Plant-based burger patties were the inspiration for chef Spike Mendelsohn’s PLNT Burger, but dishes made from mushrooms are quickly becoming the star of the quickserve chain’s menu. Mendelsohn spoke about the versatility of mushrooms for creating craveable, plant-forward dishes during the Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit last month at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif.
Sowing the seeds for PLNT Burger
Mendlesohn, who owns several restaurants including burger chain Good Stuff Eatery, first started thinking about creating a vegan burger concept in 2017. While attending a food policy event at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Mendelsohn connected with Seth Goldman, founder of beverage company Honest Tea and chairman of plant-based protein maker Beyond Meat. Goldman gave Mendelsohn a box of Beyond Burgers and told the chef, “I hear you are the burger king.”
When he cooked up the Beyond Burgers at home for his family — including his wife, who is vegan — Mendelsohn was impressed. He saw an opportunity to create a new restaurant that delivered the classic burger in a vegan format that didn’t compromise on taste or indulgence. “If we were to focus the business on only vegans and vegetarians it wouldn’t really be a great business plan,” said Mendelsohn, explaining that creating a meatless burger designed to appeal to all diners would help the brand achieve a “critical mass” of customers. “We like to offer America’s favorite foods…and it’s an easy entry because people love burgers,” he said.
Three years later, PLNT Burger was born. Mendelsohn and Goldman teamed up to open the restaurant’s first location in Silver Spring, Md., in early 2020. Despite setbacks from the pandemic, the quickserve chain has grown to 11 locations.
Discovering the magic of mushrooms
While the original menu was built around Beyond Burgers, french fries and soft serve ice cream made with oat milk, Mendelsohn and Goldman sought to add more plant-based dishes. While looking for local ingredients to source, the pair visited an organic mushroom farm in Kennett Square, Pa., where they met a mycologist who opened their eyes to the possibilities of mushrooms.
Mendelsohn recounted the moment when the mycologist held up the root ball of an oyster mushroom — the clump of mushroom stems that grows between the caps and the underground mycelium. She said the root balls didn’t get sold with the rest of the mushrooms, so she would often take them home and “cook them up like chicken or crab cakes,” Mendelsohn said.
Putting flexible fungi on the menu
The chef demonstrated the method for making a riff on a crab cake out of the chopped root ball of a yellow oyster mushroom, as well as his recipe for the plant-based version of a chicken sandwich made from breaded and pan-fried lion’s mane mushrooms. The sandwich, which Mendelsohn put on the menu as the Crispy Chik N Funguy Sandwich, is just the beginning of the chef’s experiments with mushrooms.
After launching PLNT Burger, Mendelsohn and Goldman expanded their partnership to create a food brand called Eat the Change, which debuted with a line of mushroom jerky. The line now comprises five flavors, including maple mustard and teriyaki ginger. All the varieties are made from imperfect cremini and portobello mushrooms that wouldn’t be sold in stores, which helps cut down on food waste. During his cooking demonstration, Mendelsohn used chopped pieces of jerky to add flavor and texture to a mushroom Bolognese sauce, and said he also uses jerky when making chili and ramen.
For his next mushroom dish, Mendelsohn is working with a Colorado-based company called Myco to source a protein made from shiitake mushroom mycelium. He plans to use the mycelium to create a riff on the McDonald’s McRib sandwich that will debut on the PLNT Burger menu soon.
“We’re not trying to be the next McDonald’s,” he said. “But I do believe we’re the next big fast food concept that just happens to be plant-based.”
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