One of the signature dishes at the Burma Superstar Restaurant group in San Francisco is the fermented tea leaf salad, also known as “laphet thoke.”  The fermented tea leaves come straight from Burma (Myanmar), a legacy important to Desmond Tan, founder and owner of the restaurant group. He worked for years to source organic, uncontaminated leaves, a major change to Burma’s tea leaf industry. Leaves were formerly notoriously tainted with clothing dyes and plagued with horrible trade practices. The tea leaves take 2-6 months to ferment, resulting in a uniquely sour leaf. Burma Superstar had made a natural tea leaf dressing to enhance the flavors of the tea leaf.

Read more (Forbes

In the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants around the world to remain open only for takeout or to close until stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, food icon David Chang has emerged as an advocate for the industry.

The founder of the Momofuku restaurant group says government intervention is desperately needed for food service to survive — without it, only big chains will remain. “I have a hard time seeing [smaller establishments and even chef-driven eateries] survive and making it through the end of this.”

“Telling restaurants they should close or only do delivery or just be 50% open was a death sentence,” Chang says. “And I think all restaurants would have happily have done so if we were given some type of safety net.”

The restaurant industry has suffered  significant job losses since the outbreak of COVID-19. The Momofuku Group laid off 800 employees during the pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association, 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed.

Chang and Marguerite Mariscal, CEO of Momofuku group, shared their thoughts on what can be done to save the restaurant industry in Vice Media’s new “Shelter in Place series.”

“Right now, any small business owner in New York is put in a very precarious position where they either are closing, which means they can’t financially afford to pay their staff, or they’re trying to stay open to get any sort of income that will then allow them to keep people have,” Mariscal says.

Though restaurants have business interruption insurance, that only covers physical business damage. Restaurants can still remain open for takeout, but with great risks.

“I think we’re all looking for a little guidance,” Mariscal says. “If restaurants are going to be deemed an essential business, then treat it that way, right? Like, what are the protocols or safety procedures that we should be using to make sure that we’re operating in the, you know, safest, best light? But instead, you have business-to-business everyone making these calls. And I don’t think we feel were the best equipped to make them.”

Like who is regulating proper PPE use among restaurant workers? Should staff all be wearing gloves? Is a cloth mask good enough or should cooks wear a N95 mask? Where is the supply chain for restaurants to get this gear that wouldn’t hurt the medical supply chain? Chang says the lack of guidance from government leadership “it was so bad, it was embarrassing.”

“We need the state-level authorities, because it’s not going to happen from a federal level to say, ‘Hey, it’s dangerous to make food, in a COVID-19 world, this is what you need to do,’” he says. “There are a lot of people serving food in maybe not a safe situation.”

Government aid to help the restaurant industry is only short-sighted, Chang adds, because it’s not covering beyond summer. Unemployment will only cover a few months. There is no unemployment coverage for undocumented workers.  Businesses can only receive money from the economic stimulus bill, CARES Act, if they rehire 100% of their workforce by June 30. Chang points to the aftermath of September 11 as an example. Restaurants closed for only a few days, but it took years for the New York tourism industry took years to recover.

The restaurants that will survive the pandemic will be large chain restaurants with big pocketbooks and corporate power – like McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

“That’s unfortunately the future that I feel we’re headed to unless we can have proper intervention and guidance and support and leadership from the government,” Chang says. “There’s a good chance Momofuku may never reopen again. Or the restaurant that you loved to go to so much in your neighborhood may never reopen again. If we don’t support the supply chain and the purveyors and the farmers and the workers all surrounding it, there may not be a new restaurant that’s going to be delicious, that’s going to have the vibrancy that you want, for a considerable amount of time. People are going to realize just how important the food industry is and the workers that have been neglected for so long, I think they’re going to realize, holy shit, we didn’t realize how much we depend on the food industry.”

What will restaurants look like, after the pandemic? Sanitation standards will be increased, there will be greater oversight from the FDA and CDC. But the future “is going to be predicated on something that we have no preparation for,” Chang says. Ghost kitchens, delivery and e-commerce will become the driving force of restaurants, operations most restaurants are not set-up to implement.

“What you’re going to see is maybe there’s less of a restaurant industry and it’s more of a food industry,” Mariscal says. “Everyone’s going to have to reimagine how they make money.”

Chang says big corporate, quick-service restaurants are prepared. Large chains “they’re never touching the food, it’s just an assembly process,” Chang says. Smaller restaurants, independent diners and even upscale chef-driven eateries rely on culinary touches, though. Chefs taste the food and experiment with dishes.

