Sophia Roe on the Multiplicity of Mushrooms

For the chef and culinary personality, fungi teach us about community, life, death, and even fashion.

sophia roe sitting in kitchen
Photo courtesy of Sophia Roe
Photo courtesy of Sophia Roe

For Sophia Roe, fungus is a muse. The James Beard Award–winning chef and Emmy-Award nominated TV host is often experimenting with enoki and shiitakes at her Brooklyn-based culinary studio, Apartment Miso. On Vice TV’s Counter Space, she dedicates an entire episode to the ways mushrooms are foraged and harvested around the world, geeking out with Giuliana Furci, Chile’s first female mycologist. This summer, she collaborated with Stella McCartney on a braised mushroom recipe, inspired by the fashion house’s mushroom leather 2022 collection.

But Roe’s obsession with the fruiting bodies of fungi go beyond physical functionality. The mycophile believes the kingdom—or queendom, as she likes to call it—can teach us a lot about the cycle of life and the creation of community, the necessity to stop and pay attention, as well as the possibility to push the boundaries of self-expression.

We spoke to Roe about creative ways to cook with mushrooms, mycelium as the fabric of the future, and the importance of fungal conservation, debunking some folkloric myths in the process.

Thrillist: When did your love for fungi begin?
Sophia Roe: My first loves are mold and yeast. I’m from Florida, which is a very humid place, so you leave food out on the counter a few hours too long, and you’re going to have mold. That was my introduction to fungi, mold as a kid. I’m a chef, so I’m always looking at the actual practicality of fungi. You wouldn’t have bread without fungi. You wouldn’t have beer. You wouldn’t have wine.

As humans, what lessons can we learn from the kingdom?
What fungi teach me every day is symbiosis—how we just really need each other way more than we think. The mushroom gives the tree water, the tree gives this mushroom its home. There’s this kind of beautiful, “It needs me, I need it.”

And that there’s so much beauty after death, or can be. I think decomposition is absolutely extraordinary. We are taught every facet of wellness, but everything is really geared towards longevity and living forever and looking young forever. It’s just silly. We’re all going to die. So for me, fungi creates this really beautiful understanding. The most noble thing that any of us can do, eventually, is die, because that creates space for new things. It is the fungi’s responsibility to decompose—to break things down—so we can start anew again. When a tree dies, it becomes a home for a million other new species and new trees. And without fungi, the earth would just be covered in dead bodies everywhere. We can’t have new seasons, we can’t have harvest, we can’t have spring without them. Fungi speak the most intellectual language that nature has. We’re so educated in flora, we’re so educated in fauna. But none of those things can exist without fungi.

Fungi can teach you about a whole cycle. It’s not enough to understand how something is made. You really do need to understand how something is broken down in order to respect something—and its process—in its entirety. I think that fungi can teach us so much about process, and process really matters, particularly for me as a chef.

If we’re talking about mushrooms specifically, they can really teach us how to pay attention. I’m tickled pink every time I see one. I might be the only person to see it! I love the cheekiness of the mushroom. It’s there today and gone tomorrow. It’s a magical thing to stumble across a thing that exists for just a bit. So the actual physicality of a mushroom is exciting to me because of that.

Do you think mushrooms, like those that have been found to eat plastic, can help save the planet?
I think they can help fix problems that humans created. But I don’t think they were put here to save the planet. I don’t know that fungi were ever thinking that it would have to do the things that we’re asking it to do. The great thing about fungi is that it’s not really in a hurry. It’s very under the radar.

Do I feel that they’re the future? I feel that they’re part of the future because we’re finally utilizing them in all their capacity, but it makes me sad that we have to. It makes me sad that we're asking fungi to break down plastic and radiation. So, yes, they're an important part of the future, because we need them to be.

How do mushrooms ignite a sense of play or imagination for you?
I just think they’re so beautiful. Move over flowers. I mean there are mushrooms that glow in the dark, in every color you could possibly imagine. Lactarius indigo, for example, has a beautiful, beautiful color. And there is such a sense of playfulness to a mushroom that I identify with a lot. If I had to be a thing like, “If you could be a plant, what plant would you be?,” I wouldn’t be a plant. I would definitely be a mushroom.

I find all the different formats that fungi can present itself as a queendom to be really inspiring. Fungi are like, “Yeah I’m a yeast, but also I’m a mushroom, but also I’m some mold, but also I’m a protist, but also I’m a lichen.” It makes me want to push the boundaries of how I express myself. Like, yes, I am a chef, but what else am I? What else can I do? Am I just this one thing? How can I be more like that in terms of community? How can I connect more? They really have a large impact.

"It is the fungi’s responsibility to decompose—to break things down—so we can start anew again."

What do you think are some misconceptions associated with mushrooms?
That they’re slimy. I mean, listen, there’s nothing worse than a can of mushrooms, you know what I mean? I think it’s all about how you cook them.

We’re also kind of taught that mushrooms are this yucky thing. The amount of times I’ve gone on a hike and I see another person and say, “Oh my gosh, if you keep walking, to your left, there’s going to be some gorgeous mushrooms.” And people are like, “Nah, I don’t do that sort of stuff.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? You think I’m out here in nature panhandling psilocybin? I’m telling you there’s some really beautiful mushrooms over there. Take a picture.”

