Sebastian Vargo was an up-and-coming chef on the Chicago food scene when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and shuttered restaurants. Laid off from his job as head chef at Merchant Restaurant, Vargo experimented with different gigs — yoga teacher, realtor, even t-shirt graphic designer — but kept coming back to his passion: creating food.
So Vargo and his fiancée, Taylor Hanna, launched Vargo Brother Ferments. They produce a creative line-up of fermented condiments, sauces and beverages, including items like a pickled garlic sauce, chipotle beet sauerkraut, Mighty Vine tomato vinegar, Concord grape kombucha and a Bulgarian yogurt with fermented strawberry jam and miso peanut butter.
“Ultimately, I’m a flavor chaser,” Vargo says. “Fermentation is not really an obligation, it’s a necessity to really unlock certain flavors.”
Most of what they make is seasonal, created from fresh ingredients sourced locally from Chicago community gardens or out of Vargo’s backyard garden. Flavors heralding back to Vargo’s childhood are also featured. Collard greens kimchi is one example, featuring the leafy vegetable frequently served at Vargo’s family dinner table as he grew up in Detroit.
“You can’t help but find a little bit of nostalgia in what you make. Flavors are so connected to memories,” Vargo says. He recalls his mother’s buttery cornbread, her pinto beans flavored with a smoked ham hock and his grandmother’s braised short ribs with sauerkraut. “We were this African-American family in the Midwest in the ‘90s with Southern heritage, so some of my food preserves some of that history. With fermentation, there’s an intersection of both physical preservation and historical preservation. My fermented vegetables are an homage to the past, presenting certain vegetables in interesting and complex ways.”
Vargo and Hanna currently run their business from their home kitchen, selling over Instagram, at farmers markets and through collaborations with local restaurants around the Chicago area. They’re nearing the end of a Go Fund Me campaign to help move Vargo Brother Ferments into a commercial kitchen and, eventually, a storefront. .
Below is an edited Q&A between Vargo and The Fermentation Association.
The Fermentation Association: How did you first get into cooking?
Sebastian Vargo: My origin is with my grandmother. My mom worked really hard, she worked nights and then she was going to school as well. My grandmother was in our household a lot, she taught me and my brothers [the namesake behind Vargo Brother Ferments] a lot of life skills, how to box, how to play basketball, how to cook. I have fond memories of eating sauerkraut as a child out of a coffee mug with a fork. She was my earliest inspiration, I have fond memories of my grandma in the kitchen.
TFA: And how did you get into fermentation?
SV: My grandma introduced me to sauerkraut. It was such an exciting flavor, I hadn’t experienced the brininess of lactic fermentation, the way it feels on my tongue and cheeks. My mom loved to take us to local delis and we loved Reuben sandwiches. We’d go to a lot of Jewish delis in southeast Michigan, and they had salt brine pickles. That was a real fermented pickle, that flavor is something, too, that really kind of jump started my interest in fermentation.
And then, just working with cool chefs. A new part of my mind was unlocked at every restaurant. Great chefs helped cultivate my love of fermentation. Being in the industry in Chicago is so cool. Every last one of us, we’re all trying to experiment and see what we can do with flavors. When I worked for Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat, we were doing kimchi for certain dishes. At Schwa with Brian Fisher and later Wilson Bauer, we made our own yogurt and fermented our leeks, our apricots. And then when I worked for Tony Quartaro at Dixie, he was really pushing the envelope with this Southern-style restaurant where we took inspiration from around the world in a way and applied it to this Southern technique. We had some peaches come in that were underripe, we couldn’t use them for the actual dish, so instead he mixed it with some rum and taught me how to make a vinegar out of it.
TFA: What took you from Detroit to cheffing in Chicago?
SV: It was one Le Cordon Bleu commercial. I was young, I was in a bit of a crossroads and I made the decision to go to the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Chicago. I was working at the Salvation Army at the time and I got on the Megabus with my little thrift bags and maybe $800. I had no plans, I found out $800 will not get you an apartment in Chicago, so I stayed in hostels. Before I got enough money for culinary school, I worked as a canvasser to make money.