“It would be hard to live in that world where there isn’t variety,” Chang says. But “in terms of food, I think there’s going to be less choice.”

Humans have been baking fermented breads for at least 10,000 years, but commercial yeast and flour companies have never seen demand so high. National Geographic shares “a story for quarantined times, about extremely tiny organisms that do some of their best work by burping into uncooked dough.”

Scientists describe the microbes behind the work fermenting the bread. “It’s this wonderful living thing you’re working with,” says Anne Madden, a North Carolina State University adjunct biologist who studies microbes. She and partner scientists showed recently that when bakers in different locales use exactly the same ingredients for both starter and bread, their loaves come out smelling and tasting different. “Which I think is fantastic,” she says. “It’s evidence of the unseen. And as a microbiologist, you so rarely get to measure things about microbes with your nose and your taste buds.”

Read more (National Geographic)

Craft breweries, which were heading into their second decade of a major boom, are now shuttering during the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s going to be a lot of dead distilleries coming out of this,” said Paul Hletko, the founder and distiller of FEW Spirits, in Evanston, Ill. “Even if you survive, the new normal is going to be punishing for small brands.” Craft distilling relies on bars, tasting rooms, face-to-face sales and customers willing to pay a higher price for a premium product — all factors dramatically changing with social distancing and a global recession.

Read more (The New York Times)

Three fermentation experts weigh in on one of the most common problems in fermenting vegetables: mold prevention. The fermenters include fermentation chef David Zilber (head of fermentation at Noma) and fermented sauerkraut producers Meg Chamberlain (co-owner of Fermenti Farm) and Courtlandt Jennings, (founder and CEO of Pickled Planet and TFA advisory board member).

How do you handle prevent mold in sauerkraut?

David Zilber, Noma: That is something you are constantly trying to fight back, especially when you lacto-ferment in something like a crock. There are so many variables that go into making a successful ferment. How clean was your vessel before you put the food in there? How clean were your hands, your utensils? How much salt did you use? How old was the cabbage you were even trying to ferment in the first place? Every little detail is basically another variable in the equation that leads to a fermented product being amazing or terrible. It’s a little bit like chaos theory, it’s a little bit like a butterfly flapping its wings and Thailand and causing a tornado in Ohio. But with lots of practice, you’ll begin to understand that, if it was 30 degrees that day, maybe things were getting a little too active, maybe the fermentation was happening a little bit too quickly. Maybe I opened it a couple times more than I should of and it was open to the air instead of being covered. So there’s lots of variables.  But I would say that, if you’re having a lot of trouble with mold, just up the salt percentage by a couple percent. It will make for a saltier sauerkraut, but it will actually help to keep those microbes at bay. (Science Friday)

Forced mold in sauerkraut experiment from Fermenti Farm.

Meg Chamberlain, Fermenti Farm: You must allow the ferment to thrive by creating a favorable environment with “Good Kitchen Practices.” So, to prevent mold in your ferment start by using only purified water, like reverse osmosis, distilled or boiled and cooled and-no tap water(municipal). Only use vegetable-based soap that is NOT anti-bacterial, like a good castile soap. Finally, only use dry fine Sea Salt, no mineral/no gourmet or iodized. Keep Fermenting and do not get discouraged! #youcanfermentthat #diyfermentation #idfermentthat

Courtlandt Jennings, Pickled Planet: Preventing mold when making sauerkraut is all about a controlled atmosphere. How well you maintain your situational cleanliness and fermenting atmosphere is my best clue for you. There are many ways to control atmosphere and every situation will be different based on many factors but be dillegent and your ferments will improve with practice.

This may not seem like an answer but it’s directional… as is most advice unless dealing with a consultant. Good luck and may the ferment force be with you!

Sales of functional foods and beverages — products that provide additional nutrients — grew 5.3% to $71.4 billion in sales in 2019, at a growth rate two times faster than conventional products. Sales of function foods and beverages were $68 billion in 2018. (New Hope Network)

The coronavirus outbreak forced coffee prices to spike in April, with coffee futures estimated to rise 15% in May. Though prices are high, coffee farmers internationally are suffering. The COVID-19 lockdown in Colombia is disrupting coffee exports, the lockdown in Brazil is causing container shortages and a locust invasion in East Africa is hurting harvests. Despite rising prices, consumers are still purchasing coffee. CNBC analysts suggest the price increase could be short lived, as coffee shops reopen again and the public begins consuming stockpiled coffee supplies.

