Christopher Papagni

Christopher Papagni

Three guys with a penchant for mushrooms

Lately we write about, feature and talk about entrepreneurs as if they’re growing on trees or falling from the sky. The numbers are skewed in Portland; in reality, this country is populated with a lot more people working for others. Starting a business is scary and risky, and few among us are predisposed to have a go at it. Eliah Thanhauser, Matt McInnis and Jon Carver are the exception. The three met in 2005 at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, freshmen and matriculating. McInnis shared, “We knew we wanted to start a business, but the reality of obstacles and the fear of losing what little money we had, made us think twice." The three, however, did not let fear get in their way; they started North Spore with very little capital and have allowed the business to grow slowly and thoughtfully.

These three young business partners fondly reflect on their college years. Their shared interest in foraging sent them into the woods; a respite from studying and a chance to do what they enjoyed most. The three graduated in 2009 and went their separate ways, never losing touch. Carver’s intense interest in mycology, a branch of biology dealing with fungi, led him to pursue and acquire a master’s in mycology at University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. Soon after graduation, Carver accepted a position as a mycologist at Field and Forest Products, a company in Wisconsin — one of the nation’s leading mushroom spawn producers. Thanhauser and McInnis lived and worked in Berkeley, Calif., and returned to Maine in the spring of 2013. The three reunited in Maine and, in the summer of 2014, decided to start a mushroom cultivation, education and specialty business. McInnis was originally from Portland, Thanhauser from Belfast and Carver from Bennington, Vt.

If they’d had their druthers they would have preferred the business to be in Portland. They looked at commercial property in East Bayside and learned that they’d get twice as much space for a whole lot less in Westbrook. They occupied the space they are currently in nearly three months ago. Their operation looks out onto the Presumpscot River. Thanhauser is mesmerized by water and the changing levels of the river, an added bonus none of the three expected. How do the three of them spend their days at North Spore?

Thanhauser tells me with childlike enthusiasm, “I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong interest in organic farming. Even as a child I'd scheme up business ideas.”

North Spore is currently producing four species of mushrooms:  Oyster, Shiitake, Lion’s Mane and Chestnut. They plan on cultivating other varieties as their business expands. Ebb & Flow in Portland asked the three if they would grow micro greens for their restaurant. They are growing arugula, tatsoi, amaranth and mild micro greens, solely for Ebb & Flow; a part of their business they may or not grow in the future. In addition, the three are making birch tree bitters. The bitters are made with birch syrup, birch cambium and Chaga mushrooms. I was also surprised to learn that they are producing Chaga tea; Chaga is said to reduce the risk of cancer and strengthen the immune system. No doubt these products will soon fly off their shelves.

The majority of North Spore's production is done in reusable food-grade containers instead of single-use plastic bags. More labor intensive than typical methods, but allows for much less waste. North Spore was recently awarded a Maine Technology Institute grant to continue developing low waste mushroom cultivation methods. These thoughtful business practices set them apart from their competition.

There is one other year-round mushroom producer in Maine and one in New Hampshire; both have been in business longer than North Spore and had much more startup capital. The three partners’ goal in starting North Spore was not only to be a mushroom producer, but to also be a community resource, hosting lectures and classes on mushroom foraging and cultivation and encouraging others to delve into the mycological world.

The group reported, “We are committed to producing mushrooms in a beyond organic, truly sustainable way. We produce as little plastic waste as possible and are constantly innovating and raising the bar on industry standards in order to do so. Other mushroom companies seek to grow without limits and supply mushrooms to national markets. Our vision is to supply high quality sustainably grown mushrooms to local markets.”

The more I have discovered about mushrooms, the more I realized how much there is to learn. I suspect I am like most people who have never ventured further than the portobellos and shiitakes sold at my local supermarket. The guys sell to Rosemont, my corner market. I recently felt empowered to try a variety I had never tasted; the beauty of Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms caught my attention. I did a simple sauté with butter, cognac, sea salt and herbs de Provence. The taste and texture of these beautiful white mushrooms had me wondering why it has taken me so long to try them. They have a seafood like quality and nearly melt in your mouth. The Chinese have used Lion’s Mane mushrooms for medicinal purposes for centuries; its antioxidant effects, cancer-fighting agents and the reduction of blood glucose levels are just a few benefits.