TFA: March 2020. You are the head chef at Logan Square’s Merchant and your fiancée was cooking at the Ace Hotel. Then Covid-19 lockdowns happen. Tell me how your lives changed.
SV: Merchant was the first restaurant where I was head chef, it was fun. We made our own hot sauces, we fermented pickles. But once I had the call that we were closing for Covid, I was ready to figure something out. I was a little bit burnt out from the industry at the time. I was ready to leave, it’d been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress for a while. So, like a lot of Americans, we took the unemployment. I had never been on unemployment. Being unemployed gave me a chance to finally reset. I was working up to 120 hours a week cheffing around. Now I could see what else is out there.
The whole time I was looking outside of the industry, me and Taylor were still doing a lot of experiments in the kitchen. We were making a lot of bagels, making pickles. I have a friend Joe Morski who runs a one-man sandwich operation called Have a Good Sandwich. It’s like a rotating sandwich club in Chicago. Meanwhile, I was trying to start a pickle club, and I asked him if he wanted to serve my pickles in the lunch pack for his sandwiches. That was my first foray into getting my pickles out there. From there, we just started peddling our jars.
TFA: What was the transition to your own business?
SV: To this day, there’s so few fermented, unpasteurized pickles on the market. It wasn’t even a search for a niche, it was something I love to do and I was excited to share my flavor palette with the public. Fermentation is a fun way to be creative, to use it as a platform for new dishes, to play aground with colors. It’s definitely been a great medium to pursue my love of food, of art. Feeding people is my love language. And fermentation is definitely something that’s going to live on forever. It’s wellness, it’s never going to go out of style.
TFA: Tell me about your G-Dilla pickle. That’s a customer favorite. What makes it so special?
SV: The G-Dilla pickle is a flagship that’s always in season. The name G-Dilla, we have blank labels and I didn’t want to write “Garlic Dill” each time. So I started G-Dilla as an homage to J-Dilla, a great producer [and rapper from Detroit].
The taste is akin to a Jewish deli, a garlic dill pickle, the one that would accompany a Reuben sandwich. I just take it kind of a step further with the herbs and the garlic. We use black tea in our pickle brine, it is a fun way to add tannins to the mix which provides that nice, crunchy skin. We really enforce the flavors through fresh herbs, fresh dill from our backyard, parsley, grape leaves, fresh bay leaf and we add lots of garlic and toasted block peppercorn and mustard seed. Maybe a little gochujang, some turmeric. You bite into one and you’re getting that loud crunch and you’re just getting that lactic acid zing that’s electrifying the flavor. It makes you stop what you’re doing, you can’t talk through it, you have to finish chewing and enjoy the whole experience. It’s been a journey — I think back to the first pickle I made to now and it’s something I’ve kept at, I’m a student of the game, always striving to learn more techniques and refine what I’m doing.
TFA: Why do you think more and more chefs are exploring fermentation?
SV: I think so many chefs are seeing the flavor benefits alone. Food fermentation offers a more nuanced flavor that you just can’t achieve the same way. Fermentation is in everything that we do, everything that we eat. There is really an endless source of inspiration and flavor for chefs. We’ve seen the interest pick up in fermentation, but it’s not a fad in the food world. Fermentation is something that is here to stay, with the recent explosion and interest in it, fermentation will find a nice settling place in food.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?
SV: I would like to see a future in which fermentation is no longer just a trending topic, something that everyone acknowledges for its real health benefits. So people aren’t just taking a probiotic gummy, they know they can get probiotics easily through so many foods. Society is at a place where we are not quite as healthy as we should be. Maybe we can make fermentation convenient, maybe we can show people that it’s not hard, we can show folks that there’s food you can have that has enhanced flavors and there’s something in fermentation for everyone.
Fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth — but how do industry professionals manage those complex microorganisms? Three panelists, each with experience in a different field and at a different scale — restaurant chef, artisanal cheesemaker and commercial food producer — shared their insights during a TFA webinar, Managing Fermented Food Microbes to Control Quality.