Read more (Food Dive)

Kheedim Oh never aspired to start a food brand. The self-described “accidental entrepreneur”  began Mama O’s Premium Kimchi in Brooklyn in 2007, in the midst of the Great Recession. With just $50 to his name, he started hauling giant jars of  homemade kimchi to retailers on his skateboard. 

Thirteen years later, Oh has grown the brand  into one of the top fermented kimchi sold in the United States. Handcrafted kimchi is a labor-intensive food craft, but Oh doesn’t cut corners. He has never received a dime of funding and employs only a small team that uses his mother’s kimchi recipe.

“Everything we do is the time-honored, traditional way. From the experience of having to do it myself for so long, I’ve learned how to be as ruthlessly efficient in doing the steps to make the kimchi,” Oh says. “It takes time. But, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it another way. My goal is to make the best product.” 

His kimchi, kimchi paste and kimchi kit have been praised by Food & Wine magazine and Williams Sonoma. Oh spent decades prior to Mama O’s building a name for himself in the entertainment industry as a DJ. It’s only been in the last few months that he stopped working regular DJ gigs “and that’s only because I’ve had to dedicate so much more energy into making the kimchi.” Oh still incorporates music into his work, creating novel stop-motion recipe videos incorporating Mama O’s kimchi. He also hosts Kimchipalooza, an annual festival in Brooklyn with live music and kimchi-centric tastings, demos and DIY workshops. 

“I never had a 40 hour week job in my life. All I’ve done is hustle for gigs. I’m a hustler,” Oh says, adding: “I don’t mind it.”

Oh bounced from locations while growing his brand. From his apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen space to a basement kitchen in a friend’s restaurant to a kitchen of a deli in Queens and, finally, to his current space in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn.

“I’m not trying to grow this company and then sell it. That’s not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do something I enjoy, that’s positive, that’s good for people, that helps people. Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing: helping people.” 

Below, a Q&A with the dynamic founder.

The Fermentation Association: Why did you start making kimchi?Kheedim Oh: I never set out to start a kimchi company. I needed kimchi for myself and all the kimchi in the stores were not to my liking. I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I live in New York, my parents live in Maryland. It’s just too far to go bum a jar to kimchi so i asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I would take the Chinatown bus down to Maryland to make it. I would make a batch, but when you make a batch of kimchi at home, you typically do a 50-pound box of vegetables at a time. I would make it, bring it back in a cooler, then I’d wheel it back to my house on a skateboard because I couldn’t afford a taxi.

TFA: When did you move from making it as a hobby to selling it?
Oh: So I was making the kimchi and, at the time, I lived by myself. Fifty pounds is just way too much for your personal stash. I would give it away to my friends and they were like “This is so good, you should sell it.” I didn’t put much too much stake into that. But I was buying ribs from my butcher (Jeffrey’s Meat Market) and he was like “If you have kimchi and rice, you eat like a king.” So I gave him a batch, checked up on him a week later, and he said “I love it!” I said “You know I sell this shit?” and he said “I want to start carrying it.” At that point I had to come up with a name, incorporate, get insurance, all that stuff. I was making it out of the kitchen in my apartment, bringing it to him, he was only a couple blocks away. He was a total angel. He didn’t want any money, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to promote my business.

TFA: Tell me about the brand name, Mama O.
Oh: It was an homage to my mom because she taught me how to make it and what’s better than moms? You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. So we call it Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, not Mama O’s Cutrate Kimchi. We strive to make the best tasting, highest rated, best kimchi. That went into it with our branding, how we wanted to portray ourselves. We may not be the biggest kimchi brand, but we’re definitely making the best. 

TFA: Kimchi has traditionally been a recipe passed down through generations of Koreans. Today, that’s not happening as much. Do you think handcrafted kimchi is a dying food craft?
Oh: Yeah. It’s really sad. That was part of the reasoning why I wanted to learn to make it, because my mom makes really good kimchi. All of the stuff in the stores was just terrible. It was a link to my heritage that I really didn’t want to lose. I wanted to know how to make it just so I could have it. I invented Mama O’s Premium Kimchi Paste, which is the first paste for making kimchi at home. It’s my mom’s recipe. What’s great about the paste is it takes all the guesswork and grunt work out of it. What normally takes 3 hours takes 10 minutes because all the measuring and chopping is done.

TFA: You also created a homemade kimchi kit. Why sell a DIY kit?
Oh: It sells well around the holidays, especially. It’s a 7-inch cube, it’s a perfect gift size and it’s super cute. It’s the first kit of its kind. That kit took me two years to develop. I had to create the paste, then create the kit for it. 

