“Magic Happens”

René Redzepi graced the pages of The New York Times again, but this time in the Arts section. The chef and owner at the world-famous restaurant Noma shared impressions on different musical pieces and other musings with writer Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. One of his favorites: Mort Garson’s “Plantasia” (an electronic album meant for plants) that he plays in Noma’s greenhouse. 

Redzepi also touched on fermentation. “It’s an antidote to the world where everything is so fast; on-demand; lightning speed. To actually have things that you have to wait for and then something magic happens, I love that. The happiest people I know are people who are in nature all the time: foragers, bakers, fermentation experts. Sometimes I envy that focus. My job is to be at the center of everything that is going on.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Pairing Sake with Food

Does sake go well with Western dishes? Josh Dorcak, chef of Japanese restaurant Mäs, tells Forbes why he thinks  sake is an excellent pairing with all food types, maybe even more so than wine.

“Sake pairs with everything,” Dorcak says. “With wine often it seems like there are these rules that one must follow while sake often fits the bill for creative pairings.”

Read more (Forbes)

The Flavors of Fermentation

From pickling foraged plants to experimenting with koji to vacuum-sealing tempeh, more chefs are experimenting with fermentation. Insights “for menu developers seeking unique concepts and ingredients” were shared during a session at the Research Chefs Association’s RCA+ virtual conference.

Sandor Katz, noted author and educator, discussed how research kitchens can increase their fermentation activities, from creating interesting flavors to expanding food preservation. 

“[Fermentation] can elevate the plainest of foods into flavor sensations,” Katz said. “Its uses in culinary traditions around the world are incredibly diverse, and yet visionary chefs are experimenting with exciting new applications of fermentation.”

Read more (Food Business News)

A sustainable food industry will be built by flavor, says David Zilber, noted chef and food scientist. 

Zilber made major headlines and surprised many in October when he left his job as head of the fermentation lab at Noma for a food scientist position at Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been regularly ranked one of the best restaurants in the world. In 2018, Zilber co-authored a bestselling book on fermentation with Noma co-owner Rene Redzepi. 

In an Instagram live interview last week with Al Jeezera’s Femi Oke, Zilber elaborated on why he traded an apron for a lab coat. The global food system, Zilber says, is unsustainable. Waste is prevalent, food is created with long footprints, agricultural production is shrinking, meat is heavily consumed and large corporations control the industry. 

Transforming Vegetables

“What I’m trying to do in my work is to make vegetables as God damn tasty as they can possibly be by using microbes, using things that are already at our disposal, and convincing people that this might have to have a little bit of a longer inventory life while you let it ferment, while you build a stockpile, but this is the result, this is why you’ll be able to convince people why eating this way is healthy for them and the planet,” he says. “Flavor is king.”

Ingredients created by Denmark-based Chr. Hansen (the company has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredients) feed 1-1.5 billion people a day. These include microbes in yogurt and yeast in beer.

“I work with them to try and make the food system more sustainable, to get more people eating vegetables,” Zilber says, adding that 30% of every calorie consumed by humans is fermented by bacteria, microbes or fungus. “No matter what we eat in the future, that’s still going to be the case. That slot of the human diet still needs some form of microbial transformation, whether it’s meat or dairy or oat milk or peas. I work to figure that out.”

It’s a different philosophy compared to the food technology many new companies are utilizing to create alternative proteins like Beyond Burger. He complimented the company for their high standards, but he says a Beyond Burger patty is not a replacement for a juicy, beef burger. People pay more for an inferior eating experience.

 “At the end of that day, that will not cut it,” Zilber says. “Why does food have to be that processed to be purportedly that delicious? With some skilled tricks in the kitchen, with some ninja jiu jitsu behind the stove, you can make vegetables really, really delicious.”

Sustainable Food Systems

A sustainable food system will look much like one from 300 years ago, Zilber hypothesizes. It will be localized, where people purchase food produced close by. Modern practices of shipping ingredients and processed food around the globe are harmful to the environment.

“A truly sustainable food system looks far more decentralized than [the current one] does right now. There are [only a] very few stakeholders that are responsible for really a lot of calories,” he continues. 

Oke questioned how Zilber could change a broken food system controlled by large companies when he now works at one of the major companies. 

