Canada’s Culinary Trailblazer

Briana Kim is making a name for herself in the Canadian food scene, “putting Ottawa on the map with a focus on fermentation,” writes the Ottawa Citizen. Kim, a self-taught, award-winning chef, runs Alice, a vegan restaurant in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighborhood. Her specialty is fermentation-applied, plant-based cooking. Last fall, she was invited to Eleven Madison Park in New York to share her insight with the chefs as they transitioned to a vegetarian-oriented restaurant. 

Continues the article: “It’s definitely a rarefied subject. But in the world’s top-tier kitchens, fermenting food is a red-hot trend, with plant-based cooking not far behind. At Alice, Kim’s imaginative creations such as charcoal-grilled dried maitake mushrooms and sunchokes served with a salsa of tomato and fermented green strawberries, and a sweet pea miso dipping sauce make clear that Alice’s name’s alludes to a surprising culinary wonderland.”

Alice, which opened in 2019, operates with a culinary and scientific focus.

“The innovation and the R&D have to be the No. 1 focus for us,” Kim says. “Fermentation allows us to discover how different food molecules break down and change in texture and flavors, and we are always searching for flavors we haven’t tasted before.”

The waiting room at Alice is filled with jars of Kim’s different ferments, many of which she sells under her Mad Ferments label. She utilizes locally-grown ingredients, planning the menu at Alice months in advance.. For example, she serves cauliflower, spring greens and melons in the middle of winter by fermenting them in the summer.

“Fermentation has existed for such a long time, but I think we are putting our twist on it,” Kim says.

Read more (Ottawa Citizen)

An interesting indication of how quickly and decisively fermentation is moving into the U.S. food mainstream is a recent online event organized and offered by American Express and restaurant booking service Resy, “A Fermentation Workshop with Noma.” For $50, one could sign up for an hour-long Zoom — introductions from Noma’s René Redzepi and Jason White, and demonstrations of making lacto-fermented tomatoes and a juice-based kombucha, all moderated by renowned food writer Ruth Reichl — and a copy of 2018’s  “The Noma Guide to Fermentation.” The event sold out in minutes.

Redzepi (Noma chef and co-owner) and White (Noma’s head of fermentation) were in their fermentation lab at the restaurant, and gave concise, compelling comments on the long history of fermentation and its importance. They noted the healthful aspects of the process but emphasized its ability to produce delicious flavors. 

“One of the most important things for me as a fermenter is definitely having a closer look at nature, and also being able to create new and interesting flavors that can have beneficial effects on humans, meaning it can make us healthier, it can make our dinners more exciting and also we can teach future generations how they can interact with nature as well,” White says. “The power of fermentation is a really good bridge to that because, in one way or another, in every culture, in every place on earth, there are people who have been doing it for thousands of years. I think it’s important for us to carry the torch. And I think carrying the torch of fermentation is definitely my biggest dream, to carry it for another thousand years.”

When Noma opened over 18 years ago, it was in the dead of winter and they struggled to deliver meals made from Nordic ingredients. “We were really desperate to find food,” Redzepi continues. By spring, they began foraging, “it grounded us and gave us direction.” A few years into foraging, they wondered how they could take the abundance of spring and summer ingredients and use it in the long winter season.

“That’s when we started dabbling into fermentation,” he says. “And from that moment on, a whole new world opened up for restaurant Noma. You could even say fermentation eclipsed foraging because we found out, through the yeast and the mold and the bacterias, we could simply create such new flavors that would transform our kitchens forever. We started tapping into the community worldwide of fermenters and traditional fermentations, adapting them to our ingredients and our region and thus creating a new set of tools that has really engrained itself into every single Noma dish. You don’t eat anything at Noma that doesn’t have ferments in them.”

“Instead of food waste, you can ferment it into something delicious,” he adds.

They made the recipes seem easy to execute (though I suspect the presentation of SCOBY might have put off some participants). And, to ensure at least a small dose of titillation, they proffered a container of one current project in the lab, “Reindeer Penis Garum.” They used this as an example of how fermentation can minimize waste by finding applications for what would otherwise be scrap or trash. 

The detailed discussion of kombucha was illuminating, including an interesting contrast with vinegars. Noma makes numerous kombuchas, both for direct consumption and for use as an ingredient. Redzepi expressed his personal perspective, which helps explain why. He says he has yet to find a commercial product “that’s worth buying” — and it’s easy to make yourself. 

