Cheffing is a second career for Jessica Alonzo. Originally a hospital administrator in Dallas, she liked the stability and the benefits, but wasn’t happy. She longed for the days around the kitchen table with her mom, cooking for large family gatherings — “I have such fond memories of food.” Hospital pay got her through culinary school, and then she joined the acclaimed Dallas restaurant FT33 as a line cook. It was there that she got introduced to fermentation.
“With fermentation, the transformation of ingredients is just insane,” Alonzo says. “Fermentation is not new, it’s something that we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s a lost art and now it’s starting to make a resurgence.”
Fermentation and whole food utilization are Alonzo’s specialty. Whole food utilization, the cooking technique of using the entire animal or produce, marries perfectly with fermentation. Instead of discarding food scraps, skilled chefs are using the byproducts in brines, condiments and sauces.
“I preserve with a purpose,” says Alonzo, a Texas native. “I’ve worked with farmers long enough to understand what works with their produce throughout the year and what doesn’t. I’ve harvested with them, I’ve worked on their land. It plays a big role in fermentation to know how to properly preserve what farmers are harvesting.”
Alonzo is the sous chef at Dallas-based Petra and the Beast, a James Beard Award semifinalist known for its seasonal tasting menu. She stepped back to part-time status this year and launched her own business, Native Ferments TX, a larder shop that sells local ferments and offers virtual fermentation classes. Below are highlights from TFA’s interview with Alonzo.
The Fermentation Association: Tell me where the idea for Native Ferments came from.
Jessica Alonzo: Misti (Norris, chef/owner at Petra and the Beast) and my husband really pushed me to do it. They were like “You have the drive, you have the knowledge — why not share that talent with others?” People are always messaging me on Instagram asking me about different fermentation methods, and now I can teach them through classes. I love fermentation, I’m just fascinated with it, and it’s just continuous learning for me. You feel like you never really learn everything with fermentation, there’s so many different types of cuisines and techniques.
TFA: Why is it so important to you to support local farmers through fermentation?
JA: With both Native Ferments and Petra and the Beast, I get to work with farmers and support them, which is really what I love doing. Noma is helping make fermentation popular again, opening people’s eyes to the fact that fermentation has been happening forever. Fermentation is not new, there’s a tradition to respect. It was done back in the day because of necessity, people had to figure out how to save their harvest, and fermentation made it so they’d have the nutrients from their harvest throughout the rest of the year.
During the pandemic, restaurant sales for farmers dropped off drastically. At Petra, we had one of our farmers come to us with like a hundred pounds of mushrooms they couldn’t sell and they were going to go bad. I preserved them and made mushroom conservas and dried and did all these things with it, and then we ended up selling some of the mushroom pickles and conservas. I don’t know if any other restaurant did that in Dallas. It forced us to be really creative with food.
On my website for Native Ferments, I have profiles of the main farmers I use. When I sell at farmers markets, I have a big board with their Instagram handles. It’s their livelihood, I don’t want any of their produce to go to waste or to compost, I want the community to enjoy it. The magic of fermentation is transforming these simple ingredients with the natural microbes around you. I’ve worked with many of these farmers long enough to know what type of technique works well to pickle or ferment. I want to help educate people and get them excited and spread the word about the farmers’ hard work.
TFA: Tell me more about whole food utilization.
JA: At Petra, Misti was more the meat charcuterie person. She knows how to utilize every part of a pig or an animal. My mind goes more to vegetables, which I think is why we make such a good team. It makes sense that whole food utilization and fermentation go hand-in-hand. It’s part of preserving. We may be prepping something for tasting and then we have like carrot scraps or like some sort of vegetable or fruit scraps and we’ll automatically turn that into a vinegar. Or we dehydrate our char and dehydrate skins and turn that into part of a seasoning for another dish. Or I’ve done like roots from spring onions, I’ll brine those or I’ve chopped them up and parts in a condiment. We try to be as low waste of a kitchen as possible.
I do that with my ferments here with Native Ferments, too. In my fennel kimchi, I use the entire part of the fennel in that fennel kimchi, the fronds, the stems, everything, and then if my ratios were a little different so I did have some fronds left over, I dehydrate those and make that into a powder and now i’m utilizing that powder into a cure that I’m using on carrots for vegetable charcuterie. Understanding flavor profiles, too, helps when you’re cross utilizing your larder.
TFA: So tell me what have been some of your favorite fermentation creations you’ve been working on lately.
JA: Vegetable charcuterie is pretty cool, I’ve gotten some local produce in different root vegetables and I’m working on different charcuteries with more whole utilization in the curing. So like using the fennel from powder for part of the cure with carrots. I’m doing some shiro shoyu for another chef here in town and gluten-free shoyu for myself. I just smoked some beets and I’m pickling them in a shio koji that I made with a half sour brine and some spring onions. I’m hoping it takes on a meaty, smoky-like brisket, I was really craving barbecue when I did it.
TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?
JA: I think chefs are understanding the importance of the different complexity that you get when you build with fermented food in your cuisine. When Misti and I create dishes at Petra, we always in every dish that we create have some sort of pickle or ferment. Whether it’s an actual fermented vegetable or it could be an amino sauce that I’ve made or a shoyu or using shio koji or something, you don’t get that same transformation just by sauteing vegetables. You see the transformation by marianating them in shio koji first or using a brine in your pasta sauce rather than using a lemon juice. That’s how you build on these complex flavors. Some chefs are really trying to understand that. Utilizing fermented foods in their cuisine, being more creative with their flavor profiles, that’s what we do.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?
JA: With the resurgence of fermentation, I think it’s going to be more accepted in every household. I would hope that it would be something that every household would have. My parents grew up in the ‘60s, when everything was in a can. We had our traditional Mexican food, but we also had those times where it was Americanized, like everything in a canned food. Fermentation, this really should be the norm. Consumers need to be more aware of how beneficial it is