With his side-swept hair, skinny jeans, and rakish fedora, Tyler Gray doesn't look like the kind of guy you'd expect to find doing the hard, dirty work of mushroom hunting. But then Gray isn't your typical back-to-the-lander. Last November, he could be spotted hauling a nondescript insulated suitcase through the streets of New York City, inside of which were $60,000 worth of white truffles bound for a special Thanksgiving event at Eataly, Mario Batali's new food emporium. "It was a big, smelly affair, but the best kind, of course," says Gray, 33, who cofounded Mikuni Wild Harvest, a sustainable wild-foods company that supplies an ever-lengthening list of top chefs (Thomas Keller, David Chang) with rare foraged edibles. "Every movement has a bell curve," he says. "With foraged food, we're on the way up."
Nearly a decade after starting Mikuni out of a warehouse in Portland, Oregon, Gray—who was raised in the tiny rural town of Sechelt, British Columbia (pop. 9,000)—has built it into a $10-million-a-year business with four distribution centers throughout North America that allow him to deliver his wild mountain huckleberries ($12 to $15 a pound), Australian finger limes ($55 a pound), and wild licorice root ($70 a pound) in their freshest state. Mikuni is just one among a half-dozen or so companies supplying a new breed of restaurant—the Herbfarm in Seattle; Forage in Los Angeles; Aquavit in New York; Gather in San Francisco—with an approach you might call forest-to-table. They showcase wild foods for their bold flavors and lack of adulteration, not to mention their foodie exclusivity, which Gray would just as soon do away with. "In Europe and Asia, you can regularly find foraged foods on store shelves," Gray says. "If people here understood it, we could have a much larger market for domestically foraged foods."
If anyone can sell shoppers on the idea that chanterelles at $19.99 a pound trump button mushrooms at $1.99 a pound, it's Gray. For one thing, there's his stereotype-defying style—though he swears he's underdressed. "I think the gentlemen of Italy are much more dapper with their foraging attire than us in the West," he says. "You'll see them strolling the hills of Piedmont searching for truffles in their houndstooth blazers and fedoras." There's also his earnest, winning evangelism for the wild-foods cause, which he often refers to as a "romance." Having earned his TV stripes as a guest judge on Iron Chef America, Gray is now in talks with several networks to host his own show. Foraging, he says, "is a story that Whole Foods isn't telling. And it isn't going to tell itself."
So on a brisk November morning two weeks before the visit to Eataly (where Mikuni sold 22 pounds of truffles at $2,500 a pound in a single day), Gray headed to Harriman State Park, 30 miles north of New York City, to tell that story himself by offering a lesson in foraging.