The world-renowned culinary institution James Beard Foundation is encouraging chefs to make something magical by blending together mushrooms and meat into a burger.

“Most people don’t know us as being part of the sustainability conversation,” said Kris Moon, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. “It’s really a new part of our work.”

For the past three years, the foundation has hosted the Blended Burger Project, a competition to see who can make the best burger by mixing in any type of finely chopped mushrooms. Last year, 350 restaurants in the United States competed, Moon said, and they are hoping to get 500 restaurants to participate this year.

The foundation hosted a lunch Tuesday at Harvest in NuLu to help kick off the competition, which will run from Memorial Day until July 31. Harvest’s executive chef, Patrick Roney, Bistro 1860’s executive chef, Michael Crouch, Smithtown Seafood’s chef, Jonathan Sanning, and The Fat Lamb’s owner, Dallas McGarity, served up four miniburgers at the lunch.

(Notably, the photo of McGarity’s double cheeseburger is from Yelp. This reporter was too busy enjoying the burger and accompanying kale salad with feta and beets to snap a picture.)

At the end of the competition, the five chefs with the most votes from the public will be invited to the James Beard House in New York to cook their burger at an event in January 2018. A member of the public who votes online will win a trip for two to the event.

Kentucky participants include Smithtown Seafood of Lexington and Louisville restaurants Bistro 1860, Bourbons Bistro, Marketplace Restaurant, Proof on Main and SuperChefs. More may be added between now and the competition start date.

The concept of blending meat with mushrooms to create burgers came out of the Culinary Institute of America.

“They testing ways to create more earth-friendly, more sustainable menu items and how that could be carried over to food service,” said Eric Davis, spokesman for the Mushroom Council, adding that the James Beard Foundation latched onto the idea of blended burgers about three years ago. “Of course, we at The Mushroom Council are more than happy to help. Our goal is to inspire other people to try mushrooms in new ways and to promote the health benefits of mushrooms and the sustainability benefits of mushrooms.”

A pound of mushrooms only needs 1.8 gallons of water to grow, and farmers can grow a million pounds of mushrooms on one acre, according to a study commissioned by the Mushroom Council. To produce a pound of beef, it takes thousands of gallons of water.

“It takes very little resources to produce mushrooms, a lot of resources to produce meat,” he said. “When you put mushrooms in the burger, you are adding vitamin D, you’re adding riboflavin, you’re adding a lot of nutrients into an otherwise meat dishes.”

He added that consumers don’t need to cut out meat completely but do need to move toward more plant-based diets and eat meat in a more sustainable way.

Louisville distributor Superior Meats also has gotten behind the idea and is selling a blended burger mix to its restaurant customers. Owner Ben Robinson said offering meats blended with mushrooms had allowed the company to offer regionally sourced meats at a lower price.

While mushrooms can be a divisive food, Davis encouraged those who’d never dare touch a stuffed mushroom cap to give blended burgers a chance.

Many schools in the United States offer blended burgers on their lunch menus, he said. They just may not let the kids know there are mushrooms in them.

Davis added that his own son will turn down a blended burger if he knows.

“He loves it, but if I tell him I am serving a blended burger, he says ‘I don’t want mushrooms,’ ” he said. “It’s a way to sneak those healthy nutrients into the menu.”

Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]