San Francisco pop-up, The Mushroom, mixes psychedelic art and vegetables

You sip natural wine in a dining room where the walls, tables and staff are covered in greenery.

A tower of grilled and roasted squash covered in electric purple mashed potatoes has been placed in front of you on a pink plate. Star-shaped radish and black sesame hummus sandwiches surround this miniature tree like fallen leaves, and sugar-coated pods filled with mashed carrots sit at its base like logs in a psychedelic forest.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 28: A squash tower turns food into art at the Mushroom in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

This is The Mushroom, a vegan pop-up that marries food and art in a way San Francisco has never seen. Chef Alex Lauritzen and co-owner Frank Valadez combine eclectic ceramics with bright vegan cuisine in what can only be described as living art.

Lauritzen started five-course dinners ($200, including wine and service) showcasing these handcrafted ceramics last summer and has seen every dinner sell out, with waiting lists as long as your arm. (Find Last Supper details on their Instagram page.)

The Mushroom has not only mobilized a community of art-loving vegans but also restaurateurs hoping to collaborate with Lauritzen and Valadez. The duo are looking for a permanent space where, by the end of the year, you can order signature dishes, such as mushroom phyllo pie made with yellow split pea shoyu and spring pea miso. , à la carte for lunch or dinner. This squash tower will also be on the menu.

Lauritzen, originally from Utah, comes from the fashion world. He moved to San Francisco in 2017 after living in New York and Paris. A stint at Rose Bakery in both cities sealed her future in food. Since arriving in San Francisco, he has worked at several notable restaurants, including Cotogna, Verjus, and Yo También! Cantina, but The Mushroom is his first role as a chef.

Valadez is originally from Southern California. He attended design school in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco in 2015, landing a job at the legendary Heath Ceramics, best known for its tableware. At Heath, he worked in product development and helped open their first soft goods studio in their San Francisco factory. Valadez is now part of the BAGGU design team, also in San Francisco. The two came together when Lauritzen asked Valadez to sew aprons and towels for the first Mushroom.

We recently told them about The Mushroom’s food and ceramics program. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 28: View of the dining room at The Mushroom restaurant in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 28: View of the dining room at The Mushroom restaurant in San Francisco, Calif. on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Q: Why this particular shade of green?

Validate: The technical name for the green mushroom is Kiwi 16-0235. I would describe it as bright and energetic yet balanced. It reminds me of green apple, lichen moss and, of course, kiwi. It’s really bold, but it disappears when the whole room is covered in it. It brings a beautiful energy to any space. Ironically, something about the shadow doesn’t look good on an iPhone camera.

Q: How would you describe your food?

Lauritz: We buy our ingredients at the San Rafael Farmer’s Market on Thursdays, which is restaurant-oriented. The food is super simple. Really close to the earth. Super colorful and whimsical. Part of what brought me to San Francisco is that I’m nostalgic for 1960s psychedelia and have always had an affinity for the 70s. But the main mission is to showcase vegetables in a vibrant way and exciting.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 28: A bowl of stone fruit and tomato gazpacho is pictured at the Mushroom in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 28: A bowl of stone fruit and tomato gazpacho is pictured at the Mushroom in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Q: Why vegetables? Is there a dish that excites you at the moment?

Lauritz: I have been a vegetarian since the age of 11 and a vegan for 10 years. There are a lot of connotations around vegan food, and we want to change people’s ideas about it. For example, many people think they will not be satisfied. But vegetables fill you up very, very quickly. So we actually started doing mini versions of our courses because we want people to complete all five.

Gazpacho is something that fascinates me. We always make a soup, and this one is a gazpacho of all kinds of stone fruits and tomatoes with sherry vinegar and basil oil. We serve this with grilled blueberries and summer squash on top.

Q: You have ordered several pieces from the Oaxacan ceramist Jorge Reynoso. Why does his work appeal to you?

Lauritz: His work is tactile and organic. You can see the process in all its parts, even down to its fingerprints interrupting the glaze. I think one similarity in our two works is that neither is perfect. We’re both very into the “gloopy” look and it’s super fun to play with your frostings when you’re making a dish. Some diners even mistake parts of his pieces for food.

Q: You also work with Bay Area ceramists Daniel Vu and Kidtofer. Tell us about them.

Lauritz: We met Daniel, who is originally from the peninsula, at a craft fair in town. We were immediately won over by the precision and quality of his work. Frank’s expertise and knowledge of ceramics really helped in deciding to order pieces from Daniel. Although these are the simplest pieces we use, they are beautiful. The color of the enamels is beautiful and they are durable.

Christopher (Kidtofer) is by far one of my favorite ceramists. The collaboration between Chris, Frank and me has been very exciting. We had several meetings to discuss color, printing, artwork, and Christopher even came up with veneer ideas. We are excited to merge the look of The Mushroom with Kidtofer. Our hope is to turn this into a series of dinners where we work with all kinds of different artists.

Q: What’s next for The Mushroom?

Lauritz: We want a space of our own, but we don’t want to rush anything. For us, the most telling part of it all is how excited people are about it. The majority of our clients are in the world of art, design or gastronomy. And I don’t think there are enough spaces in San Francisco that bring creatives together. Our primary goal is to make San Francisco an exciting and vibrant place. We can reminisce about its heyday, but ultimately it’s what you make of it. We have big plans and lots of ideas for the future.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 28: Mushroom co-owner and chef Alex Lauritzen holds a sesame bun filled with labneh and spiced carrots as he is photographed at the Mushroom in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, May 28, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 28: Mushroom co-owner and chef Alex Lauritzen holds up a sesame bun filled with labneh and spicy carrot while he is photographed at Mushroom in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, May 28 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

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