World-famous restaurant Noma is getting a new head of their fermentation lab. After four years as director of the fermentation lab, David Zilber is stepping away and will be replaced by Jason White.
White most recently was head of the food research lab at Audrey restaurant in Nashville. 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. last year.
Zilber has helped to define modern fermentation. A creative with a love of science and arts, he’s become a mentor for a new wave of fermentation cooks and enthusiasts. In 2018, he co-authored the book “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” with Noma founder and director Rene Redzepi.
How to make fermentation practical for modern people? That’s a culinary goal Alex Lewin is passionate about reaching. Lewin is the author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond” (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). His mission is “lowering barriers to fermentation.”
“Most of the ways we control the environment is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the microbes, like adding salt to the cabbage or keeping yogurt at the right temperature,” Lewin says. “But a lot of what I’m doing is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the humans.”
Lewin began fermenting as a hobby, and it turned into a passionate side career. Lewin works in the tech industry for his day job, then spends his spare time immersed in fermentation projects. His schedule parallels his interests. Lewin studied math at Harvard University, then studied cooking at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. He’s often tinkering with a microbe-rich condiment in the kitchen after office hours, and attending new fermentation conferences during his vacation time.
“Fermentation gives me direction in my life, but there’s also something about tech that nourishes me. And I don’t have to choose,” Lewin says. “The fermentation world, it is a huge amount of community. The community of fermenters really reflects the community of microbes. There’s some very interesting, very open-minded people who are outside of the mainstream in the fermentation world. And a lot of them feel they have a calling, that they were called to do this.”
Below, excerpts from a Q&A with Lewin from his home in California’s Bay Area:
The Fermentation Association: What got you first interested in fermentation?
Alex Lewin: I’d always been interested in food and started cooking a little in college. My dad had heart disease and later diabetes and he was on these diets and pills, but things didn’t seem to be getting him any better. When I got interested in health and nutrition during this time, I partly did it out of fear for my own life.
I started reading books about health, nutrition, diet, food. What struck me was they all said different things. I had studied math, physics, and generally the experts agree more or less on the obvious stuff. There’s discussion on the origin of the universe, yes, but no disagreement about what happens when you drop something and it hits the floor. I was surprised at the difference. One cookbook would say what would really matter in your health is your blood type — another would say the ratio from carbs to fat to protein that you eat, you have to eat them at a certain ratio at every meal. Then another book says don’t eat protein and carbs together, have space between them. I would read and was intrigued and frustrated. I had this idea that it should make sense and it didn’t make sense.
I was in a bookstore one day and I saw the book “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved” and thought it was such a fantastic title. It was about food politics and underground food movements and food subcultures. It was written by Sandor Katz and he writes with so much heart, very intelligently. He writes about radical food politics and has this way of keeping it very balanced and measured. Some books about radical politics can be shrill, but there’s nothing shrill or strident about anything Sandor does.
I wanted to read what else Sandor had written and found “Wild Fermentation,” and made my first jar of sauerkraut. In the meantime, there’s another book that affected me a lot, “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. And that book similarly blew my mind. That book took all these diverse threads of diet, health and nutrition and pulled them all together in a way no other book has or has since. I felt like I finally understood what to eat, where before it was a free-for-all.
One of the things I learned to think about when you’re eating are foods with enzymes, microbes and live foods that weren’t processed with modern processing techniques. That really set me on my path.
TFA: After that, you spent the next decade diving into fermentation. You went to cooking school, started teaching fermentation classes, got involved with the Boston Public Market Association. How did your book “Real Food Fermentation” come about?
Lewin: A friend of mine who had a chocolate business recommended me to a book publisher. That was for “Real Food Fermentation,” my first book, in which I made it as easy as possible for people to ferment things. I knew from my class, making sauerkraut is not very complicated, and once people see it and how easy it is, they’re likely to keep doing it. So in my book, there are lots of pictures. There are lots of people with kitchen anxiety who are more comfortable if they see pictures of everything — pictures of me slicing the cabbage and putting it in the jar. I’m not a visual learner, I want to see words and measurements and numbers. So the book has both.
As time went on, I ended up meeting Raquel Guajardo (co-author for Lewin’s book “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond), and we decided to write a book about fermented drinks. I think it’s a great book because we both got a chance to share our ideas about food and health and what is happening in the world. Then we got to share recipes from my experience and her experience as a fermented drink producer in Mexico, where some of the pre-Hispanic traditions are very much alive.
Fermented drinks I think are also easier. They’re a little less weird to people than sauerkraut and kimchi, they’re less intimidating. We all drink things that are fizzy, sweet and sour. But like kimchi, it is so far outside of the usual experience of eating. Most people know they shouldn’t drink five Coca-Colas a day, so fermented drinks are the answer.
TFA: Tell me more about your goal to lower the barrier into fermentation.
Lewin: What is it about kombucha that is familiar? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. What is soda? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. I’m certainly not the first to observe that, but I’m connecting the dots on how we can integrate these ancient foods into our modern lives.
