A mushroom adventure: Memphis chef shares the bounty (and foraging fun) of edible fungi

·5 min read

It was 7:45 on a Saturday morning when I got the text. “There are morel mushrooms today,” it read.

For a week, I had been texting with Andrew Armstrong, the chef at Bounty on Broad restaurant in Memphis, about the status of this year’s wild morel mushroom crop. After six days of anticipation, these gems of the fungi world had popped forth from the ground.

My husband and I quickly hopped in the car and headed to the meeting spot.

MEMPHIS RESTAURANTS: Bounty on Broad has a new chef and a new menu. Here's what to expect

NEW MEMPHIS EATS: New restaurants, grocery stores and a pinball pub? 11 Memphis spots you need to try

Andrew Armstrong, chef of Bounty on Broad, hunts for Morel mushrooms on March 26, 2022.
Andrew Armstrong, chef of Bounty on Broad, hunts for Morel mushrooms on March 26, 2022.

Hiding in plain sight

As we walked along a hiking trail, Andrew pointed to a sunny spot and said, “Can you see it? There’s one in that patch.”

It took me a minute, but when I followed Andrew’s suggestion of getting lower to the ground, I could see the conical top of a morel popping up through the bed of leaves.

Right in front of me was a gourmet mushroom that retails for more than $200 per pound when sold dried.

A morel mushroom. These edible mushrooms can be found growing in Shelby County in early Spring.
A morel mushroom. These edible mushrooms can be found growing in Shelby County in early Spring.

Andrew reached down and, using a pair of garden clippers, snipped it at the base and popped it in a bucket.

A few feet down the trail, he spotted another. Within the hour, he had almost a dozen.

And this was just walking down what he called his “tell-tale” spot of what’s coming. He said he suspected from what he saw that day that he would find many more in his “secret spot” within the coming days.

NEW MEMPHIS RESTAURANTS: Sneak peek: Fancy's Fish House brings riverfront dining back to Downtown Memphis

DOWNTOWN MEMPHIS BUSINESSES: Feast & Graze brings its charcuterie and cheese 'grazing' boxes (and more) to Downtown

So where are they?

There is a code among mushroom foragers that you do not share the location of a prolific patch, otherwise known as someone’s “secret spot.”

But, what Andrew said I can tell you is that wild edible mushrooms, like morels, grow across the Southeast. From chanterelles to chicken of the woods to lion’s mane mushrooms, you can find these coveted fungi in nature — oftentimes in parks in the middle of the city.

Morel mushrooms harvested in Shelby County by Bounty on Broad chef Andrew Armstrong.
Morel mushrooms harvested in Shelby County by Bounty on Broad chef Andrew Armstrong.

“Did you know the world’s largest morel was found in Arkansas just a couple of years ago?” Andrew asked.

That’s right — Arkansas, not France as I would have thought.

Morels in particular can be found along sandy waterways across the Southeast in early spring. “Look for sunny patches on south-facing slopes,” he said.

They even grow up North. Stephie Hutton, Andrew’s friend who was with him that Saturday morning I joined in the hunt, said that as a child, she had gone hunting mushrooms with her father back in her home state of Wisconsin.

As I told friends of my adventure, many said to me that they grow on their farm or near a hunting cabin.

Stephie Hutton, a friend of chef Andrew Armstrong, points out a morel mushroom growing on the side of a hiking trail in Shelby County.  Hutton, who grew up foraging mushrooms in WI with her father, often accompanies Armstrong on his mushroom hunts.
Stephie Hutton, a friend of chef Andrew Armstrong, points out a morel mushroom growing on the side of a hiking trail in Shelby County. Hutton, who grew up foraging mushrooms in WI with her father, often accompanies Armstrong on his mushroom hunts.

Mother Nature determines when the mushrooms will sprout.

Andrew had been going out to look for signs of morels daily for more than a week, before he spotted some. At first conditions had been too warm and dry, then a cold front brought the dampness and cooler weather that morels love.