“If you want to be an idealist, that’s great, you might end up being a martyr,” Zilber says. “Sometimes you have to work within those contradictory institutions to try to do as much good as possible.”

Restaurant Industry’s Responsibility

The restaurant industry plays a part in it too, Zilber says. Workers are stretched thin, overworked, underpaid “and then extremely vulnerable in a time of crisis.” The pandemic has exposed and highlighted these problematic parts of the restaurant business. 

Zilber says there are still too many restaurants. It’s hard to find good cooks, and staff is often undertrained. 

“I took a step into food production myself. Maybe more of these cooks, more of these people who are passionate about food, need to consider options beyond just the restaurant setting and see value in becoming a farmer, becoming a distributor, becoming someone who decides how those calories are made because restaurants aren’t the full picture of the food system,” he continues. “There are a lot of talented people within it who know food, who understand it, who understand the human experience of what it means to make good tasting food and satisfying food. There’s other places for them to work as well.”

Despite a year when cideries around the world were forced to close down taprooms and cancel restaurant sales due to the pandemic, cider sales grew 9% in 2020. 

“I know some of you are barely hanging on — but you are hanging on,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA). “We did not waver, we held our shares and we kept growing.”

McGrath presented industry statistics at CiderCon 2021, the ACA’s annual global cider conference. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference was virtual this year. Nearly 800 people from 18 countries and 41 states attended the three-day conference. 

Smaller, local cider brands sparked consumer interest in 2020. Sales of regional cider brands  grew 33%, while national brands  declined 6%. 

The impact of the pandemic, though, has been severe on certain sectors of the industry. On-premise cider sales (in restaurants, breweries and taprooms) declined nearly 70% from 2019. 

“We’re resilient, we’re tough, we’re savvy. You couldn’t have predicted how your business would have stood up to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Anna Nadasdy, director of customer success at Fintech, a data company for the alcohol industry.

Nadasdy’s keynote on expected consumer trends in 2021 cited the key drivers influencing consumer behavior — the economy, politics and natural disasters. Here are seven of her takeaways for cideries: 

  1. Consumers Buying all Alcohol Types

Though consumers have long been loyal to one type of alcohol — beer, wine or spirits — the “beer guy or wine gal” label is disappearing. Over one-third  of consumers are purchasing from all three major categories. 

Hard seltzer is the third largest beer segment (16% of dollar share, behind domestic premium and imported beers), but it’s the fastest growing. This is exciting for cider makers, Nadasdy notes — hard seltzer in 2018 was the size of the cider market today.

  1. Fruit-Flavored Cider is Growing

Though apple cider still dominates the cider market with 52% of sales, fruit-flavored cider grew three points in the past year to 12% of sales. The top three fruit-flavored products are: Ace Pineapple Craft Cider, Incline Scout Hopped Marionberry Cider and 2 Towns Ciderhouse Pacific Pineapple Cider. 

(Other products in the cider category include: mixed flavors, dry cider, seasonal cider/perry, herb/spice cider.) 

  1. Cider is Making Waves in Craft Beer

Cider — tracked as part of the overall  craft beer category — is proving a worthy participant.Cider has 11% of the dollar share, second only to the category leader, India Pale Ale (41% of the  market). 

“That’s really impressive for such a small base,” Nadasdy says. “Even though you guys are a smaller segment, you still have a lot to contribute to the overall beer category. And I think it’s important when you’re having these conversations with retailers that you are able to point out these wins.”

  1. Hard Kombucha is Gaining Ground

Cideries are competing with hard kombucha. Though hard kombucha is a fermented tea and not a cider, retailers consider hard kombucha and cider comparable drinks. And hard kombucha sales are growing quickly.

“Although small now, keep an eye on (hard) kombucha,” Nadasdy said.

  1. Prepare for Changed On-Premise Sales

Once wide-spread vaccination is in place and on-premise dining returns, expect fundamental changes such as  more online ordering, healthier menu choices and a rise in food tech like tablet menus. The National Restaurant Association listed other significant changes that will impact cideries:

  • Streamlined menus. There will be fewer menu items, with 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they will  reduce their offerings.
  • Alcohol-to-go. Seven in 10 full-service restaurants added alcohol-to-go during the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of customers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers alcoholic beverages to-go. 
  1. Rosé-Flavored Cider is Out

Every brand of rosé-flavored cider is losing sales. The top three brands showing the most significant losses in this category are: Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Virtue. 