I also think there’s a common misconception that all wild mushrooms are dangerous, and they’re not. There are wild mushrooms that are not edible because they just taste like shit, not because they’re poisonous. I think there’s 1.6 million different types of fungi. It’s pretty silly to assume that they’re all dangerous. In fact, a lot of research out there suggests that there’s only about a hundred or 200 that are deadly.

It’s also a common misconception that a lot of mushrooms are psilocybin, that a lot of mushrooms will get you high. That is also not the case. There’s only so many mushrooms that are psilocybin, golden teachers, that will actually make you trip. There are way more that are edible that are not going to do that to you.

What’s something you often see people doing wrong when cooking them?
I don’t want to say there’s a right or wrong way, because if you cook the mushrooms a certain way, and you like the way that they taste, then that’s right for you. But I do think it’s important to consider the type of mushroom. They’re all different. There’s not a one-size-fits-all in terms of how to cook a mushroom. I think another common misconception is that the only thing you can do is saute them with white wine and butter. I think that’s great, but you could do a lot more with them. People should consider cooking mushrooms in the way that they cook meat. Not all, but a lot of mushrooms can deal with a lot of cooking. You can braise a mushroom. You can roast a mushroom.

What’s your favorite unconventional way to incorporate mushrooms in recipes, beyond the saute?
I really like to utilize dried mushrooms. If there’s a summer harvest, I’ll just immediately take them and dry them, so that I can use them in the fall and the winter. In the winter in North America, you’re not going to find mushrooms. If you do, a lot of times, they’re not really edible, because of the frost. So one of my favorite ways is to make broth with them and then drink it, almost like you would drink bone broth, or utilizing that broth to cook grains or pasta.

A lot of people are really into mushrooms for medicinal value. Yeah that’s great, ganoderma, reishi, I get it. For me it’s a little bit more of a flavor thing. I think that lobster mushrooms or chicken of the woods have such great flavor. I also think you can utilize mushrooms with desserts. There are particular mushrooms that actually taste really good with chocolate. And so, you can actually mix dried mushrooms with cacao, for just a dusting on top of peanut butter toast in the morning, or even a hot chocolate. This is why you see so many reishi chocolate combinations in powder form. Those two things taste actually very good together.

What’s a mushroom that you think everyone should consider experimenting with?
My favorite mushroom is the Tremella fuciformis, or snow fungus. Tremella is my favorite genus. It’s used a lot in Chinese cuisine. They’re really small, and then they expand. It almost looks like coral or something. They hold up to 50 times their weight in water, and I just think that’s the coolest thing ever. They’re super high in what we call “plant-based collagen,” but here it would actually just be fungi-based collagen, and collagen is often thought to only come from animals. You often see Tremella in a lot of skin care. It’s really great for free radical damage and premature aging and all that shit, but I really hate that kind of language, so ultimately, the best thing about Tremella for me is that, because it has that kind of gelatinous texture, it’s a good absorber. That’s why the Chinese use it a lot in soup and stews, with dates or Chinese plums. It almost has a dumpling-like texture, which is pretty cool.

Are there any upcoming mushroom innovations that you are particularly excited about, beyond the food industry?
I’m very much inspired by fashion. And that’s something that maybe a lot of cooks and chefs don’t talk about, not because they don’t have great fashion sense, but I think that I’m always really trying to define the intersection. We’re seeing designers like Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and Rodarte really inspired by fungi, and I like seeing that it’s not just “We’re going to put a mushroom on a shirt,” but also “Let’s consider what we can do with mycelium, let’s consider how go about materiality, how we go about design and utility.” Fungi absolutely inspire me when it comes to utility. So I think it’s really great that we’re considering doing away with leather altogether, and utilizing mycelium as a replacement. We actually have a long way to go, but I do believe that fungi can absolutely be a really interesting beltway to a future that looks like a lot less leather or a lot less carbon emission, which is pretty rad.

How do you hope we can retain an interest in mushrooms and continue learning about them?
I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I remember thinking, in 2019, I knew this was going to happen. And even with my show, when I said I wanted to do an episode on mushrooms, they were like, “Okay, you’re doing a food show, not a drug show,” and I thought, Wow, we really need to do this episode, because you guys are missing it. I think what we can do is teach about it in the same way that we teach about plants, the same way that we teach about flowers. We need to start at the kid levels. We have grow boxes at schools, edible schoolyards, but I want people to know about mushrooms in the same way they walk into a damn grocery store and know the difference between Swiss chard and spinach.

Let’s try to unlearn that mushrooms are gross. Let’s try to unlearn that mold is bad. You have fungus all over your body, keeping you alive. You have it in your mouth, in your ears. We just need to keep talking about it and also protect it. It’s not enough to just be a vegan. At the end of the day, we need to be putting our resources and our minds to land conservation, i.e., fungal conservation, i.e., animal conservation. I feel like we have to look outside of ourselves a little bit. It’s not just about your spending habits and how you eat. We actually have to go out of our way to protect land and protect the resources that we have, because overwhelmingly, they’re less and less every single growing season.

So the passion for me isn’t just like, “Oh, mushrooms are cute.” The passion for me is that there’s only two countries in the world that actually even have legislation for fungal protection. That isn’t good. We need to have legislation for all land, animal, fungi, protection and conservation. So it's my hope that the more people are educated and the more that they learn, the more they’ll be like, “Oh shit, this stuff’s actually really important. Let’s put our resources towards this.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram