Shiitake happens: A more evolved burger is taking shape in Cleveland

Update: The list of Cleveland restaurants competing in this year's Blended Burger Project is out! Participants include Alley Cat Oyster Bar, Astoria Cafe & Market, Chinato, Cowell & Hubbard, Creekside Restaurant, Der Braumeister, L'Albatros Brasserie, Nuevo Mod Mexican-Akron, Nuevo Mod Mexican-Cleveland, One Eleven Bistro, Parallax, Table 45, Thyme2, and Tremont Tap House. Vote for your favorite here (one vote allowed per day!).

Sporting a shirt that says “Shiitake Happens,” it’s clear that Steve Solomon has a lot to say about mushrooms—and he visited Cowell & Hubbard on Monday to do just that. As a culinary strategist for the Mushroom Council, Solomon is helping to lead the charge behind the Blended Burger Project, a James Beard Foundation contest that advocates a new type of burger melding ground meat and chopped mushrooms.

“Three years ago, the Foundation decided to do the Blended Burger Project to protect our food systems and give guests a better burger,” Solomon told a crowd of approximately 50 Cleveland reporters and local culinary notables. “It’s all about Steve Solomonculinary craft, but it’s also about sustainability. These are indulgent burgers that are better for you and better for the environment.”

Solomon isn’t kidding: one acre of land can accommodate one million pounds of mushrooms, as opposed to only 1,000 pounds of beef (“because mushrooms grow up,” he explained), and it takes just one gallon of water to grow a pound of mushrooms as opposed to much more water for meat.

Though he acknowledges that we live in a “meat-crazed country,” Solomon sees big potential for burger lovers to embrace this emerging approach. “There is a symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and beef,” he shared. "They taste exactly the same if blended correctly."

Solomon also sees the contest as a way for chefs to explore their creativity. “It’s a way for [chefs] to do something different and really set [themselves] apart,” said Solomon. “If you put mushrooms inside [patties], you can roast them, smoke them, sauté them, pickle them—it really calls on all the different culinary talents.”

Local chefs John Kolar of Thyme2; Cory Kobrinski of Astoria Market; Travis Bletsch of Creekside Restaurant; and restaurateur Zack Bruell were up for the challenge—designing blended sliders for the Cleveland Independents kickoff event on Monday. Case in point: Bruell’s burger, nicknamed the “2 a.m. special,” featured a blend of shiitake, crimini, and oyster mushrooms, topped off with melted leek fondue, mayo, truffle oil, and pecorino cheese.

Now in its fourth year, the Foundation’s annual summer showdown kicks off on Memorial Day, inviting chefs around the country to design burgers incorporating at least 25 percent mushrooms. The first phase of the contest takes place online, after which a panel of judges will select five winners from the top 20 vote-getters. Those five chefs will get the chance to cook their blended burger creations at the James Beard House in New York City.

Cleveland Independents’ Myra Orenstein is hopeful that a Cleveland chef will be among the five chosen innovators. “To get us on the map would really be a feather in our hat,” said Orenstein. “And it’s wonderful that the Mushroom Council has been behind us and can inspire us. “

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