  1. Cans Are King

Cans are leading the dollar share of the market, growing at 1.5 times the rate of bottles. Six-pack (11-13 ounce) cans are now the top share item with 29% of total cider sales. This is followed by six-pack (11-13 ounce) bottles and 4-pack (18-ounce) cans. (These figures do remove shares of Angry Orchard, which sells in bottles. Because Angry Orchard dominates 40% of the cider market, they skew the data.)

Bringing Sool to America

Disappointed to find so little premium Korean sool in the U.S., Kyungmoon Kim @kimsomm_ms (who helped open Jungsik restaurant in New York City). Sool is Korea’s all-alcoholic beverages. In January 2020, Kim, a master sommelier, launched KMS Imports, the first importer of Korean sool featuring a small selection from nine producers. Kim wants to establish sool and soju, a Korean version of vodka, as a major spirit category and teach Americans about Korea’s brewing and distilling traditions.

“I believe soju can follow in the footsteps of mezcal: Fifteen years ago, nobody knew mezcal,” Kim says. “You could only find the cheapest grade bottles with worms inside. Now, regardless of cuisine, you can find mezcal behind the bar, and people appreciate nuances in flavor profiles and regional production. Soju has its own unique story, and once people understand it, they will want to learn more.”

Check out the SevenFiftyDaily article for a fascinating history into Korea’s ancient brewing traditions.

Read more (SevenFiftyDaily)

Restaurants in Crisis

A new restaurant survey shows 1 in 6 restaurants have closed during the pandemic. And 40% of restaurants say that ”it is unlikely their restaurant will still be in business six months from now if there are no additional relief packages from the federal government,” according to the survey by the National Restaurant Association. The association called the results “startling” and asked Congress for more help.

“For an industry built on service and hospitality, the last six months have challenged the core understanding of our business,” said Tom Bené, president and CEO of the NRA, in a statement. “Across the board, from independent owners to multi-unit franchise operators, restaurants are losing money every month, and they continue to struggle to serve their communities and support their employees.”

The NRA also found consumer spending in restaurants is down an average of 34%, the good service industry lost $165 billion in revenue from March to July and 60% of restaurant owners say their restaurant’s operational costs are higher prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Read more (Nation’s Restaurant News)

In the second piece to our two-part Q&A with fermentation guru Johnny Drain, he details some of his recent fermentation consulting projects, as well as how (and why) more chefs need to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food ecosystem.

Drain works as a consultant for restaurants around the world, like Akoko Restaurant in London. Pictured, Drain poses with the team at Akoko. Akoko serves West African cuisine like dawadawa (fermented African locust beans) with ogiri egosi (melon seeds), a dish that shares similarities to natto.

TFA: The Cub Cave, where you’re currently working for Cub restaurant, tell me about it.

JD: That’s my “perma-lance.” But unfortunately, last week, we announced the Cub restaurant won’t be reopening after COVID, post lockdown.

The Cub restaurant is part of the Mr Lyan Group. So Mr Lyan (Ryan Chetiyawardana), he’s sort of this brilliant guy who typically operates in this world of cocktails and drinks, but also had this restaurant at the inception of food and drink. And Cub was really made to examine the inception of food and drink. The menu there was really this free-flowing journey through food and drink. So sometimes you’d have just a drink as a course, sometimes a food and a drink. It was really  trying to break down this idea of why, even in the very best restaurants, have a food menu and a drink menu and they’re very separated. It was examining that intersection but also examining this intersection between luxury and sustainability. Why do you have to typically sacrifice sustainability when you have luxury and why do you have to sacrifice luxury when you have sustainability? So part of my time there, I set up the Cub Cave which was this R and D space literally below the restaurant in the basement, and I worked with chefs and the bartenders to essentially use that food waste, one, and in a deeper way examine ways that if there was an ingredient the chefs and bartenders wanted to use but perhaps they knew there would be a lot of trim or a lot of waste from it, I would go in and use my science smarts and find a way to use that trim. Basically to maximize the flavor that we extract from that produce we bring it.