Cultivated mushrooms can be purchased and enjoyed year round. North Spore’s busiest times are around the holidays and at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. Their Oyster Mushroom bucket kits are a huge seller — you can find these kits on the North Spore website,, along with the chaga tea and other items. Thanhauser, McInnis and Carver share a story you have heard many times before. Running water and electricity in their first production space seemed like a gift. Their struggles have paid off. The three enjoy healthy banter, a slightly messy workspace, and make every attempt to keep their workweek to 40 hours. Their longstanding friendship has remained intact and their love of mushrooms has only gotten richer.

  • Published in Feast

Vinland’s firsts: A bounty of Maine winter foods

David Levi, executive chef and owner, Vinland Restaurant in Portland, does nothing in a small way. When Levi decided to open a restaurant in Portland, he did not just decide to source local product as much as possible, Levi had to go all local, as in 100 percent local ingredients in every dish, becoming the only restaurant in the world to do so. The beverages are as local as possible while still featuring natural wine, coffee and tea, but the unique cocktail program is based only on spirits distilled in the Northeast combined with ingredients that follow the kitchen rules, 100 percent local. So there’s no cane sugar or citrus. More like honey, maple sugar, sumac, cranberry and yogurt whey, along with dozens of local, mostly wild, botanicals. Might I add, it’s all good.

Naysayers have poo-pooed his concept. Some said it could not be done. Levi has proven these folks wrong time and again. He is now in his second successful year of business and it is only getting better and better. His innovative and creative menu and his outspoken character have been praised by many in the know.

Sarah Karnasiewicz of The Wall Street Journal said this about Levi, “ . . . though the parameters he's set for himself at Vinland are stringent — the menu is larded with wild foods like goose tongue (a wild plant) and Japanese knotweed but contains no citrus, olive oil or other ingredients Maine producers can't provide — he manages to avoid being overly cerebral.”

Many say that it would be impossible to use exclusively locally sourced foods this time of the year. I sat down with David to learn more about what he is purchasing from his purveyors these days and how he is incorporating these local foods into his menu.

When in season here in Maine, Levi purchases or forages wild mushrooms and then dries or preserves them in salt for off-season use; black trumpet and matsutake mushrooms can often be tasted in his dishes. He buys cultivated mushrooms from North Spore, right here in Westbrook, a company that has gained notice from chefs all over the States. Levi shares that wild food does not necessarily have to be considered challenging or inaccessible. His staple sugar is maple syrup, a wild food that is familiar and commonplace for Mainers.

Levi prepares many winter dishes using wild Maine seafood. He purchases Gulf of Maine dayboat scallops directly from fishermen for $15 per pound. A local purveyor would charge him $25 per pound, prohibitive for his price point. Levi’s $39 casual “Winter Monday” tasting menu is affordable and accessible. On Wednesdays, a diner can enjoy a jazz trio and 20 percent off of all menu items — putting to rest the perception that Vinland is strictly for special occasions.

Hake, skate, mussels, monkfish, lobster and oysters are found in the wild in Maine year-round. Many of Levi’s dishes are made with seaweed; nori, kombu, sugar kelp, Irish moss and dulse all have natural sea salt and are all sun-dried as a method of preservation. These seaweeds are harvested when the tides are at their lowest and then preserved for use throughout the year. These seaweeds offer a wide range of flavors. The Japanese are buying Maine seaweed because of its intense flavor, and as Levi would tell us, “Maine seaweed doesn’t glow in the dark.” Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed in Stonington is the primary company Levi purchases from.

As in the rest of the country, Mainers cannot purchase terrestrial wild meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow the sale of these meats because there is no way they can inspect the meat while the animal is alive. On the other hand, Mainers can purchase marine meat which has not been inspected — this double standard hurts many rural Mainers, who would sell a good deal of wild venison, game birds and some moose if they were permitted to do so. Levi has no desire to serve industrial chicken. He purchases chicken year-round from Serendipity Acres Farm in North Yarmouth. These chickens are certified organic and raised on a pasture. This is also where Levi’s sources the eggs he uses at the restaurant.

