At the start of the pandemic, Nicola Dominici opened a vegan restaurant in Miami. To meet its kitchen’s demand, he grows over seven tonnes of mushrooms per month.
With several stops in different parts of the world, including London, Nicola Dominici set out for Florida from the dense forests of Umbria. Brought up in a region of Italy known for its conservative values, his worldview was transformed once he arrived in Miami. But his love for Italian food survived. As soon as he unpacked, Nicola opened a vegan restaurant – somewhere along the way, he had lost faith that we have to eat meat.
Ewa Pawlik: There have been reports that following Berlin, Warsaw is the second European city when it comes to the overall number of vegan restaurants.
Nicola Dominici: In the US, veganism is also becoming increasingly popular, although customers are still looking for meat substitutes. They are also happy to choose comfort food, i.e., dishes that are associated with home. We often achieve such flavours in our restaurant using mushrooms. For most people, they evoke associations with childhood. I myself remember mushroom picking with my grandfather. Almost every Italian from Umbria has such memories!
It’s the same with Poles, but for quite a long time mushrooms have had bad press.
They were often considered as an addition rather than as a base and accused of a lack of nutritional value, which fortunately turned out to be untrue. We still don’t know much about the kingdom of fungi. When it comes to DNA, they have more in common with humans than plants. This is a fascinating and popular subject. My customers ordered a lot of mushroom dishes, and in turn we ordered plenty of different species of mushrooms.
How did you get the idea to start growing mushrooms?
I had grown some species of mushrooms at home before, so I already had the opportunity to learn and understand how it works. But that was, of course, a small-scale exercise for my own needs. We’d been ordering massive amounts of mushrooms for the restaurant, and it struck me that none were grown locally. They came from either China or Europe, so they really travelled a long way to get to our tables – and, of course, they weren’t cheap.
In Europe, healthy local food is still relatively available. Polish market stalls, especially in the summer, are pure poetry!
It’s quite the opposite in the US. Eating healthy food costs a lot of money and not everyone can afford it. It is difficult to buy from most supermarkets. Even then, these organic fruit and vegetables are grown from genetically modified seeds and often travel thousands of miles to reach the US. It doesn’t make much sense in the long run, so you have to look for other options. Land is expensive, and not everyone wants or is able to live outside the city to grow their own food. But fungi can be completely domesticated.
Tell me about how you grow mushrooms for your restaurant.
We started relatively recently. We founded Marvelous Mushrooms Miami at the start of the pandemic. The restaurant ceased to function normally, as did all the other restaurants around the globe. We had more time and decided to experiment with mushrooms. Now we produce over seven tonnes per month, and we deliver to supermarkets, take them to markets and fairs, and sell them to restaurants. Our dream of local, healthy and accessible food has come true. We breed several dozen species of fungi. They differ in appearance, taste, texture and nutritional values. Unbelievable wealth.
Sounds like a huge effort.
The answer is ‘yes and no.’ We use rooms where we can fully control all conditions: hydration, light, temperature. Fungi are capricious, you need to create a perfect environment and be able to maintain it. But the growing process itself is fully sustainable and environmentally-friendly, from start to finish.
You grow them on bags that look like punching bags. What’s in them – dregs, coffee grounds?
No, although theoretically we could use that. But we had an even better idea. We buy hay, which is technically waste, so it costs next to nothing. We grow mushrooms on bags filled with hay, and at the end of the growth cycle, we sell what is left.
Who buys it and why?
It is an excellent fertilizer, the best you can dream of. Completely natural, free from chemicals, with positive effects on the plants that grow on it. At the moment, we earn more from the sales of fertilizer than mushrooms alone. So we produce no waste, everything remains in circulation.
A gold mine!
Most of all, a passion! I keep an eye on all kinds of new discoveries. In recent years there’s been more and more research and the future of fungi looks promising. Perhaps, thanks to them, we will stop stuffing chickens full of antibiotics, replace leather with fungi-based products, maybe we will solve the issue of access to healthy, chemical-free food for the masses. I am waiting in suspense, and I will definitely take part in whatever comes next for fungi.
All this for the love of fungi?
For the love of life.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
A friend of “Przekrój”. He runs a vegan restaurant in Miami and the largest mushroom farm in Florida. Once a fierce advocate of eating meat, today he fights for the light.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
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