Cep by Cep

A Manhattan couple builds a mushroom empire from the ground up.

Scott Frances

Dawn's timid gray light seeps down to the streets of TriBeCa, a Lower Manhattan neighborhood that's part business, part residential chic. For the past hour on this cold winter morning, Thierry Farges and his two assistants have been packing and stacking crates of fresh mushrooms—many of them flown in overnight from as far away as France and Spain—for delivery to customers of Aux Delices des Bois.

Founded in 1998 by Thierry and his wife, Amy, Aux Delices des Bois has become a vital part of the New York food scene—so much so that, were one of its shiitake-brown trucks to be hijacked, the plats du jour at some of New York's most celebrated restaurants would lose much of their panache.

This morning, for instance, Le Cirque awaits porcini mushrooms the size of Frisbees. CT, Claude Troisgros's hot new restaurant, is getting a box of hard-to-find lactaires. The Four Seasons is due for a large shipment of classic shiitakes. Tightly taped cartons of precious black truffles are headed for the trendy Gramercy Tavern and the swank Hotel Plaza Athenee. Other establishments are in line for yellow-hued chanterelles, bulbous pompoms, charcoal-toned black trumpet mushrooms, or white trumpets, as delicately flared as honeysuckle blossoms.

Meanwhile, Thierry Farges, in faded jeans and a baggy sweater, sits at a battered wooden desk at the rear of Aux Delices. He's on the phone to his prime supplier in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town deep in the gastronomically rich countryside of southwestern France. Farges, who hails from the southwest himself, is not exactly pleased. While the French truffles in his latest shipment from Brive are fine, those from Spain are "vert partout," unripe all over—hardly a bargain, even at the low wholesale price of $250 per pound (yes, low—compared to $350 for the French versions).

Farges has another problem this morning: a shortage of shiitakes. This is just before the holidays, when restaurants and caterers are busier than ever, and shiitakes are suddenly, it seems, the new chefs' favorite. Farges calls a grower in Massachusetts. No luck. Then he tries a dealer in France. Same story. And when he finally reaches a shiitake-growing couple in California, there is more bad news: The husband is in the hospital. Then, there's good news: The wife offers him shiitakes at only $4 a pound. By early tomorrow morning, 400 pounds of them will be resting in the Farges's walk-in coolers.

In mid-morning, Amy arrives. She is in charge of marketing the little brown bags of dried porcini and other mushrooms that are sold retail at Aux Delices and through their catalogue (which she also writes), as well as at a few food outlets. And while Thierry may have the tough task of negotiating prices, it is Amy who must coax overdue payments out of customers.

"Restaurants always pay their liquor suppliers," she says, "but too easily forget the mushroom man. On any given day, we have $300,000 in unpaid bills on the street." Amy, in fact, has just come from a caterer who showed her a checkbook stub as "proof" that the proverbial check was in the mail.

The Farges met in 1984, when Amy walked into a sleek new pizzeria on Manhattan's East Side and struck up a conversation, in French, with a ponytailed French busboy. She was just back from a year at La Varenne cooking school in Paris, and was working for a small PR firm in Brooklyn. Farges (whose ponytail is long gone) was on a kind of sabbatical in New York, taking time off after five years of working with the mentally retarded in the Loire Valley city of Angers.

Amy thought Farges was just lonely when he started dropping by her apartment after work, she recalls. Her roommate knew better: "Don't you get it?" she asked Amy. "He likes you." The two married in 1987.

By this time, Farges was managing a small East Side restaurant with the grand name of Cafe de Paris. There, observing the regular daily delivery of "those lackluster white button mushrooms under plastic wrap" that every restaurant used to use, he began thinking about getting into the mushroom business himself. Back in France, mushrooms had been a part of his upbringing. He recalls how his father would interrupt his Sunday TV-watching to suddenly exclaim, "Allez! Let's go mushroom hunting." And his grandfather had been a gifted truffle hunter who worked without the aid of pig or dog, crouching down low to watch for flies buzzing over the truffle fumes seeping up from the ground.

