Friday, February 15, 2013

Marco Lobregat - Ministry of Mushrooms

"I like to cook and I like to eat, and I work closely with chefs," shares Marco Lobregat, a self-confessed foodie, and President and CEO of Ministry of Mushrooms, a start-up provider of gourmet mushrooms in the country. He is also the current Chairman on the Committee on Mushrooms for the Philippine Chamber of Commerce for Food and Agriculture Industries (PCAFI). In this interview, Marco talks about his favorite fungi and all things food.
Marco Lobregat
How did the interest in mushrooms begin?
You know, it's a long story. Basically, it was recession, and I wanted to start my own company during the recession, thinking it was the best time to do it--if you can put up a company now that makes sense, then it's the best time. What made sense to me was really something towards what I can do with my hands and what could give back, and the only thing that really made sense was agriculture.
And so eventually, 'What would I grow?' was the next question. And it all pointed to something like a high-yield product, and it was mainly mushrooms that it got pointed to.
Can you share to us how the local mushroom industry is doing?
The industry has been there for many years -- decades already. And it's gone up and down. You know, it's a very simple test. If you go to San Francisco or Europe, for example, and you say mushrooms and you ask them about it, they'll tell you where the local market to go is, the different kinds, the different places; some grow it, some get it wild. People aren't that aware about it here in The Philippines. And so it's a space to build awareness because mushrooms can definitely help the health, basically.
We import a lot of it and we use it already, which means we spend dollars importing that---and it could be grown locally. They can be grown in places like Malaysia, and Taiwan, where we import from, which have the same weather pattern, so we can do it. The other thing about the industry is that, if you go and talk to restaurants, they tell you the same thing: their suppliers for mushrooms are mainly someone that just imports or just distributes, because they can't get the local consistent supply. And so we are trying to forge the way, to make sure that what we have locally is top quality, because it's fresh, first of all, and it should be presented the same way as when you're importing. And also, how they deliver it. It's not as consistent. It's difficult, let's say they're continuing and I'm okay, and then it dwindles. And we've experienced that as well ourselves. Our production, for example, went down to almost nothing in our farm. We were producing -- we were creating the bags for them to fruit, and we had so many bags, the production level was up--but nothing was fruiting. So it was technical. Part of mushroom growing is trial and error.
But as a group and a community with so many other people that we're buying from already, none of the customers even felt it. Our sales went higher than normal, it was December, and we were able to supply all the mushroom needs required. So now we're getting it from everyone else as well. We also have our own, so we're working on a system that prioritizes what's in our farm, but we don't rely on it.
Are we already at the point where we're exporting mushrooms?
No, not yet. And that's not yet my goal. If we get into exporting any time soon, it would be by products first.
For Ministry of Mushrooms, the whole point is to really build local industry, that's part of our mission as a company. So at first a lot of it was us growing the mushrooms--and we still continue to grow mushrooms--but now, we've expanded to buying mushrooms from other local providers as well, which gives them the outlet to sell to restaurants. It's really hard for them to get to the restaurants, or market, because it's difficult, it's perishable. So we're finding ways to continue increasing the demand for it, instead of people importing.
How many varieties of mushrooms do you have at the farm?
Right now in our farm it's just oyster mushrooms. Mainly it's been oyster mushrooms, but it's because they use it for versatility. You can have it as mushroom tempura, a baked fritata... you know, varied.
But we're also starting with a new mushroom that another grower's growing, and that's called milky mushroom. They're fantastic, they can be grown big. We have them grow up to the cap size of portobellos; they've got a stem that can be eaten as well. It looks like a mushroom that's Alice In Wonderland type, it's big and white.  The cap itself you can cook like a portobello, it's got a lighter flavor. One of our clients regularly gets over twenty kilos a week and uses it in crepes to replace button mushroom. So it's a good replacement for everyone who uses button mushroom as a filler--this is a fantastic replacement that's grown locally--and it's more versatile in terms of size. It's nutty and earthy but it's not as deep as portobello and shiitake, which can overpower.
Milky Mushrooms
By the end of the year our goal is to have at least four varieties already established and being distributed well.
What's your favorite variety?
Obviously I push the local ones, but my favorite as of taste that I've tried, I like Maitake. It's something that is really wild. A lot of wild mushrooms that haven't been cultivated yet are more expensive, like porcini, because they usually need a partner plant, so you need to grow both plant and the mushroom and depends on their relationship if that will work.
Any interesting information about mushrooms you want to share that people usually don't know about?
Mushroom is the only non-animal source of Vitamin D, apart from you getting it from the sunlight. They are what they call immunomodulators, meaning they got properties that really help the immune system either when it's hyperactive or when it's weak. Apart from that, a lot of people ask are they poisonous, are they edible, hallucinogenic...? All three are yes, depends on what you're growing.
Are you planning to put up your own store or restaurant?
I think in the future that's something that we dream about, we'd love to open an all-mushroom restaurant. We're open to anyone who wants to partner with us for that. But right now, we're focused on going to the restaurants, and working with the chefs already here to get them to create new things. Now, Las Flores, for example, JJ Ortoll talks to them and we've started supplying to them as well. It's nice because we spend the afternoon, we talk about the mushrooms, and they're able to experiment with it and see what goes well with their menu. It's so versatile that we serve Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Thai, French, Filipino--all cuisines basically, they use mushrooms. Chef Laudico Bistro Filipino is one of our larger clients; Apartment 1B serves comfort food... so many!