For me, I always considered myself an atheist. Then when I started fermenting, I started letting go and thinking there are things outside of our control and we just need to accept them. There are things we will never understand completely, there are forces we don’t even know about. I came to faith and spirituality through the practice of fermentation.
A lot of the problems that we face today have been created by application of high technology to the food system, then we try to solve them by using more food technology — like growing fake meat. The problems caused by high tech are not going to be solved by high tech, they’ll be solved by low tech. And fermentation is one of my favorite low tech technologies. You pretty much just need a knife.
Fermentation also gets away from the western, scientific, medical paradigm that’s so reductionist, where we’re looking for some small isolated problem in the body and then trying to counter it. Looking for some metabolic issue and trying to neutralize the symptoms. “Your blood pressure is high, let’s lower it with a pill.” If the underlying causes of all these things are eating bad food, trying to attack the symptoms one at a time is not the easiest way to make progress. We have to move away from this reductionist mindset where we’re playing whack-a-mole with our symptoms. We’re healthier looking for the underlying problems and addressing them.
Gut health is a big one. All sorts of other problems caused by high-tech, processed foods. Eastern medicine has more of an idea of holistic health, what’s going on in the system. I think that’s the future. I think a lot of the health problems will be solved through system-type thinking. This balance of energy. There’s a dynamic of equilibrium in our gut.
TFA: You mentioned Sandor Katz’ book “Wild Fermentation” introducing you to fermentation. What about his book appealed to you?
Lewin: There’s something rebellious about making food and leaving it out on the counter. I hadn’t been to cooking school yet at that point when I read it. But you read about food safety and there are rules, you can only leave food on the counter for so long at this temperature. There are all these things you’re not supposed to do with food. But in order to ferment, you have to violate these rules to grow the microbes. There’s something rebellious about fermentation.
Another part of it is the utterly low tech aspect to it. All the trouble we go to to process our food in high tech ways today, turns out we can do it better without preservatives, without heat packing things, without the refrigerator.
When you ferment something, every time it’s a little different. And you can keep doing it again and it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect. And a lot of times you can do something interesting with it. I made pickles the other day, they turned out soft, so I’m going to make them into relish. Too much sourdough starter? Turn it into a porridge. Your kombucha got too sour? Turn it into vinegar. Sometimes something can be ruined, but often you can turn it into something else. Being able to make kombucha that’s better than most of the store-bought kombucha is pretty cool — I discovered that ability.
TFA: Why do you encourage people to incorporate fermented foods in their modern diet?
Lewin: One of them is just coming back to the kitchen. During the coronavirus pandemic, people are coming back to their kitchens. That’s an unqualifiedly good thing, it means that much less processed food and that much less fast food. Fermentation also brings people back into the kitchen. And fermentation is in the limelight during the pandemic. Especially sourdough right now. Fermented projects are great things to do with families, kids. When you talk to the older generation about making sourdough, pickles, bread, they have these stories. My mom never made pickles, but her father did. It’s not too late to get these stories. Food is one of the things that connects generations of people, that reminds us of our roots and grounds us, literally.
Making anything with your hands, it’s a cure for all sorts of things. Not even getting into physical, digestive health. Just making something and liking it is psychologically healthy. You feel empowered in the face of so many disempowering things. If you can turn cabbage into sauerkraut, you have power.
And then there are all the concrete, physical health benefits of eating fermented foods. You get more enzymes, more vitamins, more microbes, you get more of the good microbes and fewer of the bad microbes. You get probably less processed food, less sugar, you get all these trace substances that you really don’t get from processed food. Like nattokinase, which is this enzyme you only find in natto and might protect against heart disease and cancer. Depending on the ingredients you use when fermenting, if you use the right salt and right sweeteners, you can get minerals. Fermenting in some cases creates vitamins. You can straighten out a lot of digestive problems in my experience by introducing fermented foods, gradually.
TFA: You’ve watched Americans’ diets adapt (or not adapt) over the past few decades to changing health standards. How have Americans’ perception of fermented food and drink changed in that time?
Lewin: Americans are absolutely more accepting of it. The story of kombucha is a good one. You can follow annual kombucha sales. You used to say “kombucha” and people would say “Ew” or “What’s that?” or “My crazy aunt makes that.” Now, it’s a billion dollar business. You can get it in mainstream supermarkets in most of the country, it’s not a fringe thing anymore. Fermentation is coming to the mainstream. Kimchi is not a fringe thing. I think the rise of food culture, with food reality TV shows, has really helped fermented things like kimchi. When food trucks in LA started having kimchi and Korean BBQ tacos, for me I felt like something had turned the corner. The rise of microbreweries and the interest in natural wines and the movement away from like super-oaky chardonnays and ginormous reds to more natural wines. I think people are a lot more sophisticated about food than they were 20 years ago, and a lot of that is leading to increased interest in fermented foods.