What’s great about the kit is it works every time — it takes the guesswork out of making kimchi. I have so many people tell me they tried to make kimchi on their own and it didn’t work. Kimchi tastes totally different when you’re making it to when it’s done fermenting it and eating it. With lactic acid fermentation, it’s transforming the food on the molecular level. So people, when they’re making it, they try to mess with the flavor to make it taste how they want, but the flavor changes through fermentation.

I’m trying to educate consumers and retailers on how they can use this paste with their vegetables. Retailers can take any vegetable past their prime and make kimchi with it, add value to things they potentially have to throw away. It’s the art of how to transform your vegetables. It’s a great way to maintain food sovereignty. You’re in control of what you make and what you put in your body.

TFA: How have Americans’ perception of kimchi changed from when you started to now?
Oh: It’s interesting because, definitely, there’s a greater awareness of it. It’s kind of confusing on two ends because people don’t know what good kimchi is. There are a lot of chefs that put kimchi on their menus, but it’s not really kimchi. It’s quick kimchi, they acidify it with vinegar.

I’m curious how exactly it will end up in the American diet because kimchi is part of the American food zeitgeist. Kombucha is fully incorporated — it’s an American thing now. But kimchi, I don’t know. I’m curious how people are going to want to eat their kimchi. I think it will possibly be in the form of salad or salad accompaniment. I think a lot of people like kimchi with their eggs in the morning. My favorite way, personally, is on a hot dog, with Western food. I fulfilled a lifelong dream – -one of my neighbors in Brooklyn is Joe’s Pizza. He made a kimchi pizza. I like it better than pepperoni. Kimchi and cheese is like Starsky and Hutch, it’s a great combination.

TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Oh: I see more of it, especially after whenever this outbreak settles. Though I got to say, what’s been interesting, the media and journalists have not been touting naturally fermented foods which they should be. I get the resistance to promoting probiotic supplements, I don’t think they’re good either. But I don’t get why no one is promoting fermented foods naturally to people because this has been saving people’s health since the beginning of time.

I see the fermented space growing. I’m curious to see if the supplement industry is going to blow up. I’m not a proponent of the probiotic supplement industry.

TFA: What’s your advice for other startups wanting to start a fermentation brand?
Oh: (Laughs) Besides don’t. Food is tough. Especially now because I think it’s going to get even harder. Really, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. But coming out of this, so many people are going to want to start a food brand. You’ll have people coming in that have funding. 

That said, you have to love food to do it. But only do it if you love it. But if you don’t love it and you just want to make a killing at it, that’s not going to work. As they say, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success in the food business.

TFA: What are the future plans for Mama O’s Premium Kimchi?
Oh: Right now, I want to start more partnerships with restaurants when they open again. A lot of restaurants don’t have the time to make it, but I don’t want them making quick kimchi and passing it off as real kimchi.  

We are launching our first hot sauce — Kimchilli — in May with Whole Foods. I’m super excited to launch the hot sauce. 

I’m super lucky — I wish people would acknowledge luck in their success. I was fortunate with my timing, the new science with the mind-gut connection was starting to come out. I’m really trying to make things that people need. And do a lot of education. 

Ultimately my goal is to change how Americans eat and encourage them to eat more like Korean people. I totally get the appeal of a Western diet. I love a good steak. But you can’t just eat a steak. You have to have sides and all of that with it. Just a steak is obscene. I’m really trying to encourage people to eat in a way where meat isn’t the main thing, it’s just an accompaniment. Eat more traditionally fermented foods. One interesting thing with fermented foods is it’s not all the same probiotics. Kombucha affects me differently than when I eat kimchi. Even yogurt, I feel it does the least for me. But it’s based on your personal chemistry as well. It all depends on what works for you, then incorporating things in your diet. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.

The fermented ingredients market is expected to increase to $39 billion in the U.S. by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 8.5%. Consumers’ gastrointestinal issues and growing sales of alcoholic beverages are driving this growth. (Million Insights)

Open crumb and flavor depth are hallmarks of a fermented, artisan bread. But as artisan bakers scale up production, “fermentation has been the ultimate challenge,” according to Baking Business. “It is critical to a craft bread’s profile, and bakers are often unwilling to compromise on this step.” Making extra dough can decrease the fermentation process if not handled properly. Baking Business, the baking industry e-zine, explores how artisan bread bakers are using automated fermentation to transport mixing bowls, proof and oven load, without losing the artisan style.

Read more (Baking Business)