In the last decade, fermentation has taken center stage at fine dining restaurants. How do owners and chefs develop and maintain a fermentation program for their kitchen?

An all-star team of U.S. chef-owners at FERMENTATION 2022 shared their successes  and failures in developing fermentation-focused kitchens. Speakers included: Sean Brock of Audrey Restaurant in Nashville, Jeremy Kean of Brassica Kitchen in Boston and Misti Norris of Petra & the Beast in Dallas. Jori Jayne Emde, chef, educator and owner of Corner Office in Taos, New Mexico, moderated the discussion.

The chefs all focus on whole food utilization, aiming to eliminate food waste in flavor-packed dishes. Fermentation is key. Food scraps that would otherwise be thrown out – stems from produce, coffee grounds or animal bits – are fermented and reinvented in flavorful, unique dishes. 

“By reusing the product in different manipulations over and over again, this type of program can really develop branding potential over time,” Emde says. “The process of bringing several lives to one product puts one’s fingerprint on the cuisine, so the restaurant expresses its own terroir.”

In-House Fermentation

Core to developing a restaurant fermentation program is assigning someone to oversee the process. Who will track the start dates, monitor pH levels and control filtration?

Emde, who formerly ran Fish & Game in New York’s Hudson Valley, quickly learned at the restaurant “you can’t just have a multitude of chefs handling it…ferments are alive and require being nurtured and cared for.” 

Brock agrees, noting some restaurants have their chef de cuisine or sous-chef head up fermentation efforts. “But the reality is they have so much to do already.”

“It’s critical to have someone dedicated to the program,” Brock says. “When you’re having to build such a renegade operation, the biggest challenges are keeping up with inventory and monitoring each ferment.”

Audrey hired a fermentation specialist in 2014, Elliot Silber. He has a chemistry degree and “understands fermentation at a completely different level,” Brock says.

“I still can’t believe we have someone in charge of fermentation,” he adds. “Now, we put fewer things on the plate with a bigger impact. I get to finally produce food I would consider minimalist.”

Brassica Kitchen takes a different approach to their fermentation program – a food map.

“We’ve been running fermentation forward cuisine for about 10 years and, in that 10 years, we’ve gone through a lot failure and chaos and really kind of developing things as we go, to changing the menu everyday to coming in long before service to staying long after to doing inventory and plug and play with them. We hit a wall,” Kean says. “We’ve found ourselves looking at over 100 misos and going ‘What the fuck do we do with this?’”

The kitchen’s food map is a shared document where the chefs outline how to utilize every byproduct. It’s been Brassica’s most effective menu-planning solution. “This food map has solved a lot of the problems and created a box of creativity we can really thrive in,” Kean says.

Health Department Woes

When Brock launched his first fermentation program at Charleston’s Husk restaurant in 2010, “ironically our biggest challenge was the health department,” Brock said. “They would make us throw food away.” 

Health department officials – many who had no idea what fermentation was or its inherent safety – would immediately issue violations for any food sitting on a counter at room temperature, a normal process for fermenting foods or beverages. Husk maintained a makeshift lab on the roof of the restaurant hidden from officials, and staff had a code word for when the health department would come to the restaurant.

Norris recalled instances where inspectors would pour bleach on their fermented food products or throw their meat in the trash.

“It’s hard because we’ve taken the time to learn and be knowledgeable about how to keep these foods safe. And then someone comes in who is supposed to be keeping people safe but has no knowledge of food and we’re trying to make food healthier and keep it more dynamic and sustainable,” Norris says. “It’s frustrating when you put so much of yourself and your philogosphy into the food.”

Audience Acceptance

Today – as fermentation is featured regularly in  food, health and science news – diners are eager to eat unique, fermented dishes. This hasn’t always been the case. Even today,diners need to trust a restaurant before they will buy dishes experimenting with fermentation. Norris notes, when Petra and the Beast first opened, fermentation was not a food trend in Texas. Residents had not grown up with a food culture of eating and preserving wild food. 

“It definitely did not happen overnight,” she says. “It took a lot of educating and reassuring people that these things are delicious and they are a little uncommon, a little different. It’s something that took time and effort to understand what we were doing with full utilization and sustainability.”

Kean, too, said it took time at Brassica. 

“We’d be using all these (fermented) products and I wouldn’t even mention it on the menus,” he said. “The trust was built over all these years and until we could really start speaking on it.”