“Ideally, it is around 45 degrees at night and about 65 degrees in the day. If it reaches 75 degrees in the day, they are gone,” he said, pointing out why the end of March and beginning April are when he starts scouting for morels.

A morel mushroom picked in Memphis, TN.  Chef Andrew Armstrong forages for wild mushrooms like morels.
A morel mushroom picked in Memphis, TN. Chef Andrew Armstrong forages for wild mushrooms like morels.

Once the morel mushrooms sprout, they need to be picked within 48 hours. “They literally grow overnight,” Andrew said. “You have to pick them when you see them, or they will get buggy. As soon as they grow, they almost immediately start to rot.”

Andrew pointed out that morels are an excellent mushroom for a novice forager. “It’s one of the few mushrooms that doesn’t look like anything else.”

FLIP SIDE: A look inside the Memphis pinball pub, from the vintage games to unique bar food

NEW GERMANTOWN RESTAURANTS: Limelight: Germantown is getting a new restaurant in the former Farm & Fries spot

How to get started

Foraging mushrooms is just as much about the hunt as it is the find.

“Mushrooms are a gift,” Andrew said. “It’s about getting out in nature. Finding a mushroom is both an adventure and a reward. I see mushrooms as a thank you for having a special relationship with nature.”

The No. 1 thing to remember is that you won’t be successful if you don’t get out there.

“I had been looking for them for three or four years before I found my first morel,” he said, explaining he had spent years researching and asking questions. “It’s all about being there at the right time.”

Bounty on Broad chef Andrew Armstrong prepares the garnish for his Morel Mushroom and Sweetbreads Terrine. The terrine is made with morel mushrooms he foraged in Shelby County.
Bounty on Broad chef Andrew Armstrong prepares the garnish for his Morel Mushroom and Sweetbreads Terrine. The terrine is made with morel mushrooms he foraged in Shelby County.

But there is good news. “Once you find a morel patch, it comes back every year,” he said.

Andrew started foraging for mushrooms back in 2007, when he was 25 years old and a cook at the Hunt-Phelan House.

“We had ordered some Black Trumpets. I saw the price, and that’s when the fascination started,” he said.

For many years, he had a small business supplying Memphis restaurants with fresh chanterelles. “I was picking 50 to 100 pounds a year.”

But he admits it wasn’t easy in the beginning. “At first, I would often confuse tulip poplar flowers as chanterelles. That’s how novice I was,” he said.

Books like “Mushrooms of the Southeast” by Todd Elliott and Steven Stephenson became trusty guides that he carried with him on hunts in the early years.

MEMPHIS COCKTAIL BARS: 'Fancy Drinks-Party Time': What to expect at Cameo, a new Midtown cocktail bar

MEMPHIS CHEFS: As Rizzo's closes, chef Michael Patrick to join team at The Capital Grille

How to enjoy a morel

At Bounty on Broad, Andrew creates elaborate dishes that highlight morels. An unctuous terrine made with fresh morels and sweetbreads is a dish he is working on for an upcoming menu.

A Morel Mushroom and Sweetbreads Terrine at Bounty on Broad in Memphis, TN. Chef Andrew Armstrong features locally foraged mushrooms on his menu when in season.
A Morel Mushroom and Sweetbreads Terrine at Bounty on Broad in Memphis, TN. Chef Andrew Armstrong features locally foraged mushrooms on his menu when in season.

A ramen bowl with a hot and sour consommé and a sous-vide local duck egg showcases thinly sliced morel mushrooms.

You can also enjoy them at home, simply prepared.

“The best way to eat them is to sauté them with butter, garlic, shallots and parsley,” Andrew said. "Put them in pasta, in an omelet or serve them with a steak."

And one last tip when foraging for morels from Andrew — take a moment to enjoy being in nature and the gifts it has to give.

“And know you may find just as many on the way back down the trail as when you first headed out. It’s all about how the light hits the morels as it changes throughout the day.”

Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at jennifer.chandler@commercialappeal.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Where to find morel mushrooms in Memphis: Chef shares foraging tips