Farming Fungi

Executive chef of a Chicago sushi restaurant. Bartender. Carpenter. Ticket broker.

Such a varied resume does not inspire one to guess the next step in this individual’s journey would be “mushroom farmer.” Yet as Kevin Novak examined his seemingly scattershot career, he saw how all these experiences taught valuable skills that would eventually lead him to own Flavor Country Farms and become one of the most important suppliers of organic mushrooms and microgreens in the Midwest.

“That accumulation of 20 years of experience leads to where we are now,” Novak, who purchased the farm and rebranded it in September of 2018, said. “And now we’re really just going to surf it, ride the wave, and keep it going.”

Word got out quickly about Flavor Country Farms, and some of Omaha’s best restaurants have become customers. The farm’s list of clients includes standouts like Au Courant, Modern Love, Le Bouillon, V. Mertz, and Yoshitomo, to name but a few.

Matt Moser, the executive chef at Stirnella and Butterfish, has been friends with Novak since sixth grade. But that’s not why he relies on Flavor Country Farms for his Asian eggplants, Thai basil, microgreens, and more. Moser requires the finest possible ingredients to serve his customers. Fortunately, buying from Flavor Country Farms allows him to do both.

“You can just tell from talking to him how excited he is about the product,” Moser said. “The way he gets excited about food is the way I get excited about food. We feed off each other. When he has something new, the way he talks about it, you can tell there’s a lot of passion behind it.”

When you pull into Flavor County Farms, you’re greeted outside a white colonial house by Novak, the gregarious former chef turned farmer with an iron handshake. As he walks you through the grounds, you begin to understand what makes this place special.

A pair of greenhouses contain exotic and gorgeous versions of familiar ingredients that appear to be from a sci-fi special: Berkeley tie-dye tomatoes, fatalii peppers, purple confetti eggplants, and bronze fennel. There are cherry tomatoes as sweet as candy and cucumbers as long as serpents.

Across the driveway is a massive garden, ripe with several varieties of squash and peppers, and up the road a bit are several shipping containers, where Novak grows the microgreens that become the finishing touches on some of the city’s most beautiful plates.

But you must continue up the hill, behind a cropping of trees and out of sight from the main road, to find Novak’s masterpiece: a custom-built mushroom building that has few rivals in the Midwest. Finished in early 2020, this meticulously-crafted building is a scientific marvel, with each room adhering to the exact temperature and humidity needed for a specific step in the mushroom-growing process. This is where the magic truly happens.

Novak grows five types of mushrooms at all times—king trumpet, chestnut, black king, oyster, and lion’s mane—while periodically experimenting with others. It’s these fungi that helped Flavor Country Farms get a foothold supplying restaurants.

Novak’s fascination with mushrooms was born while enrolled in the horticulture program at Metropolitan Community College. Though the curriculum spent just one day on mushrooms, Novak was hooked. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is what’s up,’” Novak said. “It’s how different and weird they were; I don’t know how else to say it. They’re not grown like plants. They don’t have chlorophyll. They’re not green. They’re just completely different. It’s almost like they spoke to me.”

Novak immersed himself in mushrooms, absorbing all available knowledge on the subject: books, online message boards, YouTube videos. He began experimenting by growing them in his basement. He and his wife even attended a weekend-long seminar at Paul Stamets’s farm in Olympia, Washington.

In hindsight, Novak realizes his interest in local purveyors was born long before, when he worked in fine dining and opened a location of RA Sushi in Chicago. “You had these crazy farmers coming in the back door with a big thing of mushrooms or something weird,” he said with a laugh. “You didn’t see that at corporate restaurants. You saw that in nicer places. I thought that was neat, seeing these different ingredients and cooking with the fun stuff. That’s what the clients wanted.”

The chef life began to wear on Novak, so he moved back to Omaha. He worked as a bartender at Baby Blue, then as a carpenter with his brother-in-law before landing a well-paying ticket brokering job. But his heart wasn’t in the work. It was in mushrooms. So he and his wife found and purchased the farm, and the different avenues of his winding career path began to tie together.

As a former chef, Novak knew what products chefs desired and which were hard to acquire in the Midwest. As a former carpenter, he knew how to design and construct the buildings and shipping containers to successfully cultivate mushrooms and microgreens, respectively. As a former bartender and salesman, he had the communication skills to show up on a restaurant’s doorstep, as he’d seen many others do years before, and pitch them on his products.

Flavor Country Farms now carries standing weekly orders for about 20 restaurants, with another seven or eight making purchases when needed. But as Novak sees it, this is the tip of the iceberg. He wants to start a mushroom education program on site. He has dreams of hosting chef dinners on the sprawling property and making use of the abandoned outdoor pizza oven left by the previous owner.

He even invites anyone who wants to try their hand at growing mushrooms, microgreens, or other plants to come out and intern, with payment in restaurant-quality produce. “My friends come out and they see what’s going on and they ask me, ‘Do you sleep?’” Novak said. “I think there’s a big future out here for anything like this: sustainability, the chef dinners… it’s just very exciting.”

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