Business Is Mushrooming for Restaurateur, Author and Fungus Fancier Jack Czarnecki

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

Jack Czarnecki may well have capped his career as a mycophile when he grilled lamb kabobs laced with mushrooms for several members of the struggling Philadelphia Phillies six years ago. "The following weekend," he writes in a folksy, 340-page compendium on mushrooms, "the Phillies swept four games from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that ignited the spark that ultimately sent them to the world championship...."

Ah, the mysterious mushroom. Its family consists of some 38,000 species in a rainbow of colors. They can be smaller than the tip of your pinkie or as large as a manhole cover. Some mushrooms can kill you, some can give you hallucinogenic highs, while the plain old supermarketed button (Agaricus brunnescens) apparently leads to World Series wins. Czarnecki concentrates on the edible varieties in Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery (Atheneum, $20.95). The author tells how to prepare mushrooms, can or dry them and make basic stocks, sauces and extracts. In general mushrooms should be refrigerated as soon as you get them home. They will keep for about three days and should be washed just prior to use. Peeling is not necessary for supermarket mushrooms. Jack wrote the book because "I got so disgusted with the way mushrooms were being cooked. We want to let mushrooms be mushrooms."

The book is named after the Czarnecki family restaurant in Reading, Pa., where Jack is proprietor-chef. Jack's grandfather, Josef, a Polish immigrant, opened a bar there 70 years ago; Jack's father, Joe, introduced mushrooms in 1947. Today Joe's is a small, elegant establishment set in a working-class neighborhood. On the menu are Boletus edulis (meaty, fragrant crepes, served in cream sauce for $19.50) and resin-scented Tricholoma equestra with filet mignon for $22.50. Meals start with a $4.25 bowl of Joe's legendary mushroom soup. The soup is a legacy from grandmother Magdalena, who learned to gather mushrooms in Poland and later taught Jack's father how to find the edibles in the woods around Reading.

Now the entire family turns out to pick: Jack, 36, his wife, Heidi, 35, who makes the restaurant's desserts(which never contain mushrooms), their children, Sonja, 10, Christopher, 8, and Stefan, 5, plus Jack's mother, Wanda, 70, and Joe, 75. During the season the Czarneckis rise early, grab wicker baskets and head for the piney Blue Mountains nearby. "When the mushrooms are out, they're out," says Heidi, "and you have to go, even if it means going every day." During bad seasons, the Czarneckis augment their pickings with commercially grown fungi, as well as a few imported varieties.

As a boy Jack hated to go picking. Instead he would stay in the car and listen to the Phillies' games. One hot Sunday 20 years ago, Joe insisted that Jack join him in a search through the dry forest. Suddenly Jack spotted the tan caps of Boletus subglabripes "as far as the eye could see," he says. "They were coming up at a time when they just weren't supposed to be there. Since that day we haven't found more than five or six in the same spot." Jack was hooked, but he cautions novices against picking mushrooms because of the various toxic varieties. (The old wives' tale that silver—a coin or spoon—will blacken if placed in a pot along with toxic mushrooms is true for only some varieties. The deadliest mushrooms do not tarnish silver.)

Jack attended prep school at Andover and then moved to California, where he met and married Heidi Bender. After they graduated from the University of California at Davis (he studied bacteriology), they returned to Reading. In 1978 Jack took over Joe's from his dad. "I was inheriting a state of mind," he explains, "which says if you want to be a good restaurateur, don't go to cooking school. You listen to Mozart, you listen to Beethoven, you study philosophy, drink wine, enjoy yourself and then go out and cook."

Joe feels his son is "running the restaurant better than I ever hoped," but Dad disapproves of some of the dishes Jack has introduced, such as ravioli stuffed with veal and porcini. Dishes like that, Joe argues, belong in an Italian restaurant. And then there's Jack's attitude. "It isn't what I think it should be," grumbles Joe. "When he goes mushrooming, he has to find mushrooms. I say that's not important. It's the going for them that's important. When there are mushrooms, that's sheer ecstasy."

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