Sex, drugs, and rock & roll” excitedly exclaims the general manager of an infamous 5-star South Beach, Miami party hotel abundant with A list celebs and bikini models. Enthusiastically he implores, “…this conference needs to showcase that we CAN be and ARE great at so much more than that…”
One year prior, I was a guest at the very same hotel for “trufflepalooza”; a fully decadent tasting dinner co-hosted by Andrew Carmellini, a James Beard Award winning Miami/NYC chef, and a very close friend of mine who owned the truffle company cosponsoring the event. After a phenomenal meal brought to completion by an ever so balanced umami laced black truffle parmesan ice cream and a cappuccino graced with freshly grated white alba truffles, we retired to my friend’s loft in downtown Brickell. Have you ever seen $30K of fresh truffles in a glance? I did that night. In a not so large refrigerator lay very carefully packed containers of “product” adjacent to the “clean room” used for repackaging individual orders of these very delicate and costly fungi. This was a very different and interesting experience to say the least.
Fast forward to the day this farm boy from parts unknown of Hawaii was having a surreal moment filled with excitement, wonder, humility and anxiety. I had just started as the resort’s executive sous chef, overseeing 6 different food outlets and banquets at a hotel which consistently rated as one of the top 5 hotels in a city that is among the top tourist destinations in the world. Little did I know that wacky truffled evening, I would soon be back here helping to run the place. Preparing and conceptualizing for the aforementioned conference (a national summit of event directors) we were instructed by a VP of the hotel group to be innovative…to exceed expectations!
For me to do this, I needed to first ask some questions. What are the expectations placed on chefs? What is in the core/the roots of what we are doing? It all has to start somewhere. Who are we? What’s in our “genes”? What’s guiding us? What fuels our passion? What’s going to make us better than great?
To answer these questions, we need to first ask about the freshness, quality, ethics, ecology and sustainability from where our food comes. How does the ever-changing perception of food affect our choices? How do our choices affect the perceptions of the communities which we serve, our health and local/global ecosystems? How do we make better choices for a better future?
Over the years that I have evolved in, out and back in to being a chef I do often ask myself these questions. It boils down to what does it mean to be a ‘chef’. It is a vast myriad of abilities and responsibilities to be sure and it certainly is not the “sex, drugs, and rock & roll”. For me, I find it incredibly humbling and exciting that as chefs we have the ability to educate, to connect communities, to affect perceptions and choices, and to actually initiate real significant change. It is more than an ability, it is an imperative responsibility. If we as chefs are neglecting this, we are not only NOT doing our jobs, but we are doing a disservice to society.
This brings me to my current journey. 2020 was certainly a year that blessed us with hardships that afforded us the opportunity to rise to the occasion with openness, positivity and innovation. In such, I was able to start the Sunday Supper Club, using my educational background in cultural ecology to connect the often times behind the scene farmers and family owned food producers of SWFL to the broader community in a very personal way.
While on this journey, I have met so many interesting, passionate, brilliant and innovative people, many of whom started out in other careers, but through their love of their craft they became self-taught amateurs who reinvented themselves into new professions. Let’s meet a few of them!
Russell is a truly “fun guy” whose entrance to the mesmerizing world of mycology began as a hobby. While in his “day job” he makes custom cabinetry, over the last year he has been setting up a pretty impressive small scale mushroom farm. Fungi, being decomposers, presented themselves as an ideal carbon neutral food to farm. They require very little energy to grow/harvest and sawdust from his wood working (typically a refuse) became a perfect repurposed resource as a growing medium for many of his mycelium (the “root mat” so to speak that produces the fruiting body which we know as a mushroom). Using a storage tote, some fans, and vent materials to create a scaled-up humidifier for one of his grow climates, Russell is still very concise in all the details. He uses a clean room to clone his various fungi strains in custom made agar discs to study the different varieties under a microscope and learn how different temperatures and humidity levels can speed up or slow down fungal growth. He opts for a slower fruiting, but better eating mushroom.