Eliminating food waste was mentioned as fermentation’s gateway of acceptance for diners.

Food Waste into Food

Brock says the goal at Audrey is to find 10 uses for every seasonal, region-specific ingredient. For example, last year they received candy roaster squash from a local farm and served it in different forms in dishes throughout the fall season. But they also fermented it and will be serving it again this year. 

“We don’t create dishes and then get the ingredients,” Brock says, “the ingredient fuels the dish.” 

The kitchen at Audrey is full of glass-encased ferments, each organized by parts of the tongue.

Brassica has found success in utilizing food waste by creating delicious dishes that are “black holes for the extra stuff” Kean says. For example, they serve a fried rice dish using sticky rice from the day before with fermented vegetables. The dish is popular, low cost and “encourages little things that can be vehicles in a dish.”

“It’s been inspiring over the years to find a use for the byproducts, then the byproducts become so important that you have to then buy the byproduct,” he says. “It’s happened to us over and over again.”

Petra and the Beast focuses on whole animal utilization. By being sustainable and “hyper-seasonal,” Norris says, Petra is “creating food with the most depth, creating food that’s not just one note.”

“I ask myself and the team ‘Well, what should we do with it? Is there a better use for it? Is there a sour brine or can we make a salt out of it and use it on that same vegetable next season?’” Norris says. “If you really truly understand why a flavor profile is developing in a certain way, you look at everything else differently.”

Endangered Fermented Foods

Through selective breeding and domestication of plants and livestock, the world’s food system has lost diversity to an alarming degree. Crops are monocultures and animals are single species. Journalist and author Dan Saladino argues it’s vital to the health of humanity and our planet to save these traditional foods.

“There’s an incredible amount of homogenization taking place in the last century, which has resulted in a huge amount of concentration of power in the food system but also a decline in the amount of biodiversity,” says Saladino, author of Eating to Extinction. “That agricultural and biological diversity is disappearing and it’s taken us thousands, millions of years for plant, animal evolution to get to this point.”

Saladino was a keynote speaker at The Fermentation Association’s conference FERMENTATION 2022, his first in-person talk in the United States since his book was released in February. A journalist with the BBC, Saladino was also an active participant in the event, attending multiple days’ worth of educational sessions. He called the conference “mind expanding.”

“I thought I knew about fermentation, when in fact I know very little,” Saladino said to the crowd in his keynote. “We’ve been bemused by the media reports that fermentation is a fad or fashion. What we know is that the modern food system in the last 150 years is the fad. It’s barely a blip in the context of our evolution as species, and it’s the way we’ve survived as a species over thousands of years.”

Eating to Extinction includes 40 stories of endangered foods and beverages, just touching on a fraction of what is happening around the world. To date, over 5,000 endangered items from 130 different countries have been cataloged by the Slow Food Foundation’s project the Ark of Taste

During FERMENTATION 2022, Saladino centered his remarks around the endangered fermented foods he chronicled in his book – Salers cheese, skerpikjøt, oca, O-Higu soybeans, lambic beer, pu’erh tea, qvevri wine, perry and wild forest coffee. Here are some of the highlights of his presentation.

Salers cheese (Augergne, Central France)

Fermentation was a survival strategy for many early humans, a fact especially evident in the origins of cheesemaking. In areas like Salers in central France, villagers live in inhospitable mountain areas where it’s difficult to access food. In the spring each year, cheesemakers travel up the mountains with their cattle and live like nomads for months. 

“It’s extremely laborious, hard work,” Saladino says, noting there’s only a handful of Salers cheese producers left in France. He marvels at “the ingenuity of taking animals up and out to pasture in places where the energy from the sun and from the soil is creating pastures with grasses with wildflowers and herbs and so on.”

Unlike with modern cheese, no starter cultures are used to make Salers cheese. The microbial activity is provided by the environment – the pasture, the animals and even the leftover lactic acid bacteria in the milk barrels. Because of diversity, the taste is rarely consistent, ranging season to season from mild to aggressive. 

“The idea of cheesemaking is a way humans expand and explore these new territories assisted by the crucial characters in this: the microbes,” he adds. “It can be argued that cheese is one of most beautiful ways to capture the landscape of food – the microbial activity in grasses, the interaction of breeds of animals that are adapted to the landscape. It’s creating something unique to that place.”

