A mushroom pioneer

  • Malcolm Clark, plates sautŽed clamshell mushrooms with miso salmon, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Clark co-authored a cookbook with Chester Aaron called Marriage of Mushrooms and Garlic. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

In his mid-30s, Malcolm Clark of Occidental found himself at a crossroads.

The Scottish-born biologist had carved out a comfortable career teaching at the University of Toronto and directing a biology lab.

Through the study of judo, however, he had crossed paths with Tsuneto Yoshii, an innovative Japanese mycologist who invited Clark to carry on his work cultivating mushrooms for medicinal and culinary use.

"There was a little mountain behind his institute in Japan," said Clark, who is turning 72 in June. "I sat on top of a rock and thought, "Do I give up my occupation, my fat paycheck, my future?"

In 1977, Clark made up his mind. He sold his home in Toronto and bought an abandoned chicken farm in Sebastopol, partnering with David Law to form a specialty mushroom cultivation company, Gourmet Mushrooms Inc.

Like artisan cheesemaker Laura Chenel and other early food pioneers, his fledgling company went on to become one of Sonoma County's most iconic brands, providing a steady supply of exotic fungi to chefs across the country.

"We built an audience and a market," Clark said. "We were the first, and while that sounds wonderful, it was also very difficult."

Over the years, the indoor mushroom farm attracted such well-known chefs as Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Chef/owner Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse was an early supporter.

Now, almost 40 years later, Clark has written his first book, "The Marriage of Mushrooms and Garlic," with the help of Sonoma County's garlic guru, Chester Aaron.

Half cookbook and half anecdotal tales, the project grew out of a deep friendship between the two west county residents.

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