Surely, thought Farges, there should be a market for more than button mushrooms in such a culinary center as New York. So he and Amy went mushroom shopping one day, heading off to Kennett Square, the small town in southeastern Pennsylvania that is the undisputed mushroom capital of America. There, they found a rich variety of cultivated fungi. Unfortunately, though, their budget was limited, and all they could afford to begin with was shiitakes—about 1,500 pounds of them, at a cost of $5,000.

The Farges paid the entire sum in cash, thus establishing credit with their Pennsylvania supplier and ensuring quick delivery in the future. That first order of shiitakes, and the ones that followed, were shipped to the Farges at Cafe de Paris. They received them in the restaurant's basement, and Thierry delivered them personally. He remembers pedestrians on Third Avenue laughing as he raced by, pushing a grocery cart loaded to the brim with shiitakes. "I went from kitchen to kitchen, chef to chef," he recalls. "Chefs have a network, and if they like what you do, word gets around quickly."

The business—which Amy dubbed Aux Delices des Bois ("Delicacies of the Woods") because she thought it sounded nice, and very French—took a giant step forward when Amy's parents gave the couple a clunky old Chevrolet. The car—a Chevette sedan, which they promptly dubbed Chevrette, French for "young goat"—made deliveries faster and more efficient.

The Farges's fledgling enterprise continued to grow in the basement of Cafe de Paris, as the two were able to move beyond just Pennsylvania shiitakes, adding new suppliers, from as far away as the Pacific Northwest and the Perigord, and new fungi. "I remember the thrill when our first three boxes of morels arrived," says Amy.

She also remembers the morning in 1989 when the restaurant's prep chefs came in to find "so many crates of mushrooms in the basement that it was hard to move". Not long after, as her husband puts it, the restaurant's owners "gave me a kick"—forcing the couple to find new space for their business. They located a spot on TriBeCa's Leonard Street, sharing it for a time with a purveyor of fresh herbs, and haven't looked back since.

The mushroom business in general is booming, all over the country. Certain forests in the Pacific Northwest have turned into such hotly contested hunting grounds that licenses are now issued to pickers. Wild mushrooms are now Oregon's number-two cash crop, after timber. "You've got Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Mexican pickers who disappear into the forest for days and come out with $5,000 worth of mushrooms each," says Farges.

Some mushroom hunters, tightly clasping their bulging sacks, call Aux Delices collect from pay phones on rural roads. "They may not have a dime in their pockets, but if they tell me what they've got, I tell them how to get it to me," says Farges. He makes it a point to stay on good terms with his suppliers, even buying from them when he doesn't really need to—just to ensure that he'll always have access to the cream of the crop. Wild-mushroom pickers, though, never invite him into their mushroom patches. "Trade secrets," says Farges.

Some of his suppliers of cultivated mushrooms were once conventional farmers, he adds, like a guy in Massachusetts who got tired of potatoes and carrots and now grows white trumpets. Then there's the Florida farmer who wasn't making enough money selling watermelons, so he switched to corn, which he raises for huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn stalks—much prized in Mexican cooking and found increasingly on American menus.

You won't see much evidence of fresh fungi when you peer into the windows of Aux Delices des Bois today. The mushrooms are all hidden away in walk-in coolers, either here or at a New Jersey storage facility. But retail customers are welcome to come in and purchase the same fresh products that Manhattan's famous chefs do. Dried mushrooms, including both European and smoky Chilean porcinis, are sold loose from big jars as well as in those two-ounce brown bags.

As a sideline, Aux Delices also sells fresh herbs and mesclun salad greens, as well as an Italian mushroom hunter's knife and some French mushroom-themed socks. But the ultimate gift item here is almost certainly a single glorious white truffle from Alba, in northwestern Italy, which comes in a tiny black gift box, with a miniature recipe book attached. It sells for about $60, depending on market conditions.

Amy, meanwhile, looks forward to spring, which brings the first fresh morels, her favorite in the seasonal cycle of fungi. For Thierry, spring means the opening of trout season and fly fishing in a stream that runs right through the couple's country retreat in upstate New York. "Where you find wild fish," says Thierry, "you also find wild mushrooms."