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The quest for the perfect pickle changed Mike Garten’s life.
He was quite content in his role as a professional chef at The Virginian and even a bit proud of his abilities to create everything from casual pub food to elegant dining options. By that point, he had worked in the industry for many years and really hadn’t seriously considered anything else.
And then it happened. He was experimenting with pickled vegetables, exploring the fermenting process and trying to get just the right balance to wow his culinary customers, when he discovered his true passion.
“I loved the scientific aspect of it,” he said. “It was a puzzle that I had to figure out and that’s what intrigued me.”
Lucky for Mike, he had an enthusiastic support network already in place. His wife, Haley Warf, is an instructor of English at Northeast State and encouraged Mike to begin taking classes there. The staff at The Virginian was happy to work around his class schedule and to provide moral support while he pursued a degree in biology. And then – almost as though it was meant to be - Mike enrolled in a General Biology II class taught by Adjunct Instructor Jeremy Stout, who just happens to be Manager of Steele Creek Nature Center.
These days Mike is an assistant naturalist at the Nature Center and affectionately known by those who frequent Steele Creek Park as “Mushroom Mike.” He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s fascinated by fungus.
His love for nature began as a child in West Virginia. His family moved frequently, so he learned to seek solace from the stress of a new town, new friends, and a new school by exploring outdoors. He spent a great deal of time in nature, fascinated by the living creatures all around him, and first connected with his wife when they discovered a shared passion for hiking. On one of their first hikes together, he impressed her with his limited knowledge of mushrooms and made a mental note to learn more before their next outing.
The more he learned, the more he was hooked. He began foraging mushrooms for his own satisfaction and use in the kitchen, carefully learning which are safe to eat and which are poisonous. “It was like real life Pokemon, a treasure hunt or a scavenger hunt. You have to know where to look.”
For others interested in learning more about mushrooms, he suggests books or internet searches. “Or they can just ask me,” he said. “Yeah. Just ask me. I like to talk about mushrooms.”
Now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology at East Tennessee State University, Mike continues his part-time job at the Nature Center by sharing his vast knowledge of mushrooms with anyone who will listen, collecting samples of the various species present in the park, and leading scheduled – and sometimes impromptu – mushroom walks. If you need to find him in a hurry, check first in the damp, shady areas most conducive to fungi spores.
Of course, there’s more to his job.
He also works closely with the other naturalists at Steele Creek to conduct research and document findings on a wide range of plant and animal life. He greets visitors and answers questions for those interested in exploring the park. And, he is curator of the live exhibits, making sure the animals inside the nature center are fed and well cared for.
He’s carrying a full-time class schedule in his pursuit of higher education, too, which takes up a great deal of his time, but he recently found time to attend the West Virginia Mushroom Club’s Annual Foray – a festive gathering of about 300 mushroom enthusiasts. When he’s in husband mode, he and Haley are likely to take a casual hike together or enjoy a scary movie. He listed The Thing and Alien among his favorites.
Although no longer a professional chef, he still knows his way around the kitchen. When the mood strikes or a special occasion arises, he just might make something special. “Maybe a nice risotto,” he said. “Maybe with mushrooms.”
Shout out to Mike Gartin, a fan of fungi who turned his passion for experimentation into a cool job at Steele Creek Nature Center. He’s another great example of #bristolatwork.