Wade Watson worked for nearly two decades as a chef, including stints at Borgne and La Provence, before founding Pontchartrain Mushrooms. Now he cultivates a variety of mushrooms in Slidell. Watson was a finalist at the recent Startup St. Bernard pitch contest at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), where he presented his plan for a mushroom business that would supply restaurants and farmers markets and act as an agent in post-hurricane environmental cleanup, waste removal and coastal restoration efforts. Watson spoke with Gambit about his mushroom plans.a
How did you get into the mushroom business?
Watson: The mushroom business started from an idea my wife and I had while foraging for chanterelles in 2014. We always loved nature and loved being outside. We got really excited about cultivation and started educating ourselves about mushrooms. We have three young kids, and (in 2016) she went back to work, and I decided to pursue this full time. I'm a wholesaler at this point. Sac-A-Lait uses the product consistently. A lot of chefs purchase from us, but we're more of a specialty provider at this point, because we don't grow enough volume to supply on a consistent basis. We have up to 19 wholesale accounts, (including) Angeline, August, Johnny Sanchez, Trenasse, Toups South and Brigtsen's, and I've sold to Simone's Market.
What kind of mushrooms do you grow?
W: We operate out of our house in Slidell. It's a true homegrown operation. I grow them in a climate-controlled area that's got humidity controls and a certain amount of fresh air exchange. A lot of people think growing mushrooms is something that happens in a damp basement, and that's really not the case. Mushrooms don't necessarily photosynthesize but they do use light.
I grow a variety of oyster mushrooms and we specialize in king oysters, which are my favorite to grow. They are a higher quality than typical oyster mushrooms. Every part is 100 percent usable, and they've got a really long shelf life and ship well. So there's a lot to like about growing those. We specialize in about six different varieties of oyster (mushrooms), and I also grow a variety called lion's mane, which is a pompom variety ... and it's used a lot in vegetarian dishes. They'll use it to replace jumbo lump crabmeat, and there are some who use it for medicinal value as well. Some studies have shown that it stimulates neurons in our brains, making them potentially significant to treatment of Alzheimer's and even neurological damage caused by strokes. I'm trying to get into more medicinal (mushrooms), but that's more for a hobby.
How can mushrooms help with coastal restoration efforts?
W: The big thing that I was trying to sell at (NOEW) was not necessarily the mushroom business, which was a pitch in itself, but also as a secondary source about monetizing the waste stream. I would take the substrate, once it's produced that fruit, and I was going to compost that with worms, turning that into nutrient-rich organic soil that would be used to repopulate our coast with native species of mangrove cypress and bulrush and things like that.
In my time studying mycology, I've learned a lot. There's mycoremediation, where I can use mycology to remediate things like chemical spills, oil spills, agricultural runoff. It can be used to filter out all these chemicals and heavy metals. Mushrooms are decomposers and what happens is that they're kind of like filters inside the soil. There have been studies with oil spills and even the spill from BP where (it's been shown that) they'll basically absorb and filter out the chemicals and toxins and heavy metals.