It was great to see fermentation as a front-and-center topic, but there is still work to be done. The literature that was sent to all participants to accompany the presentation included references in the kombucha recipe to “backstop” and “backdrop” liquid — though they meant “backslop.”  

“Poor Man’s Viagra”

More chefs are experimenting with ‘nduja, a spreadable, fermented pork salami. ‘Nduja is packed with Calabrian chiles, giving it a kick with an underlying sweetness. 

‘Nduja hails from northern Italy, dating back to either the 13th Century or early 1800s (historians dispute the date). Food experts agree ‘nduja was inspired by the French sausage andouille, typically made from pork and pig innards. Like many other fermented dishes, it’s believed to have been “born out of necessity…the cured pork product that’s resistant to spoilage was originally made using excess fat and meat trimmings left over from the butchering process.” Once all ‘nduja’s ingredients are minced together, the meat is stuffed into sausage casings, fermented for 2-5 days and then aged. 

‘Nduja (pronounced en-doo-ya) is referred to as “red Nutella” and the “poor man’s Viagra” (the latter because of the belief that chilli peppers are a natural stimulant).

Read more (SBS Australia)

Reviving a Fermented Soda

Is gazoz — a Mediterranean-born mocktail made with fermented fruit and herbs — the next trending drink? It“fell out of favor for a few decades,” according to an Eater article, but chefs and bartenders in Turkey and Israel are bringing it back. 

Gazoz is a flavor-packed drink that is also visually striking. It’s served packed with herbs and chunks of fruit. Chef Benny Briga (Cafe Levinsky 41 in Tel Aviv) and author Adeena Sussman have written a new book on the drink.They include numerous variations on the drink, including ones that highlights Briga’s signature seasonal fruit syrup that he says is made by “sweet fermentation.” Many of the drink recipes in “Gazoz” also include sweet-fermented spices, nut syrups and aerobic fermentations such as kefir and kombucha.

Read more (Eater)

The Gochujang Debate

The next “it” condiment in the U.S, gochujang is sweet and spicy, fermented for six to 12 months, and adding an umami tang. More restaurants are incorporating gochujang into their dishes, like the Shake Shack chain has done with their new Korean-Style Fried Chick’n sandwich.

But gochujang’s popularity has been a divisive issue. On one hand, many critics say mainstream food culture shouldn’t cherry-pick trends. “Ethnic foods, particularly the fermented variety, have a history of being typecast as unappetizing in the United States,” writes Hanna Park, the article author. She quotes Eric Kim, a food writer for The New York Times who says he hates that gochujang is now popular: “I never like to say a pantry ingredient is ‘trending’ or ‘mainstream,’ because that implies it is new. But new to whom? Gochujang is one of the oldest foodstuffs, beloved by millions of people for centuries.”

Meanwhile, other food experts say it’s wonderful to see Korean food used as inspiration for new dishes. Chef Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan restaurants in New York City, says there was a time when Americans didn’t know anything about Korea, confusing it with China and Japan. Gochujang helps people appreciate Korea for its food culture. “It all comes down to execution. If they make it delicious, so people like Korean fried chicken or gochujang, then I thank them,” he said.

Read more (NBC News)

The Dodo of Gastronomic History

Scientists are working to recreate an ancient garum, considered the “dodo of gastronomic history.” Beloved by Mediterranean civilizations, the fish sauce was thought by historians to be extinct, lost along with the Roman Empire.

Food technicians got new insight into this garum when archaeologists discovered sealed dolia (large clay storage vessels) at what is believed to be a former Garum Shop at Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the building, preserving the factory. The charred, powdered remains left in the vessels — plus a fish sauce recipe believed to have been from the 3rd century A.D. — has aided food techs in recreating the ancient garum. 

This product uses heavily salted small fish fermented for one week with dill, coriander, fennel and other dried herbs in a closed vessel. The resulting “Flor de Garum” is sold in Spain by the Matiz brand in amphora-shaped glass bottles. 

Top chefs in Spain have been using Flor de Garum in new dishes. Mario Jiménez Córdoba, chef at El Faro in Cádiz, uses it in black-truffle ice cream, a raw sea bass dish and chocolate ganache. 

“When people think of garum,” Jiménez says, “they imagine something that smells disgusting. But we have to think of garum like we would salt, or soy sauce. You use only a few drops, and the flavor is incredible.”

