A Dene woman from Fort Providence, N.W.T., has won $5,000 in startup money for a business plan she created with an award-winning Alberta chef that would see N.W.T. morel mushrooms sold to high-end restaurants across the globe.
Jessica Minoza and Westin Hotel chef Ryan O'Flynn won a Northern Alberta Institute of Technology 2015 Hatch Start Up Challenge last month for their new business Mycelium.
Morel mushrooms are said to flourish in burn areas the year following a forest fire. Buyers typically pay $10 to $14 per pound for the wild mushrooms.
Minoza pitched the idea of setting up buying stations in Fort Providence and training local people to pick the prized mushroom. Minoza would then dry and package them and, with the help of O'Flynn, sell them to restaurants in Edmonton.
"We just saw an opportunity and went with it," Minoza said.
Minoza never ate morels growing up in Fort Providence. She says her family was skeptical when she first told them about her idea.
"My grandmother said 'What are you doing with these mushrooms? You're going to poison everyone.' We didn't use the mushrooms in Fort Providence as a traditional food."
But Minoza says after trying one of O'Flynn's morel dishes, she was hooked.
She'll be coming up in June to set up camp in the community and begin looking for investors.
"The other buyers are from different provinces sometime, different countries," she said.
"They bring their own pickers, their own professional pickers with them and they pick the mushrooms. Then they leave with what they want and then there's nothing really left for the local people."
O'Flynn won the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C., in February for a dish he created featuring morels.
"I just wanted something new, something fresh, something organic," he said.
O'Flynn, who has connections with chefs in Europe, Hong Kong and Australia, will help Minoza sell her product to international markets.
"It's prestigious. We're going to be putting the N.W.T. on the culinary map for greatness selling the best quality morel mushrooms which are highly prized all around the world," O'Flynn said.
"On top of that it's extremely ethical supporting and keeping the money with the pickers in the N.W.T. is huge for us."