There’s a famous American scientist of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, and when he was talking about nanotechnology, things at the nanoscale which are things that are atomically slightly subatomic which was my focus when I was a chemist and physicist, he famously coined this term “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” meaning that there were plenty more technological applications in chemistry and physics.I like to say “There’s plenty of room in the bottom when we look in our bins.” Often what we throw away, pardon my French, there’s still  shitloads of flavor in much of the food that we throw away. And it’s such a crying shame. My real role working with people like Cub in the Cub Cave and a restaurant called SILO, which is the UK’s first zero waste restaurant, is to look at what we’re throwing away and see what flavors are left. Then, use science and fermentation techniques to extract all that delicious flavor. When we’re talking about flavor, we’re talking about all the hard work, passion and dedication that some farmer has put in, or with animal products, the life some animal has given up to provide this product. The shame is that, often in most restaurants and bars, we would throw away much of it. There is still lots of flavor in there and how do we extract that flavor? Typically using fermentation.

TFA: Tell me more about SILO. What are some of the sustainability goals there?

JD: SILO was founded by this incredible guy called Douglas McMaster. He won British Master Chef Jr. when he was like 20, worked in a few restaurants around the world, then he had this epiphany when he was out in Melbourne working with this guy Joost Bakker, this zero waste pioneer. Doug had this mad idea of setting up this restaurant that had no bin. Which is kind of haughty if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how critical the bin is in a functioning restaurant or bar. The bin gets used several times a day. But Doug’s idea was to have a restaurant without a bin.

He set up a pop-up in Melbourne, then set up a brick and mortar restaurant in London called SILO. Really, Doug’s goal there is to be completely zero waste. A lot of that revolves around setting up relationships with the suppliers so that, when they drop off food or wine, either they drop off some type of pallet that goes back to get refilled or they drop it off in containers that can somehow be upcycled into some other product. 

My goal in the SILO ecosystem is, if they do ever have trim, food trim usually goes to a composter, which is a viable and valuable use of food waste. But it’s a degrading, devaluing of the product. My role is to go in before the food has to go to compost, compost should be the last resort, and basically ferment it. 

So we take things like dairy buttermilk when the guys make butter and we make this buttermilk garum, which is this incredible, golden-colored umami balm of a liquid, tastes of like blue cheese and toasted nuts, a little bit of caramel notes in there. We make this buttermilk garum and that goes on. Essentially buttermilk is a product that doesn’t have that great of value. But by fermenting it, the buttermilk garum has much greater value pound for pound than even the cream that started that process of making the butter. So we’re adding value back to the food chain and creating this phenomenal flavor profile that guests at the restaurants, even most chefs, no one has ever tasted because it’s a product no one else is making. The buttermilk, it went onto this slow cooked, aged dairy cow dish, and it also went onto this dish with brined tomato with sheep’s curd garnished with smoked grape seed oil, buttermilk garum and flowers. So we’re creating these incredible flavor profiles that blow people’s mind with this buttermilk garum which was born out of this necessity. How do we, if we’re going to make garum butter, which Doug wanted to do, we’re going to have lots of buttermilk. For every kilo of butter you make, you end up with about a kilo of buttermilk. It was born out of necessity and out of necessity, we’re creating this phenomenal, incredible, mind-blowing tasting ingredient. 

TFA: Research shows that by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 10 billion, we won’t have enough food to feed the growing population. How is our modern food system going to need to adapt to sustain our growing population?

JD: I think the first thing to point out is it will have to adapt. The course the industrial agricultural complex is heading, it’s completely not sustainable. It’s been based on this model of artificially-synthesized chemical inputs and fertilizers. Post World War II that was a necessity. It was innovative and smart and produced incredible yields, but it’s created a situation where the quality of the soil globally has degraded rapidly because of this, and we need to find different ways to nurture soil and produce or yield curves will just drop off. 

We need to find ways to nourish soils, nourish ecosystems and create more resilient ecosystems and move away from this modern agriculture. But modern agriculture has been the prevailing paradigm for the last 30, 40 years. Sustainability has to be one of those cornerstones of the way we move forward. Sustainability has to be a tenant in all parts of the food system. We’re talking about from seeds, to how we grow food to the restaurant side, how can we take the foods we use and process it in a more sustainable way. That comes down to consumers being more savvy. They need to ask “I’ve got some  cabbages in my fridge that look a bit funky and are starting to smell a bit, how can I use those?” Fermentation is one of those ways. 