Read more (Smithsonian Magazine)

Foraging for Cocktails

More restaurant owners are offering foraging tours for patrons, a farm-to-table experience where guests pick ingredients for their meal. The Los Angeles Times highlights Central Coast Distillery in Atascadero, Calif. They take visitors on a unique outing around San Luis Obispo County to learn about the “epicurean and medicinal qualities of botanicals.” 

Distillery owner Eric Olson calls the tours “wildcrafting.” He shows guests how tequila is made, by roasting, mashing and fermenting local agave. He takes them through the hills of Paso Robles to pick prickly pears from nopal cactus, then collects bay laurel leaves, fennel, toyon berries and elderberry.

Guests are brought back to the distillery to create cocktails from their foraged goods. “I usually like to stick to the classics, but then put a personal little twist on them with something that we foraged,” Olson says.

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

Cacao is one of the most environmentally harmful and ethically dubious commodities produced on the planet. It plays a huge role in deforestation, uses an alarming amount of water and more than 2 million children work in cacao farms. Yet cacao hasn’t been reimagined the way other foods with similarly harmful footprints have. 

“There’s a lot of ethical quandaries around the production of chocolate,” says Johnny Drain, PhD, co-founder of WNWN Food Labs. “Cacao is a huge contributor to climate change, and child labor and slave labor are hardwired into the supply chain.”

Drain’s nickname is the “Walter White of fermentation” because of his work helping pioneering restaurants and bars around the world incorporate fermentation into their food and drink. Now Drain can add “Willy Wonka of chocolate” to his resume. He is co-launching a cacao-free chocolate, next in the wave of alternative products designed to replicate flavor and texture without a harmful production cycle.

A Chocolate-Potato Connection?

WNWN (Waste Not, Want Not, pronounced “Win-Win”) happened by chance. About five years ago, Drain was boiling old, green potatoes, and leaned his head into the steam. He was surprised it smelled like chocolate. 

“I had this light bulb moment where I thought ‘There must be some compounds within the skins that are also found in cacao and chocolate.’ I wondered — ‘Could I make chocolate from potatoes? What other weird and wonderful things could make chocolate?’” Drain says.

WNWN plans to release a small-run batch of their chocolate next month. Drain and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker and fellow fermenter-turned-food-activist, are calling the product category choc

WNWN’s choc ingredients are proprietary until its formal release but, as with traditional chocolate, they are plant-based and fermented. Drain describes them as familiar, whole ingredients that are common in an average person’s diet. 

“It’s not a Frankenstein, lab-created product, mixing this potion with that potion. We take whole ingredients, we ferment them just as we would chocolate, then we end up with this delicious chocolatey paste that goes into a quite conventional chocolate-making procedure,” Drain adds.

WNWN also replaces cocoa butter — made from cacao pods — with plant-based oils. Cocoa butter is what gives traditional chocolate a silky, creamy texture as it melts in your mouth. 

Fermented Flavors

At the heart of choc’s flavor, though, is fermentation.

“Cacao is fermented to make chocolate in the same way our product is fermented. We use similar, friendly microbes to create complexity,” he says. “We’re recreating that flavour profile of chocolate that we all know and love using the same fundamental techniques that are used to make chocolate.”

High-quality chocolate contains roughly 600 different flavor and aroma molecules. Cacao fermentation involves lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria, along with various yeasts, to create its flavor.

“If you didn’t have that cocktail of microbes, you would end up with something that only tastes vaguely like the chocolate we know and love,” he adds. “At the heart of this is fermentation. The product that we have, if we produced it without the fermentation processes, it wouldn’t taste anything like chocolate, just like if you eat a raw cocoa bean or even a roasted, unfermented cocoa bean, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. You have to have that very complex cascade of chemical reactions, made possible by the fermentation, to get the final chocolate flavour.”

The Next Big Alt Movement?

Drain is quick to point out WNWN is not the only company trying to create what he and Pak have coined “alt-chocolate.” Three companies — QOA, Voyage Foods and Cali-Cultured — all officially launched in the past three months.

Some of these companies have been operating in stealth mode for a number of years but made official launches once word of competitors began to circulate. QOA and Voyage appear to be using approaches similar to that of WNWN. CaliCultured is using a syn-bio precision fermentation route to modify yeast cells to produce lab-grown cacao cells that are genetically identical to those found in the wild.

Drain says he’s encouraged by the other companies. 