Skerpikjøt (Faroe Islands)

Skerpikjøt “is a powerful illustration to our relationship with animals, with meat eating,” Saladino says. It is fermented mutton and unique to Denmark’s Faroe Islands. Today’s farmers selectively breed their sheep for ideal wool production, then slaughter the lambs for meat. In the Faroes, “the idea of eating lamb was a relatively new concept.” Sheep are considered vital to the farm as long as they’re still producing wool and milk.

Once a sheep dies or is killed, the mutton carcass is air-dried and fermented in a shed for 9-18 months. The resulting product is “said to be anything between Parmesan and death. It certainly has got a challenging, funky fragrance,” Saldino says.

But it contrasts traditional and modern food practices. Skerpikjøt is meant to be consumed in small quantities, delicate slivers of animal proteins used as a garnish. Contemporary meat is served in large portions and meant to be consumed quickly.

Oca (Andes, Bolivia),

In the Andes – “one of the highest, coldest and toughest places on Earth to live” – humans have relied on wild plants like oca, a tuber. After oca is harvested, it’s taken to the Pelechuco River. Holes are dug on the riverbank, then filled with water, hay and muna (Andean mint). Sacks of oca are placed in the holes, weighted down by stones, and left to ferment for a month. This process is vital as it leaches out acid. 

“Through processing, this becomes an amazing food,” Saladino says.

But cities are demanding certain types of potatoes, encouraging remote villagers to plant monocultures of potatoes which are prone to diseases. The farmers end up in debt, buying fertilizers and pesticides to grow potatoes.

“For thousands of years, oca and this fermentation technique and the process to make these hockey pucks of carbohydrates and energy kept them alive in that area,” Saladino says. “It’s a diversity that is fast disappearing from the Andes.”

O-Higu soybeans (Okinawa, Japan)

The modern food industry is threatening the O-Higu soybean, too. It was an ideal soybean species – fast-growing, so it can be harvested before the rainy season and the arrival of insects. 

“But by the 20th century, the soy culture pretty much disappeared,” Saladino says.

With World War II came one of America’s biggest military bases to Japan. U.S. leaders dictated what food could be planted on the island. Okinawa was self-sufficient in local soy until American soy was introduced.

Lambic Beer (Belgium)

Saldino explained that, after a spring/summer harvest, Belgian farmers became brewers. They used their leftover wheat to create brews unique to the region.

But by the 1950s and 1960s, larger brewers began buying up the smaller ones. Anheuser-Busch InBev now produces one in four beers drunk around the world.

“There [is] story after story of these distinctive, unique, small breweries disappearing as they are bought up or absorbed into this growing, expanding empire of brewing,” Saladino says. “It’s probably one of the most striking cases of corporate consolidation of a drink and food product.”

Saladino stressed not all is lost. He shared stories of scientists, researchers and local people trying to save endangered foods, collecting seeds, restoring crops and combining traditional and modern-day practices to preserve the world’s rare foods.

“There have been so many fascinating stories of science and research discussed over the last few days at this conference, and I think the existence of The Fermentation Association is exciting because it is bringing together tradition, culture, science, culinary skills, all of these things we know food is,” Saladino added. “Food is economics, politics, geography, anthropology, nutrition. What I’m arguing is that these clues or glimpses into the past for these endangered foods, they’re not just some kind of a food museum or an online catalog. They are the solutions that can help us resolve some of the biggest food challenges we have.”

Can Science Improve Chocolate?

Just like wine and coffee, the flavors of chocolate come from the local terrain, climate and soil where the cacao bean is grown. Chocolates from various parts of the world all taste different. Can those tastes be replicated?

Scientists are trying to determine what produces those flavors and if they can reproduce them consistently. Irene Chetschik, professor in food chemistry at Zurich University of Applied Sciences, has developed “new technological processes that can impact cocoa flavor on a molecular level — to get the best out of each harvest and create consistent quality,” details an article in BBC.

Chetschik says: “Now there is more appreciation for the product – we know where the bean is coming from, which farm, which variety – we can experience a much wider flavor diversity.”

Cocoa beans traditionally are fermented where they are grown. Fermentation will affect quality – a poorly-fermented bean has little flavor; while an over-fermented bean can become too acidic. 

Chetschik has developed a “moist incubation” fermenting technique where a lactic acid solution containing ethanol is applied to dried cocoa beans. It triggers the same fermentation reaction in the beans, “but is far easier to control,” she says. The final taste is sweet, rich and fruity. 

