A “magic mushroom” is taking a wide-range of diners – from Manhattan’s famed Le Bernardin to astronauts in outer space – on a wild trip.
Known as Fy, rhymes with sci-fi, the funky fungi are a protein formed from a microbe found by a NASA-funded geo-microbiologist in the acid hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.
Astronauts are now studying these fungi in space as a food source during long missions. Back on Earth, Chef Eric Ripert has been using Fy in several dishes at Le Bernardin, the seafood sanctuary named 2023’s top restaurant in the US and second best restaurant in the world by La Liste.
“We call it here, as a joke, the ‘magic mushroom.’ It’s basically magic,” Ripert told Side Dish. “It tastes like nothing, like milk with a slight umami taste.”
For the past six months, Ripert has served Fy in his desserts, including a chamomile ice cream, and in a squash blossom delicacy. He’s also recently included it in a savory Yukon Gold Potato dish with olive and a sauce vierge, in his $220 vegetarian tasting menu and in a cold hazelnut dessert.
“It is very versatile. Because it’s a protein, it doesn’t break. You can turn it into chicken nuggets, anything,” said Ripert as he prepared the potato dish in his restaurant’s kitchen — with assistants buzzing around him with the devoted intensity and agility of France’s World Cup soccer team.
Getting a taste of Fy isn’t limited to just the select few space travelers or those who score a reservation to Le Bernardin.
Nature’s Fynd, a Chicago-based food tech company, creates Fy products like dairy-free cream cheese and breakfast patties sold in grocery stores for around $5. Yogurt will be next, along with other products to be disclosed in 2023, said Karuna Rawal, Nature Fynd’s chief marketing officer.
Eight-ounce tubs of the cream cheese can also be found next door to Le Bernardin at L’Ami Pierre, a French fast-food-style cafe on East 51st St. where Ripert is a partner with his friend Pierre-Antoine Raberin. L’Ami Pierre smears Fy on what are arguably the world’s best baguettes to make sandwiches with smoked salmon and other vegetarian options.
Fy is part of a food tech trend that uses fermentation to transform microbes into alternative proteins that are fast and cheap to make. It was discovered by NASA-backed scientists looking to produce food sources on other planets.
But the Yellowstone discovery is part of decades-long research into mycoproteins, also known as mycelium. Unlike plant-based meat alternatives made from peas, soybeans and wheat, mycelium — made from fungi, not plants — doesn’t take up a lot of land or water.
The first mycelium product — a meat pie — was introduced in Britain in 1985 by Quorn, although the research had begun back in the 1960s, said Robert Lawson, managing partner of London-based consultants Food Strategy Associates and Quorn’s former CEO.
“They are incredible ingredients that we believe will enter our food chain,” Lawson told Side Dish. “It’s healthy and cost-effective and no animals are harmed in the process. What’s not to like?”
Added Ripert: “The big difference between [mycelium] and soybeans is that for soybeans, you have to cultivate the land and use water, fertilizers and pesticides. This needs nothing.”
The Fy microbe grows in an acidic liquid found in Yellowstone hot springs that are “inhospitable to bacteria and organisms that might otherwise contaminate it, rendering pesticides and antibiotics unnecessary,” according to NASA’s website.
A tray — which looks like baked lasagna slices — takes a few days to create, and holds the equivalent of the amount of protein found in 20 chickens, Ripert said.
“For us, it’s fascinating, versatile and unknown. We don’t know how it will behave when it is heated or frozen,” adds Orlando Soto, Le Bernardin’s executive pastry chef.
Today, around 30 companies are in the mycelium field, and most use different strains of fungi, Lawson said.
One of the best known is California-based The Better Meat Company, launched by founder Paul Shapiro in 2018, who told Side DIsh there will be “an explosion of products in the next five years.”
Its mycelium steaks sold out at a Sacramento steakhouse, Bennett’s, and its mycelium foie gras has been a hit at California restaurants and the LInkedIn corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
“The world of fungi proteins has barely been scratched,” Shapiro said. “While the world has relied on growing lots of plant species, we haven’t investigated the world of fungi proteins that deeply in part because there is a high barrier to entry — bio-tech expertise.”
Top design houses, including Hermes and Chanel, have also begun experimenting with mycelium to create vegan leathers, sources tell Side Dish.
Other food tech companies are also using alternative proteins to create fish without fish. That, however, is where Ripert — a vegetarian-forward prince among seafood chefs — draws the line. For now, at least.
We hear … There’s still time to cram in the best of the city’s holiday season from some of the city’s most creative chefs and restaurateurs. Pop-ups abound and holiday decor is everywhere, including the Moxy Hotel’s Magic Rooftop lounge, with its Instagram-savy apres-ski carousel, and at the Macabee Bar for Hanukkah, in the West Village.
American Cut steakhouse lovers can also honor Italian-Americans’ Feast of Seven Fishes tradition with a seafood tower including chili lobster, poached lobster, tuna tartare, oysters, shrimps and more, while Christmas themes run cleverly at Bell Book & Candle, with lots of festive pillows, blankets, lights and holiday themed cocktails, and at Naughty or Nice, which has taken over The Skinny Bar and Lounge.
Finally, there’s Le Bernardin’s sister spot, Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, named after its legendary sommelier, who created an outdoor fondue service to bring a little taste of the Alps to Midtown.