I love mushrooms. The different textures and flavors that come from this delightful food enhance dishes and can even be just as tasty as a stand-alone ingredient. With that said, my enthusiasm for the eatable fungi pales in comparison to that of Jess Wilkins, owner and operator of Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm just outside of Little Rock. Check out what he had to say in our Q and A.
For someone who is unfamiliar with the Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm, could you give us a brief description?
I started with a crude setup in my garage two years ago. I spent about a year reading and experimenting how to best grow different species. It was a lot of trial and error. I sold strictly to restaurants in that first year and pretty much only made enough to “keep the lights on” the project. But I felt the response was good enough to pursue further and expand. In October 2017, I bought a place close to Pinnacle Mountain, which has a shop on the property that I transformed into my now “mushroom farm.”
Is it a one-man show right now?
Yes, I am a self-taught, one-man show. I designed and built my setup, and I grow and deliver all of my mushrooms.
What are all of the different varieties of mushrooms that you grow?
I generally have four species I keep regular and maybe six or seven others I throw in now and then. Blue oyster, chestnut, lion’s mane, and king oyster are my staples right now. I chose them because they have a good variety of flavor and textures and they allow me to mimic meats from crab to pork. Or enjoy as a mushroom.
How did you become so passionate about mushrooms?
I’m not sure that this journey actually started out of a passion for mushrooms. About eight years ago, I decided to grow mushrooms in my apartment out of pure curiosity and fascination. It was something I didn’t know anything about and thought it would be fun. Once I grew and tried my first lion’s mane, I was shocked by how delicious and different it was from the mushrooms I knew. I immediately had the revelation I could grow and sell them. It took me a long time to work up the nerve, as well as everything sort of falling into place for me to go for it. As I learned and educated myself on mushrooms, I became more and more fascinated. It has now grown into a passion, maybe even an obsession.
Where can folks purchase your mushrooms?
I sell every Saturday at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market. I also attend Bernice Gardens Farmer’s Market during season and plan on attending as many markets as I can this year. And I live close to the Bramble Market, so I keep them stocked with fresh mushrooms as well.
What restaurants have your mushrooms on the menu?
I am not on any menus at the moment. Several restaurants use my mushrooms for specials. The Pantry and Brave New Restaurant use my mushrooms, as do SO, Sauced, and Ciao Baci, along with several other restaurants. I am actually expanding, but right now the markets have priority. In the near future, I will be able to provide consistently enough that I’m hoping to lock down menus and start working with co-ops. I will also be able to grow more species regularly.
I recently purchased some lion’s mane mushrooms from you. What is your favorite way to prepare them?
I have two favorite ways of preparing lion’s mane. One is to slice it into half-inch discs and dry sauté it. This gives it the texture and flavor of crab. From there, you can do anything you would do with crab. I also enjoy battering and frying it, which makes it taste very close to chicken. I really like making street tacos with them.
What’s the most difficult aspect of growing mushrooms?
For me, it’s maintaining the perfect conditions. I regulate temperature, carbon dioxide, light, and humidity. This is where my design came in. I tried to make it the most efficient system I could. The equipment can essentially “fight” each other to maintain the conditions, and then you have to account for outside weather. It can be a struggle.