Currently, Russell is growing 3 varietals of oyster mushrooms (one of which he’s named “Suwannee” after the North Florida swamp where he and fellow “fun guy” Parker foraged the original, an indigenous species), shiitakes, reishi, and lion’s mane. All of which are incredible quality, super tasty and amazingly nutritious. Amongst the multitude of fascinating health properties, there are studies that show lion’s mane can help with regrowth of the human nervous system. Russell plans to add shimeji (beech), pioppino and cordyceps (medicinal use) over the coming months. He estimates that production will be upwards of 200+ pounds per week by January. As a culinarian, I can attest that these are certainly the most unique, freshest, highest quality, and tastiest fungi to be found in SWFL. Closing the “green loop”, Russell is also a rancher of earth worms (vermiculture) feeding them with used grow blocks (saw dust/mycellium) creating vermicastings (available to purchase by the pound); the best organic fertilizer for your veggie garden.
The etymology on the name chakra is not what you might think at first take. In fact, it stems from Orbegoso’s (a former M.D. from Lima, Peru) background. The enunciation of the word ‘chakra’ is from the indigenous Quecha peoples of the high elevation Andean communities (the descendants of those who built Macchu Picchu). It refers to “mama paccha” (the mother, the earth) providing a gift from the soil. All of their microgreens are grown using a very high quality specific organic soil mix and are additionally provided nutrients and hydration through a small scale aquaponic system (the use of a living aquatic ecosystem with a species such as tilapia that create all the nutrients needed by the plant as a by product). Every consideration is taken into effect including but not limited to: the origin of the seeds, the type of light used, the temperature and humidity of the growing space, the air quality, and how each different variety of microgreen has specific individual needs. Classical music fills the air waves (for plants and people) as his wife Sherry (former nurse and interior designer) and son freshly cut/package these living superfoods. The end result being very happy plants that are super high in nutritional density with low amounts of lectins and tender cellulose walls, making them easier for your body to absorb the nutrients as you snack on these crisp, bright and delicious baby plants.
Their kombucha is equally as detail specific and amazing. Organic teas, seasonal fruits and local honey are used in the fermentation process inoculated with a “top secret” s.c.o.b.y. (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Orbegoso’s medical science expertise has aided him in customizing a balance of the acids produced via fermentation and FLAVOR! Of the top 3 beneficial “organic acids”, acetic acid and gluconic acid are highly probiotic, while some studies show the third (glucuronic acid) can help increase the production of endorphins/sex hormones. The kombucha can be used in recipes to make salad dressings, in fact they bottle a private label mustard kombucha dressing. As a chef, I can honestly say in my humble opinion this is the best tasting locally made kombucha available in SWFL. Oh, did I mention that approximately 80% of their energy requirements for the microgreens and kombucha are provided via a solar grid engineered by Orbegoso and all the “spent” growing medium is turned into compost? No waste. Efficient. Highly sustainable.
Having the opportunity to grow relationships with these farmers has been a blessing for me. Initially my path set out to talk about how traditional farmers practicing “regenerative agriculture” meant fostering healthy soil (dirt), which in turn meant a healthier planet and a healthier you. I was inspired by a couple of great documentaries: “Kiss the ground” (available on Netflix) and “Fantastic Fungi” (available on Amazon video & AppleTV). Facts and statistics about how we could (in theory) over the next 3 to 5 decades sequester all the carbon emissions our species has produced in the last 150 years and reverse climate change was astounding and inspiring. Talking DIRTy is certainly a conversation everyone should be having. I’ve now seen that the path to this regeneration of our ecology, personal and social health as a species, and doing it in a sustainable way, comes in many and often times unexpected forms.
Click HERE for a great recipe from Chef David Robbins for Roasted Lion’s Mane Fungi and Fermented Garlic Honey Yummm Sauce
Care2Grow Gourmet Mushrooms
Saturdays: 3rd St. South Farmer’s Market
Franz & Jana Kox
East Fork Creek Farm All Natural Aquaponic Lettuces + Food Forest
Saturdays: Produce Market at East Fork Creek Farms, South Ft. Myers
*Future host site for Supper Club Dinner Event (date TBD, contact email@example.com)