest, including the county parks department, say foraging is technically not allowed.
The rules are “primarily for environmental preservation, but in the case of the mushrooms, also because of the risks of poison,” said Leigh Ann Maze, a spokeswoman for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which owns 26,000 acres in San Mateo County.
Stewart said mushrooms are the “fruit part of a larger organism” and regenerate themselves. Also, he sometimes brings leftover spores and mushroom scraps back to his foraging spots, “sort of a way of giving back from the places you’ve taken from.”
He sells the mushrooms he finds — candy caps can fetch $20 per pound — or tries out new ideas at home.
Stewart admitted an inherent risk, saying he routinely sees poisonous death-cap mushrooms, but he only keeps the ones he can unequivocally identify.
After several years, his passion for foraging has only become stronger.
“Now when I go to sleep,” he said, “I see mushrooms on my eyelids.”
Executive chef Kory Stewart of San Francisco’s Americano uses mushrooms in a three-course tasting menu centered around the fungus season — and several varieties can be found on the Peninsula. Here is a sampling of the dishes:
First course: Chanterelle mushroom soup with candy-cap zabaione
Second course: Crispy heritage pork belly and braised duck with chanterelles
Third course: Candy-cap mushroom custard with maple pecan sbrisolona
Source: Dine About Town