From Fargo to Bemidji, restaurateur's latest venture is a mushroom farm
The five varieties of mushrooms Thamrong “Keng” Dechawuth is growing are being used in recipes at his Tara Bemidji and Drunken Noodle in Fargo. Keng, who opened the Thai Orchid restaurant in Moorhead, hopes to introduce the mushrooms to the new spaces he is opening soon in Brainered and Crosby, Minnesota.
PUPOSKY, Minn. — Thamrong “Keng” Dechawuth grew up in a small farming village in Thailand. Now he has his own farm, half a world away from there in Durand Township north of Bemidji, Minnesota. The Puposky Pearl mushroom farm is the latest in a series of ambitious business ventures for the 49-year-old.
He and his wife, Farah, bought the 23-acre farm that borders Lake Puposky two years ago with the idea of creating a mushroom operation. One day Keng was walking near the lake when he spotted a pearl oyster mushroom growing on a tree stump. That gave him the idea for naming his farm. Their pet Pomeranian also is named Pearl.
“My grandfather was a rice farmer,” Keng said, “so I know how hard it is to do farming. I don’t know if I’m going to make a lot of money (with mushrooms) but at least I’m happy working on this farm.”
The five varieties of mushrooms he is growing are being used in recipes at Tara Bemidji, the Thai restaurant Keng opened six years ago in downtown Bemidji.
A winding journey
Keng’s path from Thailand to Puposky took several turns.
He left his childhood home to attend a military academy in Thailand, much to the chagrin of his friends and family.
“They think everything is impossible,” Keng said. “I told my mom I’m going to military academy, and she said that’s impossible.”
But he proved her wrong, advancing from a field of 20,000 to 400, earning his way into the program and completing his bachelor’s degree.
He came to the United States in 1998 on a scholarship and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. He returned to Thailand in 2000 and worked for the government for four years.
Keng and Farah moved to Fargo in 2004 to enroll in Ph.D. programs at North Dakota State University, where Farah’s brother was a professor. Farah completed her doctoral studies in industrial engineering. Keng did not, instead embarking on his first business venture. He and his father-in-law, the late David Scheer, opened the Thai Orchid restaurant in Moorhead in 2005.
They later opened several other restaurants in Fargo, including Drunken Noodle and Wasabi. They also opened a restaurant on St. Simons Island in Georgia. All of them except for Drunken Noodle have since been sold, mostly to managers or chefs who worked in them.
Tara Bemidji came about because of Keng’s relationship with his banker, Carl Johnson, who moved from Fargo-Moorhead to Bemidji in 2014. He is the senior vice president of business banking at Security Bank USA.
“Carl loves Thai food, so he convinced me to come to Bemidji,” Keng said. “He said, ‘Hey you’re going to do good over here.’ When I was traveling I would go to Hawaii or Thailand, but then I realized Minnesota is beautiful, with lots of lakes and woods.”
Keng also opened Wasabi and Slurp Ramen in downtown Bemidji but has since sold them as well.
The next venture
When Keng wanted to pursue his dream of growing mushrooms, he called Johnson for a meeting. It was New Year’s Eve in 2019, and the two met at Tara to discuss the concept.
“He was telling me about this mushroom farm idea,” Johnson recalled. “I wasn’t sure about it, but he has good business sense for understanding that sometimes you have to take on a little extra pain to get through a process, to have the reward in the end. He understands the challenges but meets it with arms wide open.”
A few months later, the property on Lake Puposky came up for sale.
“It was like the stars aligned and it was meant to be,” Johnson said. “It was the perfect thing for him with the outbuildings and a bonus feature of having the connection to the lake.”
Keng learned all he could about growing mushrooms. He attended a workshop in Kansas and built his business piece by piece, starting out in his basement with little success.
“I bought a small kit, and I didn’t see the mushroom,” he said. “So you start asking how you’re going to get this mushroom fruiting. I learned more about it, and started seeing progress.”
With the help of his father-in-law, Scheer, who was a retired engineer, Keng remodeled an outbuilding into his mushroom growing facility, including a commercial kitchen. Scheer died last month at age 82 in a home he was building in Bemidji.
Using the fruit
Puposky Pearl mushrooms are used in special dishes at Tara Bemidji and Drunken Noodle in Fargo. Keng hopes to introduce them to the new Drunken Noodle he is opening soon in Crosby, Minnesota, and at 612 Station, a bar and grill he has purchased in downtown Brainerd.
“One thing that scares people about mushrooms is that some are poisonous,” Keng said. “If you get it from the woods you don’t know what it is. If you grow it on your farm you know the strain, the culture of this mushroom."
He also mentioned how it is a lot more than just the satisfaction of growing something.
"It has many benefits for the soil and the environment," Keng said. "I’m not trying to replace meat with mushrooms. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, and I eat a lot of vegetables and mushrooms, but I still eat meat.”
Johnson is pleased that his taste for Thai food and his friendship with Keng and Farah has brought them to the Bemidji area.
“They’re just an incredible addition to the community,” Johnson said. “These folks are highly educated engineers who found themselves to be restaurateurs later in life and chose to come here on a chance. It really speaks to what this community means to them and also what they’ve done here. We’re pretty big winners here in Bemidji for having this dynamic couple like them.”