I am walking through the woods, but I can’t tell you where. Not because I don’t know; I most certainly do. But you can’t know.
That’s part of the deal I made with 56-year-old forager Tom Mueller, who is leading me and photograper Scott Suchman on a hunt for wild mushrooms. We are trudging up a forested hillside as bright mid-morning sunlight pierces through the green veil of leaves above. The air is damp, the dark brown earth tender with recent rain, but not muddy. Sounds of nature — birdsong, the chitter of warring squirrels — are occasionally interrupted by a faraway car honk or the drone of a passing jetliner. The slope is dotted with fallen trees and patches of scrubby underbrush.
If you’re wondering what Mueller looks like, sorry, I can’t tell you that either. I promised I wouldn’t describe him, and Suchman wouldn’t take any pictures of his face. The elusive forager doesn’t want people to know what he looks like or where he goes searching for wild edibles, mainly mushrooms, which he sells to some of D.C.’s most eminent restaurants, including Oyster Oyster, The Dabney, Centrolina and Tail Up Goat.
Suddenly, Mueller points. “This is the albino,” he says.
Sidled up to a decaying log is a mushroom about the size of a large cauliflower. The cluster of rippling fan-shaped fungi, vibrant orange at the center with pure white edges, has the look of a coral mysteriously transplanted from a reef. Otherwise known as chicken of the woods, it’s highly prized by chefs for its meaty texture and faint chicken-ish flavor.
Mueller gently cuts the mushroom at its base, carefully places it in a paper bag and slips his find into his backpack. Then we’re off back down the hill, chatting about his larger foraging journey.
Growing up in Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Mueller took long strolls through the forests with his father, who taught him to identify trees, a skill he still relies on. His love of wild fungi was ignited in the mid-1980s when a friend of his wife began working on a book about mushrooms, and he accompanied her on forays through Charles County in southern Maryland.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and opening Pineapple Alley Catering in 1993, he joined the Mycological Association of Washington, D.C. to expand his knowledge. At first, he only went out looking for morels in the spring; he had downtime at work, and they are easy to identify.
Then in 2012, his friend Jeff Long — an elusive badass in the foraging world whose adventures have been documented in “Outside” magazine and elsewhere — took Mueller under his wing. The pair went looking mainly for chicken of the woods, which Long sold to chef Cathal Armstrong for his erudite New American cuisine at Restaurant Eve. Later that same year, Mueller found a couple of major chanterelle sites, where he could pick 500 pounds of mushrooms a season, allowing him to go solo and establish his foraging business, Villa Fungi. His first customers were Frank Ruta — then at Palena and now heading up the kitchen at Annabelle — and Zaytinya (both are still clients).
We are deep in conversation when Mueller points to a clutch of chanterelle mushrooms blithely sprouting along the trail’s edge, their apricot orange caps splattered with mud and muck. I wonder how many people passed them by, not seeing them or ignorant of their culinary value. Plucking a handful, Mueller adds them to his backpack, and we set off again.
As we continue, he shares a simple mantra about succeeding as a forager: “You have to be willing to walk,” he says. “When you walk, you find stuff.”
Nonetheless, many times he has gone into the woods on a hunt only to come out hours later empty handed.
When mushrooms are in season, he’s usually out at 6:30 a.m. to forage for a few hours, often dropping local finds off at restaurants by 11 a.m. so they can be used for that evening’s dinner service. He sells anywhere from $5 to $1,500 worth of wild mushrooms a week. Morels are the gold standard, fetching $50 or more a pound. Porcinis are close behind at $40 a pound. Since selling his catering company in 2018, foraging is his sole source of income.
It’s a tough business, taking him far afield to Maine, the Jersey Shore and the Shenandoah, while putting 50,000 miles a year on his odometer. Climate change, development and pollution all threaten his livelihood in profound ways. He’s undeterred.
“You have to be willing to diversify, drive further and find new sites,” he says.
He pauses his answer.
“Tell me when you see it.”
I scan the greenery on either side, looking for a flash of color that could be a mushroom. For several steps, I see nothing. Then, as I peer more intently, I catch a glimpse of orange off to the right. It’s another chicken of the woods, this variety pale corn yellow along its edges. It’s radiant. We turn off the path like moths drawn to a flame.
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