Now we serve over thirty different restaurants, they're from different cuisines. For example, like CAV, they've got out burgers; we have Hai Shin Lou for Chinese food. We work with Edgy Veggy, which is our partner commissary, we do the food developments with them. Then here in Legaspi Market, we partnered with Marie Gonzalez of Kitchen Revolution to make vegan food, so everything here is vegan.
Are there plans to expand your product line?
Yes, definitely, we are offering more products and also now, together with Edgy Veggie, we're supplying products for restaurants. For example, we're working with certain burger places to add the mushroom burger to their menu, like CAV does it. So it becomes a unique patty, they just tailor it to their taste. In CAV they add gruyere cheese and arugula; it's really, really good. I have to say that's one of my favorites. And for other places we're coming up with mushroom sauces as well. We're expanding our mushroom product lines. I think soon, apart from the mushroom risotto (3 Kinds Mushroom Risotto, P300), mushroom bibimbap and mushroom biryani. This is a great way for people to not have to buy 'instant' that's unhealthy.  Here, it's instant and it's affordable -- I mean, one thing like that is a lot, and it's what you can get in a restaurant. It's a good cooked meal.
Mushroom Risotto
I noticed you sell fruiting bags. How does one actually grow mushrooms at home?
We have our growing material here -- the top part is made of dust, so you compost the whole thing. Everything that you see that's brown is the banana leaves and the rice straw, everything white is the mushroom itself. So after you compost it, you sterilize the bag or pasteurize it so that the spawn or the seed of the mushroom  -- that's the only thing that grows. So you sterilize and you give the chance for whatever you put to be the one to dominate. When they've dominated, they eventually grow out in these little holes.
Mushroom Growing Bag
These are the bags that we have exactly in our farm. You just need a space inside the house, not direct sunlight. We suggest to keep it humid, so there are ways of keeping it humid without getting it wet. For example, a newspaper under, or some cloth, and keep that wet. Our bags will last you about two months, and they should fruit about two to three times. Sometimes more, sometimes less, up to zero. Sometimes they're taken home and not really taken care of and they're sensitive. We have about an 80% success rate; people growing from little kids to adults. A Growing Bag in retail only costs P175, so it's a great experience especially for little kids. And the beauty of it, that's why people get excited, is when it fruits. They harvest it and that's direct for cooking already.
Do you have any tips on how to cook mushrooms?
Yes, definitely. For Filipinos, I always tell them, cook whatever you're used to cooking in the house--almost all Filipino dishes--and add mushrooms to it. It adds five star quality to it, you know. Other than that, you can chop it up, you can fry it, you can grill it. It depends on the mushroom as well, what you can do with it. Oyster mushrooms, like you can see, we turn it into a risotto, we turn it into burgers (Mushroom Burger, P300/half dozen). The other mushrooms that are bigger and with a heavier texture, you can even turn into steaks.
Mushroom Burger Patties
Order a Mushroom Burger at their stall in Salcedo or Legaspi Market
What's your favorite way of cooking them?
I always try to find different ways of cooking it. Right now, I think I'm going to be experimenting again with the milky mushrooms, more into using it for baking. For example, you know how you do potato skins? Instead of potato, you have the mushroom itself, and so you do toppings with that.
If you had to cook a nice quick meal, what would it be?
To be honest, if I want to cook something well, I really believe in slow cooking. So it does take me a while to cook something--even my adobo is forty minutes, at least. I like to do a lot of bakes. I like to put a lot of things in the oven, so let's say roast chicken, if you have it prepared and ready, you can either stuff it with mushrooms or wait for it to be almost cooked before the last fifteen to twenty minutes on lower heat, you place the mushrooms there so it absorbs the juice, and then you can turn it into gravy. Quick mushroom dishes that are fun to do are omelettes, pastas.
What can you never give up eating?
I actually say, everything. And the truth is, I can't give up anything. I don't like it when they tell me 'you can't ever do that' and that's why part of my health is that I'm trying to strengthen my system and build the right habits, so that I don't have to come to a point in life where they say, 'you can't eat this.'
Is there something that you will never eat?
I've tried a lot of things, you know. I'm adventurous. I've done exotic animals, I try everything. But, do I like to eat it? That's a different thing! Do I want to eat it all the time? What's something that I don't want to eat all the time? Snake! [laughs] Random things like that.
What food makes you think of your childhood?
A lot! One is queso de bola spread in pandesal that they used to make in the house. Biko, although I am not really a big fan. I like it, but I'm not a sweet tooth. Cocido, it's always in our family. Mangga't buro.
If a restaurant were to serve a dish named after you, what would it be?
"Mushroom Marco Polo!" [laughs]
What's that?!
Mushroom Marco Polo! I don't know! Well, something inspired by mushrooms. I hope that any mushroom dish that they cook is inspired by us!
What food do you crave when you're sick?
Lugaw...arroz caldo. Arroz caldo with a lot of calamansi. I really crave for that.
What would be your Last Supper meal?
I don't know. Paella is just something. I love paella. That's the automatic thing I'm craving for right now... Someone's going to give me a mushroom paella recipe very soon!

The Ministry of Mushrooms Team
Ministry of Mushrooms sells fresh and dried oyster mushrooms, mushroom products, and mushroom growing materials at the Salcedo Saturday Market and Legaspi Sunday Market. For inquiries, contact 0917-5588708, 0917-500MUSH, e-mail, or visit
Establishment Info

1 comment:

  1. Hi, am interested in your mushroom culture and growing them in a small urban place like mine. Hope I could meet you or anyone there this Sunday, 23 JUne as I will be at the Magsino's house for a visit during the day. thanks, espie


Popular Posts

Interesting Blogs