“It’s exciting that there’s multiple people working in this space,” he says. “Look at the plant milk space or alternative protein space — there’s definitely plenty of room in this marketplace too, and collectively we are all doing this because we care about the ethical and environmental damage being wrought by the current cacao supply chain.” 

European and American consumers historically dominate chocolate sales, but chocolate sales all over the world are increasing

Drain and Pak feel that a shake-up in the industry at the top is needed. Huge international producers are responsible for the vast majority of global chocolate. Mars, Nestle and Hershey promised over 20 years ago to stop using child laborers, but reports say the problem continues.Similarly, these companies pledged a decade ago to source more sustainable chocolate, but negative environmental problems from cacao continue to increase. 

“The way in which we consume food has to change. It’s unrealistic that millions of tons of mass-produced cacao is somehow ethically- and sustainably-produced,” Pak says.

Drain adds; “So, really, we’re not anti-chocolate, we’re anti-big-chocolate produced in unethical, unsustainable ways.” 

Recreating Food

Chocolate is merely the first challenge that WNWN wants to address. Coffee and vanilla are next, foods with similar human rights and sustainability concerns. The company is building a software system that can ideate fermentation pathways for creating sustainable, flavour-identical analogs to delicious – but unsustainable – products.

“When you really start looking at how most of the world’s food is produced and consumed, there are so so many cases where it’s produced in a really terrible and damaging way,” Drain says. But “the market wouldn’t have been ready for a product like this five years ago. People are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from. People are thinking about ‘How do I make my purchasing habits, my diet better for the planet in a way that I don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and taste that I love?’ There will be work to do. But people are more receptive now that fermentation is more of a household name than it was five years ago. I think the fact that more people want to remedy these challenges is brillant.”

Drain will be speaking FERMENTATION 2021 on “The Alt-Universe”

While more chefs and cooking enthusiasts are experimenting with fermentation, they’re skipping the basics and jumping straight to complicated dishes. The foundational steps of  cooking are  fine-tuned only with time and patience, with hours spent mastering the simple recipes first, according to Jason White, director of the fermentation lab at Noma restaurant.

“It’s just as important for you to make a delicious pickle and a wonderfully balanced kombucha as it is for you to make an incredibly long-aged batch of miso,” White says. “We can never forget that, whenever we start approaching these biological processes and these fermentation processes, that we also take advantage of the beginning stages of learning each individual step along the way. I can’t tell you how important it is for a person who’s emerging into the art of fermentation to stop and pause for a minute and take the opportunity to connect dots. Each microbe that we’re using to ferment things has some kind of mechanism, and an ingredient that we’re going to ferment has a composition that benefits that microbe.”

White spoke at Harvard University’s Science & Cooking Lecture Series, on the topic Fermentation: A Springboard for Modern Gastronomy. He began his director role at Noma last year and has since helped the world-famous restaurant earn its third Michelin star in September. 

In his lecture, White stressed observational skills — honed in the early years of learning to ferment — are one of the most important qualities for a fermenter. The best way to “really understand what an ingredient is and what it has to offer a microbe” is through the senses. When you cut into the ingredient, does it feel dry? Does it smell of essential oils? Does it taste overripe?

“Fermentation is one of those weird occurrences in nature where humans intentionally create something only to watch it decompose, and when it decomposes it produces something that’s more valuable to us,” White says. “I am not a chef, I am not a scientist, I am a dreamer and I am a fermenter and my life journey is going to be dedicated to the act of microbial processing.”

From Texas to Denmark, Fermenting with Local Agriculture

A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, White began a career as a fermentation consultant for restaurants and distilleries in Texas. He worked for two years at Noma before returning to the U.S. in 2019 as head of the food research lab at Audrey restaurant in Nashville.

The early days of his career in gastronomy weren’t spent in beautiful, state-of-the-art kitchens like those at Noma. White’s first experiences as a professional fermenter were spent cooking in a small wooden shed in the Texas heat.

Environment is a critical element to fermenting. Texas is vastly different from the areas that are the globe’s cornerstones of fermentation — Japan, Korea and Taiwan — and which had inspired White. Texas, for example, doesn’t have a huge variety of mushrooms or produce — but it does have chilies and lots of grains. 

“I found a lot of joy adapting traditional recipes into something that was based off Texas agriculture,” White says. Much of his fermentation in those days was driven by koji, which grows well on the grains common to Texas. 

White learned a key lesson that he incorporates in his cooking: use the local ingredients and agricultural systems available in the area. 

