George Zheng was in hot water with the dean, but in his gut he felt excitement.
As an engineering student at Rochester Institute of Technology, Zheng was working on an independent study project with the Rochester-based company Sweetwater Energy. The goal was to find a commercial use for lignin, an organic substance found in wood. His idea was to grow mushrooms in it.
“I had no idea how to grow mushrooms,” he said, but with a day’s worth of Google searching and $30 in materials from Home Depot, he set up an experiment at a lab at RIT. Finals came and went, and when he returned to the lab after school break, he had grown something, but it wasn’t mushrooms. Instead, he had grown black mold — which had left the box and grown in some ceiling tiles, which had to be replaced.
Zheng was undaunted.
“That was really interesting to me,” he said. “I at least created an environment where something would grow. That got me thinking about the fungal kingdom.”
The son of Chinese immigrants, Zheng grew up in Ithaca, and spent a lot of time in a laboratory in the biology building at Cornell University, where his father, Dr. Xinmin Zheng, was a cancer researcher.
“I’ve always been a fairly curious kid,” George Zheng said, and after he completed his homework he would occasionally poke his prying fingers in the wrong places. While his father might scold him, he also would explain what was happening in the lab.
“I wanted to become an engineer to complement science,” Zheng said. He chose RIT for its hands-on focus.
After the experiment, Zheng continued to experiment with mycology (growing mushrooms), and come 2012 — before he graduated from RIT — his efforts had enough promise that he had started a company, along with three other founders: his father; Scott Valpey, who is CFO; and Chris Carter, vice president.
The company started as Empire Medicinals, focusing on medical use of mushrooms, but practical and geopolitical issues caused the partners to change their focus to culinary mushrooms and change the name to Leep Foods. Their goals are both simple and lofty: to become the largest organic mushroom company in the world, and do for specialty mushrooms what Chobani did for Greek yogurt.
Mushroom growers sold more than 917 million pounds of mushrooms, valued at $1.23 billion, in 2017-2018 growing season, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Certified organic mushroom sales represented 10 percent of those sales. There were 307 mushroom growers in the U.S. last year; 80 were certified organic.
“Leep Foods is the perfect intersection of technology, innovation and agriculture,” said Bob Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, noting that these are all important facets of the Rochester and Finger Lakes economy. “That is such a great fit for our region.
“I think we should celebrate companies like this,” he said.
How Leep Foods grows mushrooms
Zheng’s forays into mycology got the company off the starting blocks, but he soon passed the baton to Luke Luft, an experienced mycologist who was hired as production manager. He is one of two hired employees on the payroll; the plan is to grow to six or seven next year.
Luft developed the organic process to grow and ramp up production of specialty mushrooms, including oyster, maitake, trumpet and lion’s mane mushrooms. These mushrooms grow on wood in nature; it was Luft’s challenge to replicate those conditions.
“Luke gets all the credit,” Zheng said. “It’s still mold growing but the right mold.”
When you enter the unobtrusive warehouse on Scottsville Road in Chili, you get a whiff of a sawdust aroma, something like a hamster cage lined in wood shavings. That is the damp lignin in which the mushrooms are grown.
Microscopic spores grow in the lignin in sealed bags, which go through a sterilization process to ensure the right fungus grows. Eventually each bag is poked with a hole and placed in a sterile greenhouse; a cluster of mushrooms emerges from each bag.
Because each mushroom has requires a specific growing environment, and the small facility cannot accommodate several greenhouses, the company is focusing on two varieties: blue oyster mushrooms, which are a beautiful soft gray, and lion’s mane mushrooms, which resemble cauliflower.
Chefs weigh in
Chefs at a handful of local restaurants including Bar Bantam, The Owl House, Han Noodle Bar and Marty’s Meats have offered specials incorporating mushrooms from Leep Foods.
“They are some of the best mushrooms I’ve ever had that have been cultivated locally,” said Sean O’Donnell, executive chef for Bar Bantam in The Metropolitan building downtown. The Rochester native incorporates regional ingredients into seasonal menus that change every eight weeks. He has found the Leep Foods mushrooms to be more consistent than ones foraged in the wild, which would sometimes be woody or buggy.
One special was a mushroom ragout made with Leep Foods’ coral maitake mushrooms, which was served over stone-ground polenta and topped with fried egg. It got a positive response from customers and he still uses the mushrooms, sometimes as a vegan protein replacement for dinner entrées. He also has experimented with using lion’s mane mushrooms as a replacement for imitation crabmeat.
Marty O’Sullivan, owner of the Marty’s Meats food truck and Marty’s on Park restaurant, is accomplished at preparing mushrooms as a meat substitute. As an example, his salted and smoked shiitake mushrooms from Smugtown Mushrooms, another local mushroom grower, are crispy and salty enough to replace bacon on breakfast sandwiches.
For his special using Leep Foods’ blue oyster mushrooms, he roasts and pan-sears them to get a meaty flavor for a sandwich inspired by beef on ‘weck. A mound of the mushrooms is topped with provolone cheese and giardiniera (a vegetable relish commonly found on Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago), and served on a kimmelweck roll with mushroom jus for dipping.
“I thought this was a good opportunity to showcase that we do vegetables pretty well here,” O’Sullivan said. He has a cauliflower dish on the menu, but said mushrooms generally come closer to the flavor and texture of meat.
The next step for Leep Foods is to reach a wider pool of chefs by selling their mushrooms at farmers markets around New York City. Zheng hopes that will also help land the products on cooking shows such as Top Chef and Chopped.
Chefs’ tips for cooking
O’Donnell and O’Sullivan offered tips for working with Leep Foods mushrooms.
• Specialty mushrooms are generally tough and bland when uncooked; they will be more palatable when fully cooked.
• O’Sullivan roasts the blue oyster mushrooms by cutting them from their base (which has a more dense, chewy texture), separating them into individual mushrooms, then tossing them with olive oil, rice wine vinegar, salt and pepper. He then tops them with fresh thyme and roasts them at 450 degrees for about 10 minutes. Shred them to get a texture for a consistency akin to pulled pork.
• O’Donnell sears the mushrooms in a hot pan, then braises or finishes with butter.
• O’Sullivan suggests adding cooked mushrooms to stuffings or to grain salads with a hearty grain such as farro.
Where to try and buy
Marty’s on Park, 703 Park Ave., will serve a special Mushroom on ‘Weck sandwich through Sunday, Dec. 2. Roasted blue oyster mushrooms, provolone cheese and a giardiniera relish will be piled on a kimmelweck roll with mushroom jus on the side, for $9.
Wegmans sells organic blue oyster mushrooms from Leep Foods at the following local stores weekly:
• 745 Calkins Road in Henrietta
• 900 Holt Road in Webster
• 6600 Pittsford-Palmyra Road in Perinton
• 3195 Monroe Ave. in Pittsford
• 3175 Chili Ave. in Chili
• 345 Eastern Blvd. in Canandaigua
• 1750 East Ave. in Rochester
• 2157 Penfield Road in Penfield
• 3177 Latta Road in Greece