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Cookstuff : FINDS : The Fungus Finder

March 23, 1995|KATHIE JENKINS

Beau Buck used to track down chefs, bank execs and other white-collar professionals. The former headhunter is still on the prowl, only now his quarry is of a vegetable nature. Pink trumpets, rose clusters, yellow clusters, black truffles, purple wild huckleberries and dried lavender blossoms are just a few of the colorful exotic fungi and wild produce he hunts down for Spago, Chinois on Main, Matsuhisa, the Hotel Bel-Air and other local restaurants and hotels. "I try to come up with the most unusual, interesting and rare type of ingredients I can find," says Buck. "Then it's up to the chef to figure out what to do with them."

Buck buys seasonal products from suppliers and fungi foragers here and in Europe. The flower blossoms come from an organic cooperative in Iowa. Wild black raspberries are from Oregon. The black truffles are purchased from the Italian firm Urbani, the world's largest truffle distributor. "I was approached by a French company that was selling truffles out of Tibet, but I turned them down," says Buck. "They looked like the black ones from Italy and France. They kind of smelled like them too. But they are a different species and had no flavor."

Chanterelle season is just about over, but portobello ($4.50 a pound), oyster ($4 a pound), white trumpets ($8 a pound) and rose and yellow clusters ($8 a pound) are plentiful.

And the crinkly morels are just coming into season. "A fellow in Washington called me just the other day. He's organizing a hunting party. The morels come out of places that have had forest fires, so they're checking the map to see where the burn areas are."

But if you're thinking about hopping into your car and heading to Malibu, you can forget it. "Morels need an alpine climate," says Buck. "But sometimes there are some puny chanterelles out there." Buck, who calls his company Mushroom Man, also puts out a mail-order catalogue featuring packaged gourmet products such as infused olive oils, truffle puree, truffle flour, dried mushrooms and porcini powder. To make a quick, rich sauce for steak and other meats, chefs deglaze saute pans with the mushroom powder. They remove the meat, add a dash of porcini powder along with some water or stock and boil hard, scraping the bottom of the pan to get up any browned bits that stuck.

Because fungi, wild berries and most of his produce are too fragile to be sent by mail, Buck sells to the public on Wednesdays out of his cold-storage space near the airport. (By appointment only, and the minimum order is $20.) "It's like selling out of a truck," says Buck. "It's definitely not for somebody who wants a mushroom or two. But if you want a little more than that, I'm definitely the way to go."

* The Mushroom Man. Call (800) 945-3404 for catalogue and information.

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