Fermented foods are no longer fringe. We’ve come a long way in 20 years. Kombucha and kimchi are two of the flag bearers of fermentation. I think fermentation is on the rise. People will say “I think it’s just a fad,” and I’ll say “It’s absolutely not a fad.” People were fermenting 10,000 years ago. It never left. Every drop of alcohol you’re drinking, that’s fermented. It never went away, it was under the surface and now it’s on the surface again. People are just realizing it’s important.
TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Lewin: I think the more people ferment at home, the more people are going to want to buy fermented things. The more people ferment at home, the more they’ll appreciate fermented products and seek them out. It’s not like there’s a competition between home fermenting and commercial producers. If anything, there’s a symbiosis. I’ll make kimchi sometimes, but I’ll buy it sometimes, too, because it’s messy and there are people that make very good kimchi. Same with kombucha or high alcohol kombucha. I could make it if I wanted to, but it requires time and patience. Miso is another example, I don’t have the patience to wait six months to make miso.
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.
Americans are hearing the term “microbiome” a lot lately. It’s become a common phrase in health food marketing. But the microbiome is still uncharted territory in science.
Dr. Shilpa Ravella, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, says a large army of trillions of bacteria lives on or in us, and we can alter that bacteria by fueling it with the right (or wrong) foods.
“There are also ways of preparing food that can actually introduce good bacteria, also known as probiotics, into your gut. Fermented foods are teeming with helpful probiotic bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria,” Ravella says.
Fermented food and drink are critical to caring for gut bacteria. Because fermented products are minimally processed and provide nutrient-rich variety to diets, she adds.
But that doesn’t mean all fermented products are created equally. Yogurt is a beneficial food, for example, but some brands add too much sugar and not enough beneficial bacteria that the yogurt may not actually help.
Ravella shared her insight in a TedED talk. As the director of Columbia’s Adult Small Bowel Program, she works with patients plagued by gut issues.
“We don’t yet have the blueprint for exactly which good bacteria a robust gut needs, but we do know it’s important for a healthy microbiome to have a variety of bacterial species,” she adds. “Maintaining a good balanced relationship with them is to our advantage.”
Gut bacteria breaks down food the body can’t digest, produces important nutrients, regulates the immune system and protects our bodies from harmful germs.
Though multiple factors affect our microbiome – the environment, medications and even whether or not we were birthed vaginally or through a C-section – the food we eat is one of the most powerful allies for the microbiome.
“Diet is emerging as one of the leading influences on the health of our guts,” Ravella adds. “While we can’t control all these factors, we can manipulate the balance of our microbes by paying attention to what we eat.”
In addition to fermented food and drink, fiber is also key. Dietary fiber in foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grain are scientifically proven to colonize the gut.
“While we’re only beginning to understand the vast wilderness inside our guts, we already have a glimpse of how crucial our microbiomes are for digestive health,” Ravella says. “We have the power to fire up the bacteria in our bellies.”
You’ll never find Jon Bertolone, chef of Nourish in Oregon, serving an Impossible Burger. He says there are other ways to be inventive with a savory, plant-based patty. “Umami is something that has sort of driven my culinary journey,” Bertolone says. He’s been experimenting with goram (fermented fish sauce) to capture beef flavor, too. Fermentation, Bertolone says, is “the key to bridging cultures, because every culture has them.”
Read more (The Register-Guard)
Fermentation is becoming a flavorful and cost-effective technique for food companies to make plant-based proteins with reduced sugar. Food Business News highlights numerous companies using fermentation in their processing to make a product with less sugar. Florida Food Products is using a lactic acid fermentation process, lowing sugar content in beet juice by 10%. Christopher Naese, the vice president of business development, says: “The result is a clean label ingredient with a fresh flavor and light sweetness coupled with beet’s inherent health benefits. Fermented beet juice is an opportunity to offer on-trend label benefits for health-conscious consumers while delivering appealing taste attributes along with lower sugar content and a simple label declaration.” Besides lowering sugar content, the fermentation process also lowers the beet juice’s pH, which results in a brighter flavor with red berry notes and a less earthy taste, he said. “Though long established in Eastern European, African and Asian cuisines, fermented flavors have only recently captured American consumers’ taste interest, and while there appears to be widespread interest in fermented foods and beverages, this trend toward global flavors is driven mainly by adults under 40 years old.”
Read more (Food Business News)
Fewer North Koreans are making their own kimchi, opting for premade versions instead. The final days of October have traditionally marked kimchi-making season in North Korea. The kimchi-making craft was always a crucial part of prepping for winter months. The Daily NK notes that there’s no longer a need for homemade kimchi as more women join the workforce, more commercial kimchi producers enter the market and more convenient, processed food is sold in North Korean supermarkets. The final days of October have traditionally always marked kimchi-making season in North Korea. The traditionally kimchi-making craft was always a crucial part of prepping for winter months.
Read more (Daily NK)