“Producers of fermented foods rely on microbial communities or what we often call microbiomes, these collections of bacteria yeasts and sometimes even molds to make these delicious products that we all enjoy,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor at Tufts University, who moderator the webinar along with Maria Marco, PhD, professor at University of California, Davis (both are TFA Advisory Board members).
Wolfe continued: “Fermenters use these microbial communities every day right, they’re working with them in crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut, they’re working with them in a vat of milk as it’s gone from milk to cheese, but yet most of these microbial communities are invisible. We’re relying on these communities that we rarely can actually see or know in great detail, and so it’s this really interesting challenge of how do you manage these invisible microbial communities to consistently make delicious fermented foods.”
Three panelists joined Wolfe and Marco: Cortney Burns (chef, author and current consultant at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a farmstead restaurant), Mateo Kehler (founder and cheesemaker at Jasper Hill in Vermont, a dairy farm and creamery) and Olivia Slaugh (quality assurance manager at wildbrine | wildcreamery in California, producers of fermented vegetables and plant-based dairy).
Fermentation mishaps are not the same for producers because “each kitchen is different, each processing facility, each packaging facility, you really have to tune in to what is happening and understand the nuance within a site,” Marco notes. “Informed trial and error” is important.
The three agreed that part of the joy of working in the culinary world is creating, and mistakes are part of that process.
“We have learned a lot over the years and never by doing anything right, we’ve learned everything we know by making mistakes,” says Kehler.
One season at Jasper Hill, aspergillus molds colonized on the rinds of hard cheeses, spoiling them. The cheesemakers discovered that there had been a problem early on as the rind developed. They corrected this issue by washing the cheese more aggressively and putting it immediately into the cellar.
“For the record, I’ve had so many things go wrong,” Burns says. A koji that failed because a heating sensor moved, ferments that turned soft because the air conditioning shut off or a water kefir that became too thick when the ferment time was off. “[Microbes are] alive, so it’s a constant conversation, it’s a relationship really that we’re having with each and every one on a different level, and some of these relationships fall to the wayside or we forget about them or they don’t get the attention they need.”
Burns continues: “All these little safeguards need to be put in place in order for us to have continual success with what we’re doing, but we always learn from it. We move the sensor, we drop the temperature, we leave things for a little bit longer. That’s how we end up manipulating them, it’s just creating an environment that we know they’re going to thrive in.”
Slaugh distinguishes between what she calls “intended microbiology” — the microbes that will benefit the food you’re creating — and “unintended microbiology” — packaging defects, spoilage organisms or a contamination event.
Slaugh says one of the benefits of working with ferments at a large scale at wildbrine is the cost of routine microbiological analysis is lower. But a mistake is stressful. She recounted a time when thousands of pounds of food needed to be thrown out because of a contaminant in packaging from an ice supplier.
“Despite the fact that the manufacturer was sending us a food-grade or in some cases a medical-grade ingredient, the container does not have the same level of sanitation, so you can’t really take these things for granted,” Slaugh says.
Her recommendations include supplier oversight, a quality assurance person that can track defects and sample the product throughout fermentation and a detailed process flow diagram. That document, Slaugh advises, should go far beyond what producers use to comply with government food regulations. It should include minutiae like what scissors are used to cut open ingredient bags and the process for employees to change their gloves.
“I think this is just an incredible time to be in fermented foods,” Kehler adds. “There’s this moment now where you have the arrival of technology. The way I described being a cheesemaker when I started making cheese almost 20 years ago was it was like being a god, except you’re blind and dumb. You’re unleashing these universes of life and then wiping them out and you couldn’t see them, you could see the impacts of your actions, but you may or may not have control. What’s happened since we started making cheese is now the technology has enabled us to actually see what’s happening. I think it’s this groundbreaking moment, we have the acceleration of knowledge. We’re living in this moment where we can start to understand the things that previously could only be intuited.”