This is why fermentation popped up in the history of mankind. It’s a way of preserving the glut of food you had in summer and early autumn over the winters. Or it was a way of preserving, let’s say, dairy milk products. Milk sours off in 3-4 days, pre-refrigeration times, how do you preserve the very valuable nutrition that’s present in dairy milk for longer than that? So people started making butter, they started making cheese. 

We’re going to harness some of those fermentation techniques as a way to extend the shelf life of those products that we have access to. 

TFA: MOLD magazine, tell me how that came about.

JD: MOLD magazine, the name is potentially a bit of misnomer because it’s not just focused on mold. Although the first edition was focused on the human microbiome. But MOLD started off as a website which was started by a woman, LinYee Yuan. She’s a native of Texas, but now lives in New York and she’s an industrial designer by background. LinYee set up MOLD as a website to explore basically that intersection of food and design and where those meet. Some people might think that’s a bit of a weird marriage. What does food have to do with design? But in terms of everything we eat and all the utensils that we use to eat and the spaces we eat from restaurants to cafes, how our food is grown and processed and how it makes its way from farm to table, there have been design decisions made in all of those things. This interaction between food and design is very rich. And there’s a very deep, profound overlap between those two.

LinYee wants to explore that. She set up the website and we were set up between a mutual friend at a seminar a few years ago. She was looking for someone to create a print version of the work she’d been doing with the website. We came up with the idea of MOLD magazine.

We basically had this idea we’d do six issues of MOLD magazine, we worked with this incredible designer, Matt Sam and Erica Ko, who are based in North America as well. It basically explores one theme every issue. We’ve explored seeds, the human microbiome, food waste. We really go deep and we explore it from all aspects of the food side, the design side. The visual language we use in MOLD is very rich, it’s led by these brilliant designers we work with. It’s created as this print magazine in this world where most media we consume is online and we really wanted to create an object that you would sit down and get to grips with and immerse yourself in the experience of reading.  It’s a limited print run, approximately 3,000 of each issue. But we’ve won lots of pleasing claudettes for the work. We were mentioned in the New York Times as one to watch. And we’ve worked with lots of great people. Massami Batora and Dan Barber wrote an article for us, all these great chefs. The response in the food world and the design world and the food tech world has been very positive to the work we’re doing and the ideas we’re sharing. 

One of our core principles is that we want to use MOLD to give a voice to people that often in these conversations don’t have a voice. We are passionate about giving a voice to people who are underrepresented, people of color, women, basically using MOLD as a vehicle to give underrepresented voices a voice within these very important conversations around the world of food.

TFA: You spent time at Noma, working in the Nordic Food Lab. Your focus was exploring whether you can age butter like you age cheese. What was your conclusion?

JD: How I ended up there was completely bonkers. I had just finished my PhD. At that point I had no kitchen experience. I started working in the restaurants starging, which is basically, in the chef world, a French word which is to go and work for free for a week or two. I had started emailing people at these high-falutin restaurants that had these R and D facilities. One of which was this thing called the Nordic Food Lab which, to a degree, has been airbrushed from the history of Noma because of various politics. It started off, it was on this beautiful, big, Dutch barge in front of the old restaurant, Noma 1.0, which you could sort of see from the dining room. It started off as this food lab and test kitchen, and it became this food lab, this not-for-profit thing. Its mission was to kind of research Nordic cuisine and really elevate and amplify the work that Noma had been doing and find ingredients that could then go back into its menu. Eventually they kind of separated, the point where I was working there, the food lab was still on the Dutch barge outside the restaurant. (The Nordic Food Lab is now part of Copenhagen University.)

It was this incredible opportunity to work at the food lab, at a time when Noma was No. 1, on the world’s 50 best restaurant list, two Michelin stars, seen widely for various reasons as the world’s best restaurant, doing incredible things. As this guy who had worked mostly in sciences labs, which are very different from kitchens, to then suddenly be thrust into this environment of a world’s best restaurant, anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to go to Noma, it functions in this very eclectic, choreographed way. It’s kind of this cross between this sort of military operation and a beautiful ballet where everything works kind of seamlessly. It’s a very beautiful spectacle to see a restaurant working at such a high level. To witness that, to be a tiny cog of this body working side by side with the restaurant, was an incredible experience and very inspiring.