Nottingham University is also working on a chocolate-enhancing project. They’re using a hand-held DNA sequencing device to analyze the cocoa bean microbes. “With improved understanding of what drives the taste of premium chocolate, fermentation can be manipulated for improved flavor.”

Read more (BBC)

The country of Kyrgyzstan is hoping to attract tourists by highlighting traditional kumis – fermented mare’s milk. Locals drink and bathe in the liquid for health benefits. Promotional films romanticize a visit to the Asian country, highlighting how one can experience the nomadic Kyrgyz lifestyle by sleeping in a mountain yurt near herds of horses.

“We decided to try it after hearing about saamal (another word for mare’s milk) and kumis from our friends who had visited Kyrgyzstan,” says Ibrahim al-Sharif, a tourist from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in a CNN Travel article. “I cannot even describe its taste. There is nothing in Saudi Arabia that I would compare with it.”

CNN notes “milking a mare is far trickier than milking a cow.” A person must be big enough to reach their arms around the horse’s thigh. A milking is not done year round but in mid-May and mid-July, traditionally ending when the Pleiades star cluster appears.

Read more (CNN)

‘Ferming’ the Future of Food

The New York Times latest food article deep-dives into the precision fermentation that produces alternative foods, biotechnology that could turn the agriculture industry “from farming to ‘ferming.’”

The American food system is unsustainable, according to the article, with factories and feedlots producing one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But scientists have an answer for producing protein-rich, sustainable, cheap food: precision fermentation. Using this biotech method, components of animal products (such as beef or eggs) are isolated, and then their cells are multiplied in large vats. But scaling is proving problematic. 

“Precision fermentation is the most important environmental technology humanity has ever developed,” says George Monbiot, an ecologist and journalist. “We would be idiots to turn our back on it.”

Startups are lacking infrastructure and even knowledgeable employees “in a food industry trained to support animal farming.” Dr. Liz Specht, vice president of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, says we’re living in a “critical moment for governments to invest,” similar to what’s been done in the renewable energy sector in recent years. Regulations and intellectual property are also concerns.

Read more (The New York Times)

Sriracha Shortage

A failed spring chile harvest has left sriracha brands in the lurch. Sriracha – a fermented condiment made with peppers, vinegars, salt, sugar and garlic – can’t be made without the iconic red jalapeño chiles.

Huy Fong Foods, based in Irwindale, Calif., produces one of the most popular sriracha brands. They typically use 100 million pounds of chiles a year to make sriracha, chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek. But drought in Mexico has caused an “unprecedented shortage” and left store shelves consistently empty of the famous sriracha brand.

The chile shortage is hurting other companies, too. Though Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi uses the chiles in their products, they haven’t felt the crunch so far. “It hasn’t trickled down to a smaller supplier like me yet, but I think it just means that it’s coming,” said Lauryn Chun, founder.

Read more (The New York Times)

The worldwide fresh produce market has long been plagued by mistrust. The industry lacks transparency, a major issue when dealing with perishable goods. The window for transactions is small. There’s no official network, so sellers  have a variety of customers, and buyers use many different  suppliers. 

Enter Tridge (stands for Transaction Bridge), a Korean startup working directly with farmers and grocery stores. Tridge tracks the  real-time  price, quality and volume of produce. Tridge aims to be a transparent middleman, quickly connecting  buyers and sellers when there’s a supply chain interruption.

Hoshik Shin, founder and chief executive of Tridge, says it is a one-stop shop. Farmers can use the data to see which products are more popular, and buyers can check  for prices and availability and suppliers can diversify their sales channels.

“Mr. Shin’s ambition is to aggregate that data into a massive, moving, real-time image of fresh produce on the planet,” the article reads. “Anyone can subscribe to Tridge’s intelligence platform and watch the world grow, harvest, pack and ship everything from Indonesian mangosteens to American lemons.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Paste Magazine highlights the fermentation philosophy of Chef David Porras, who operates the Oak Hill Café and Farm. The hyper-local site, a 2020 James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant, operates in Greenville, South Carolina, on a 2.4-acre farm. 

Porras’ kitchen, according to the magazine, “looks like an alchemist’s workroom, jars and tubs of experimental pickling, emulsions and infusions dotting the counter.” 

“I was always interested in learning about fermentation. Fermentation is a flavor — you can use it for cooking just like lime or lemon juice,” he said.

