Urban farming is hardly a new concept. Watch “Edible City,” and you’ll discover the trend was really taking root (see what we did there?) around 2008. But today, tonier restaurants on both coasts have gone beyond simply growing mint on the roof or kale next to the patio. Indoor farming, or sometimes called vertical farming, a highly technological, grow-your-own-indoors method, has been having a moment the last couple of years.
Glass-paneled hydroponic vertical farms, often doubling as interior design porn or art pieces, grow fresh produce—think butter lettuce, wasabi, cucumbers—in soil-less containers next to where your Manhattan is being made. Water and nutrients are delivered directly to a plant’s roots, allowing food to be grown in perfectly controlled conditions inside.
Former college roommates Andrew Carter and Adam DeMartino started their own indoor farming business called Smallhold in 2016, with the aim of growing hard-to-find mushroom varieties they knew chefs were on the hunt for. Smallhold grows a dozen different mushroom varieties, from coral-like pink oyster clusters to the cloud-shaped formations of young lion’s mane, in shipping containers in Bushwick. (Similar to fellow Brooklynite indoor farm Square Roots.) Before they are ready to harvest, the mushrooms are distributed to customers in what Smallhold dubs “minifarms,” which house the fungi in climate-controllable encasements as they continue to grow. Like the custom installations of Melbourne’s Farmwall, Smallhold’s minifarms are designed and built to match their customers’ aesthetic needs. At New York’s beloved Mission Chinese, for example, the minifarm’s display of amorphous, brightly-colored mushrooms is part art installation, part fresh mushroom vending machine.
It sounds complicated, but that’s kind of the point. “Our customers don’t have to understand how to grow mushrooms,” says Carter. “With our technology, we’re able to tell what’s going on, on a shelf-by-shelf basis in each of our minifarms. We can also run programs depending on the species we put in—changing the humidity, the CO2 levels—to create the best growing conditions for each type of mushroom,” adds DeMartino. All chefs and vendors have to do is pick the mushrooms when they’re ready to harvest, serving food that’s grown-to-order.
Pink Oyster Mushroom Farm, $22.99 on Amazon
Grow your own mushrooms with this starter home mushroom farm.
So why only mushrooms? “Restaurants like Bunker Vietnamese and Mission Chinese are looking for quality produce first and foremost,” says DeMartino. “It’s really hard to get high-quality mushrooms. You might start out with high-quality harvested mushrooms, but by the time they’ve gone through the harvesting and shipping processes, their taste and appearance have deteriorated quite a bit.”
And when you’re ready to try these grown-to-order mushrooms yourself, DeMartino has a few suggestions. “You can’t go wrong with the Mission Chinese mushroom fried rice,” he says. “And one of the best chefs in New York, Tara Novell of Honey’s, makes a tempura from the lion’s mane mushrooms we grow. The lion’s mane is perfectly encapsulated in the batter. You can taste the full mushroom, but with that tempura crunch.”
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Header image courtesy of Farmwall.