For Chef Spike Mikulski, There’s Magic in Wild Mushrooms

The Pot au Feu executive chef shares his secrets for foraging Rhode Island's wilds for edible mushrooms.
Courtesy of chef Spike Mikulski.

Most people go to the store for mushrooms. But mushroom expert Spike Mikulski, Johnson and Wales University graduate and executive chef at Pot au Feu in Providence, goes for a walk. You can’t miss him, with his salt-and-pepper hair somewhat contained in a ponytail, miniature Dali-esque moustache, “Fun Guy” T-shirt and a wildly colored shemagh scarf over his shoulder tied to his basket brimming with ’shrooms. How much of a pro ‘shroomer is Mikulski? He’s certified by the state to sell wild mushrooms to restaurants.

What first lit your mycological fire? I was on a hike in Maine and kept seeing all these mushrooms and had no idea what they were; one in particular caught my attention, the purple cortinarius iodes. A few years later, I really started to study when I hit a point of wanting to know what makes mushrooms all so different. But that was the turning point — that purple mushroom made me want to know what these things were.

So you’re self-taught? Oh yeah, and it may be genetic. My parents told me that my grandparents did it, and my grandfather used to bring home Chicken of the Woods (laetiporus sulphureus), in the ’40s and ’50s, and used to go to the Boston Mycological Club. My parents never did it, nor siblings, but it just resonated with me.

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to get into mushroom gathering? Read books, go into the woods, pick a mushroom up, take it home, do extensive research, take pictures and ask about it online before trying it. There are a lot of mushroom groups out there that you can consult. If it’s edible, don’t eat it the first time. Learn it well so you recognize it when you come across it again. Your confidence and comfort level will be better, and you’ll have a better grasp of what you have. Wild mushrooms are best cooked, but you can nibble some safe varieties raw. When you do get an edible, eat very little the first time to see if your system is okay with it.

Good edibles this fall in Rhode Island? Chicken of the Woods, Hen of the Woods, brick tops, late fall oysters, also wine cap mushrooms come back in fall. Hen of the Woods, by the way, is the most common. It should be the state mushroom; there are only four states with one.

You serve wild mushrooms at the restaurant? All the time; the more I learn about mushrooms, the broader my list grows. I get to eat things others haven’t and get to cook things you can’t find at any other restaurant.

Mushrooms are the subject of many fantastical and often scary fairy tales; is there a man-eating ’shroom? Sort of. There’s one called the Corpse Finder; it just loves growing on bones, like a deer carcass. If you’re a forager and find a bunch of these, you’re supposed to call the cops because there could be a body under them. They eat people.