Knoxville Chefs Who Heart Mushrooms

How local chefs are inspired by edible fungi, from global imports to the locally foraged

Seth Simmerman, owner and chef, Echo Bistro

The supply of local specialty mushrooms isn't steady enough for Chef Seth Simmerman's regular menu, but specials based on the foraged finds of Mushroom Man Whitey Hitchcock have been very well-received for the four months he's been serving them at his intimate neighborhood bistro.

"They're pretty special on their own," says Simmerman. "I wouldn't want to cover them up."

Often, Simmerman will saute the mushrooms and serve them with pasta, or serve a steak with a locally roasted mushroom and rosemary demi-glace. Mushrooms also grace a light cream citrus-butter sauce to go along with a seafood—Chilean sea bass, for example, or grouper or halibut.

One favorite is the occasional lobster mushroom—rich and creamy. "They're very earthy, and a very unique color—golden orange when you find 'em, and the color of lobster meat when you cook them."

Chef Simmerman studied at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, has been "in the kitchen for 52 years and cooked all over the U.S., and I've paid attention everywhere I went," he says. This local mushroom wizardry is no gimmick—more like an extension of the local food attitude. "This is what's going on here," he says. "We like local ingredients. I do all I can with local, fresh organic foods: Grainger County tomatoes, fingerling potatoes grown by a local farmer, certified organic Angus beef. At the same time, we like foods we can relate to, the classic American cuisine—nothing too awful crazy."

Ron Watkins, executive chef, the Grill at Highlands Row

A Southern-cooking devotee with experience in East Tennessee restaurants like The Copper Cellar and The Half Shell, Chef Ron Watkins also has an everyday kind of devotion to fresh mushrooms, both wild and cultivated, beginning with an omnipresent mushroom garnish on steaks.

"We dry roast oyster mushrooms with just salt and pepper and olive oil in the oven to bring out that earthy flavor that only mushrooms can yield," he says. "I find the delicate flavor of the oysters is encased by roasting—you get that almost smoky flavor."

Other mushrooms dot the menu, from the shiitake champagne beurre blanc in the Cheowa Chicken entree, to the Highlands Meatloaf with its rich mushroom brown gravy. And others star in specials.

"They are so good in vegan and vegetarian cuisine—they can almost extend the flavor and texture of a tender steak," he says. "And there are just so many intriguing kinds and flavors of 'shrooms, from the workmen like the button and oyster to the shiitake that just screams stir fry, the enoki that is so tender to give the perfect finish to a summer salad or wrap."

Another favorite: "The very woody porcini, a must for a true Hunter's Sauce, which is great with veal chops." For the at-home chef, Watkins recommends doing some homework with photos and guides to make sure what you are buying and how it should be prepared. "Also," he says. "A little can go a long way."

Joseph Lowery, chef and instructor, Avanti Savoia

A past recipient of AAA's Four Diamond Award and food service professional since 1971, Chef Joseph Lowery has this to say about cooking with mushrooms: "Mmmmm."

Locally, he's happy to note, fresh specialty mushrooms are more available than they used to be, particularly at the Fresh Market or Earth Fare, as well as from farmers' market booths. At the same time, as lead researcher and cooking class instructor for locally based online cooking store Avanti Savoia, he notes that dried varieties are also wildly popular with local foodies (they offer an in-store pickup for nearby customers at the 7610 Maynardville Pike site).

"We don't have the same thing all the time, but we currently are offering some mushrooms from Oregon and some things from Europe and Japan," he says.

Along with the constants—dried porcinis, shiitakes, and chanterelles—the store's dried stock includes sweet, earthy, black trumpet mushrooms; the Chinese staple wood ear mushrooms; and a wild forest mushroom mix with Boletus and Black Fungus varieties.

Depending on the class, Lowery will cook with dry or specialty mushrooms, and was by Whitey Hitchcock's side to make dishes such as Chicken of the Woods Curry on Rice and Creamed Chanterelles with Smoked Ham over Grits or Polenta when the store recently hosted a class and meal titled, "The Wild Mushroom Forager." But the mushroom he dreams about is a morel, "freshly picked giant white morels in early spring." And his favorite prep is fairly Bohemian: "I either grill them like steak, or cook them in tempura batter and serve them with cilantro yogurt mint dip," says the man who's learned cuisine on three continents. "They are great with a wine called Gewurztraminer." Lowery recommends the same dip with most any fried mushroom, and shares this recipe:

Mint-Cilantro Dip

(Podina Chutney)

1/3 cup Plain yogurt

1/3 cup Sour cream

1 tablespoon Onion, chopped

1/3 teaspoon Fresh ginger, grated

1 or 2 Serrano chilies, seeded and chopped (or to taste)

1/2 teaspoon Salt *

Pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon Green bell pepper, chopped

1/4 cup Fresh mint leaves

3/4 cup Fresh cilantro (coriander leaves)

Place all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until creamy check for salt, cover, and chill before serving.