“Every single ingredient on earth, you’re going to find something that is valuable to a fermentation process,” White adds. “Even if we can’t consume it as humans, you can use the fermentation process to make it more delicious.”

Respecting the Past, Propelling the Future

Fermentation has been around since the beginning of humanity. When we ferment, White says, we’re recreating the environment and the processes traditionally used where the ferment was first discovered and practiced. 

“And, as fermenters, we are also carrying the knowledge of these practices through the generations,” White says. “And where we are with fermentation, it’s kind of like emergent pop cultures. It’s cool to be a fermenter.”

White characterizes his fermentation style as “somewhere between a control freak and a naturalist.” Fermenters have a “huge sense of responsibility” to maintain food safety, carry on traditional processes and teach new fermenters. …We are protectors of knowledge, we are protectors of ingredients and we are protectors of history.”

Whether fermenting at home for personal use or in a production facility for consumers, “We are all still changing the way microbes are evolving and we’re all still participating in the ancient act and it is truly beautiful….if anyone in this room wants to ferment, you are literally the future of fermentation.” 

During his presentation, White demonstrated how to ferment persimmons. In Texas, local farmers would bring persimmons to the restaurant where he worked. They were hard and unripe, not flavorful enough to eat raw, so White soaked them in amazake, a fermented rice beverage. During his lecture, White sliced bright orange persimmons for an amazake bath.  

“The beauty in this whole entire thing isn’t how complex it is,” White says. “Fermentation doesn’t have to blow your mind, you don’t have to be like ‘Oh my god, it’s completely transformed, it’s something I don’t even recognize and it makes my palate explode with flavor.’ No. Fermentation could also be something that respects an ingredient and leaves it as is. But enhanced fermentation is something that can make something that is not as valuable as it should be more valuable again. You can turn something that would maybe go in the trash…into something very delicious.”

Fourteen years after earning two stars from the Michelin Guide, Noma was finally awarded the illustrious third star. 

“After so many years of working together, to finally achieve something like this is extremely special,” says René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen-based restaurant, during Michelin’s ceremony for Nordic countries earlier this month. Redzepi said the announcement left him surprised and flabbergasted. “I’m completely blown away, it’s a new feeling for me. This opportunity happens once in your lifetime.”

Long lauded as one of the top restaurants in the world, Noma has an innovative fermentation lab and test kitchen that creates wildly imaginative and ingenious dishes. Their summer menu featured an edible candle made with cardamom, saffron and a wick of silvered walnut; a salad made with reindeer penis; and a cold-pressed beetroot juice served in a flower pot adorned with a ladybug made from raspberry and black garlic .

The reactions from food industry professionals echoed the same sentiment — the third star was overdue.

James Spreadsbury, restaurant manager at Noma, said during the ceremony that the staff at the restaurant has been patient. “At some point, we kept on and didn’t expect anything would change. But we were still so proud of what we did and believed in what we did. After so many years of working together, to finally achieve something like this is extremely special.”

Redzepi was also honored by Michelin. The Chef Mentor award, given annually to a chef sharing their knowledge to help others, was presented to him by Peyman Sabet, the vice president of business development for Michelin.

“It’s really about innovation and making the path for a new generation of chefs,” Sabet said.

Redzepi said he was humbled to receive the award. He noted that, when Noma opened 18 years ago, “I was a terrible leader…when you are in the industry, you find yourself becoming a head chef and you don’t have the tools to actually figure out how are you doing to do this, how are you doing to lead and inspire a team.”

He said years ago he “promised himself this is not who I wanted to be.”

“One of the most enjoyable things I have in my professional career is to see someone that’s been a part of your own success, but when they leave they have their own success. That’s really really enjoyable.”

Noma is proud of their alumni and highlights them on their website. Reads the webpage: “Our chef René was himself a stagiaire [a cook who works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen] around the world before opening Noma. It is a part of sharing ideas and knowledge that is quite special in our trade. We wouldn’t want to be without stagiaires and we believe that everyone that has been through Noma shares in part of our success.”

Former Noma chefs include: David Zilber (nowat bioscience company Chr. Hansen), Thomas Frebel (head chef at INUA in Tokyo), Dan Giusti (founder of chef training company Brigaid), Matt Orlando (head chef at Amass Restaurant in Copenhagen), Søren Ledet (owner and restaurant manager at Geranium in Copenhagen) andMads Refslund (head chef of ACME in New York City)