The restaurant’s menu reflects a true farm-to-table approach. They use permaculture (sustainable agriculture planning to mimic nature) to keep the farm at peak fertility to grow healthy produce. By fermenting instead of trashing unused food, they’ve reduced 50% of their food waste.

“We try to be zero waste by applying fermentation techniques as well as drying, infusion, teas, powders and compost tea,” he said.

Read more (Paste Magazine)

After four decades of research, brothers from Copenhagen have developed a method to reliably cultivate morel mushrooms indoors, year-round, in a climate-controlled environment. Morels typically grow for only a few months in the spring in finicky, woodland locations. They also sell for a high price.

Jacob and Karsten Kirk, 64-year-old twins, yielded 20 pounds per square yard of morels in last year’s crop. Karsten said: “the cost per square meter for producing a morel will be roughly the same as producing a white button mushroom.” They call their efforts the Danish Morel Project and they’re still figuring out how to commercialize it.


Kenneth Toft-Hansen, a Danish chef and winner of the 2019 Bocuse d’Or, notes if the Kirk brothers are able to master sourcing morels widely and affordably, “it will be a game changer for the food industry.”

Read more (The New York Times)

For nearly two decades, the Mediterranean diet has been the food choice recommended by dietitians and the USDA.. This approach to eating has been proven to improve health and reduce risk of chronic disease. 

But there’s a new contender: the Nordic diet. 

This plan focuses on eating fermented foods and beverages, with less meat and more legumes than in the Mediterranean diet. Both approaches are plant-based and full of lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats.

“The nordic diet really does promote a lifelong approach to healthy eating,” says Valerie Agyeman, RDN (pictured). “It also really really focuses on seasonal, local, organic and sustainably sourced whole foods that are traditionally eaten in the Nordic region.”

Agyeman, founder of Flourish Heights, shared her research during a Today’s Dietitian webinar “Breaking Down the Nordic Diet: Why is it Gaining So Much Popularity?” The presentation was designed to help registered dietitians better counsel clients on healthy eating habits.

What is Nordic Eating?

The diet embraces traditional Nordic cuisine, with a focus on ingredients that are fresh and local. The core of the fare is from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

“Fresh, pure and earthly are the words used to describe this food movement that was born out of the landscape and culture,” Agyeman says. “The Nordic movement is all about using what is available.”

The goal is not to invent a new cuisine, but to get back to its roots. Seafood is central, but meat – scarce during the long Nordic winters – is treated as a side dish Fresh vegetables and berries – the most common Nordic fruit – are prevalent during the summer. Fermented foods were born out of the necessity to preserve food from the warmer months to eat during winter. The indigenous Nordic people traditionally fermented vegetables, fish and dairy.

“It really takes the focus off calories and puts it on healthy food,” Agyeman adds. “This way of eating is pretty nutrient-dense.”

Nordic foods, she continues, are served in their natural state with minimal processing. They’re high in antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, fiber, minerals and vitamins; low in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and added salts.

“The Nordic diet is really not that straightforward,” Agyeman says. “When you think of other cuisines, like Italian cuisine, they have signature flavors and various culinary techniques that make up Italian cuisine. When it comes to Nordic cooking, it’s very diverse.”

Sustainability

Key, too, is sustainability. Foods from the Nordic countries have a lower environmental impact because they’re sourced locally and eaten in season. 

Sustainability is also partly why Nordic cuisine has become a staple at many restaurants. The farm-to-table style continues to expand in restaurant dining, along with fermentation. Restaurants around the world are following the lead of Copenhagen’s Noma and building their own labs to explore the flavors and textures fermentation adds to dishes.

“Today [fermentation] is not something that’s needed,” like it was before a global food scene made it simpler to eat fresh food year round, Agyeman says. “But culinary wise, fermentation has evolved. It’s become a big part of these new creations.”

Fermented foods and beverages add to the “epicurean experience,” adds Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition expert based in New York. 

“Savory flavors and fermented food with spices make it a culinary experience,” she says.

Health Benefits 

Studies show eating the Nordic diet prevents obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

The health effects of the Nordic diet were always assumed to be solely due to weight loss. But results of the most recent study of the diet, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in February, found the positive health effects are “irrespective of weight loss.”

“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” said Lars Ove Dragsted, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a statement on the study

The researchers  from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland studied 200 people over 50 years of age with elevated BMI. All were at an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For six months, the group ate the Nordic diet while a control group ate their regular meals.

“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group,” Dragsted said. “We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health.”