Blueberries and cranberries are used often in Levi’s dishes. These berries are all certified organic, like most of his ingredients; anything not certified is still grown organically. These matters are of great importance to Levi when he sources his food. He loves using Maine grown parsnip. I have personally tasted and fallen in love with his parsnip turmeric custard. The custard is a beautiful orange color due to the bright orange egg yolk and the local turmeric. The ginger powder in this dish adds a powerful flavoring and shows off Levi’s creativity.

Levi’s training at Noma in Copenhagen, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, is one reason to take notice of his cuisine. Another is his love of Maine and his desire to educate us about the abundance of foods available to us year-round.

Chef Levi left me with this, “Maine’s bounty never runs out … 365 days a year, no lean time. Maine cuisine, as it continues to grow and evolve has no Achilles’ heel. It is potentially as great as any other world cuisine; Italian, French, Japanese — any great food place has its own inherent genius. When you go to Tuscany to eat Tuscan food, you know exactly what you’re eating. Showcasing Maine’s inspiring and delightful foods, and testing just how far we can push the boundaries, is what makes cooking in Maine so worthwhile. Maine cuisine is in its infancy, and there is no telling how far it can go.”

  • Published in Feast

Dining art: Inside, Outside, Above, Below at Thompson’s Point

food_dining artCP3_100115You never know if a meal is going to make your “top five” list, and this one surpassed all expectations. I hesitate to call what I experienced “dinner theatre”; that conjures up memories of bad theatre in the ’80s. On the other hand, it was by all counts theatrical.

  • Published in News

Is Portland really the new Brooklyn?

I was telling a well known Portland blogger about my plan to write this piece and he replied, “I’m happy to hear someone is willing to say it isn’t so.”

Having been born and raised in Brooklyn; experienced its renaissance and recent international attention, I would have to answer, “no” to this question. Portland is a beautiful and dynamic city and it should not be compared to Brooklyn for many reasons. There are a few considerations when pondering the comparison. For one, Brooklyn boasts a population of nearly 3 million people; that’s at least two times larger than the entire state of Maine. Brooklyn is connected to the borough of Manhattan; Manhattan is the center of the free world’s financial market. Brooklyn has a subway system and is one of five boroughs that make up the city of New York City — technically, Brooklyn is not even a city. However, these are big picture facts, the truth of the matter is that the two cities have very little in common.

  • Published in News

Emilitsa revival: Greece right here in our own backyard

food emilitsa 062515Emilitsa on Congress in in the process of a culinary makeover, and that’s good for all of us. This splendid Greek restaurant has been a part of Portland’s dining scene for six years. I have enjoyed eating at Emilitsa since the day after I arrived here from Brooklyn. Though I’m not Greek, I believe my ancestors might be — what else could explain the “Papa” in my last name? In Greece, family is everything; very similar to the Italian culture I was raised in.

  • Published in News

What I learned from my father

My name is Christopher Papagni. I arrived here last winter after spending 16 years at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City. The last position I held at the school was Executive Vice President. After completing a Ph.D. at New York University in Education Administration, it seemed logical to marry my love of food with education. FCI was where chefs like Bobby Flay and David Chang went to school to learn basic French technique. While employed at the school I became involved with the James Beard Foundation, The American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF), The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), The Culinary Trust, Spoons Across America, and other culinary foundations and organizations. I have settled here in Portland to enjoy all that a city by the sea has to offer. This is how and when my love affair with food began.

Pop-up in Camden is a warm-up for Chef Lawrence Klang

Hold onto your hats, Portland, you are officially about to be wowed.upandcoming_food_031215

On Thursday night, guest Executive Chef Lawrence Klang presented a pop-up dinner at Natalie’s at The Camden Harbour Inn — a preview for what’s to come to Portland’s West End this spring.

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