I think the food lab really was responsible for a number of really important things within restaurant culture in the last 5 or 10 years. Rene Redzepi, who has done wonderful things for not just Nordic food but the whole food industry, I saw him speak in person a few times and he’s this very inspiring guy, he has this very powerful way of leading people and an incredible vision. 

To cut to the question “Can you age butter?” Yes, you can. Basically, you end up with something that tastes like blue cheese. So you have these fermentation processes, this breakdown of these lipids, these fat molecules, into what we call free fatty acids. They are basically what gives flavor to a 36-month aged parmesan, which we all know and love. If you do that to butter, if you age butter, you get some of those same flavor compounds, and they’re present in parmesan, in aged comte. If you do it at just the right level, you get these kind of aged, spicy notes of a blue cheese or a delicious aged parmesan. 

Unfortunately, aged butter hasn’t taken off in a way I thought it might, but certainly people are aging butters in a way they were 10 years ago. Hopefully, my work has encouraged people to investigate that in some small way.  

Check out the first part of our Q&A with Johnny Drain here. To find out more information about Drain, visit his personal Instagram and the Instagram of MOLD magazine.

Johnny Drain is the guru for helping chefs around the world innovate flavorful dishes. A chemist with a PhD from Oxford and a passion for cooking, Drain found fermentation was the optimal intersection of food and science. 

“Fermentation was this focus of this venn diagram that incorporated food with some necessity to understand biology but also chemistry,” Drain says. “Fermentation was this sweet spot where I could apply my background in science with this passion and knowledge and aptitude for cooking, flavor and taste. I realized if I wanted to apply this rich educational history that I was fortunate to have access to, fermentation was this ideal sphere where I could do that.”

This cross-section is where Drain finds his diverse career — as an in-demand food research and development consultant. He’s currently advising chefs in renowned restaurants all over the globe and serving as co-editor of MOLD magazine. 

The Fermentation Association spoke with Drain, who is based in London. Below is the first of our two-part Q&A with Drain. Part 1 focuses on his interest in fermentation, and how he sees fermentation transforming the culinary world. Part 2 features some of Drain’s recent fermentation consulting projects and his drive to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food system. 

The Fermentation Association (TFA): What got you first interested in fermentation.

Johnny Drain (JD): I am a scientist by background. I did chemistry as an undergraduate, then I worked for a company in finance, which I don’t really talk about. It was on the cusp of the financial crash, 2006-2008, so it was quite an interesting time to be working in that sector. During my lunch breaks, I was reading recipe books and reading restaurant reviews and looking at the world of science. I was thinking about doing a PhD, and I ended up quitting finance because I realized this was not how I wanted to spend my life, for 12 hours every day. I went back and did a PhD in something called material science, which is a cross between chemistry and physics. Still nothing actually to do with food, I was looking at how atoms interact in types of steel, and building computer models of how to understand that and how to apply that to making car chassis. So still, it was very far away from the world of making food, but always I had this dream of becoming a chef or maybe having a restaurant at one point in my life.

At the end of my PhD, I was fortunate to study in Oxford in this very beautiful place in the heart of England in this very rich academic history surrounded by all these very clever people and beautiful buildings. I realized, instead of becoming an Oxford don with maybe a tweed suit and patches on my elbows, I would sack that all in, having climbed up a few rungs of that ladder, and basically start staging (unpaid restaurant internship) and working in kitchens for free. I even worked as a pot washer in one kitchen in London. I really jumped back in at the deep end and pursued this dream of becoming a cook or a chef. 

I did that for a little while and realized first, becoming a chef is a young person’s game. And second, I’m 6’2’’ and have a bad back and, as a chef, you’re standing on your feet all day and that was not going to be a physically viable way for me to make a living. I had to combine my scientific nouse (intellect) with my passion for food. 

For me, the interesting thing is I never see these things as mutual exclusive, they’re all related and interconnected. I ended up doing what I do now, which is helping restaurants and bars and food brands, consulting and teaching restaurants and chefs how to understand these things. As I see it, I’m unlocking their artistry and storytelling ability through this understanding of science. All of these things are interconnected. And fermentation is this particularly excellent example. It has to do with flavor and food, but it also has to do with people and tradition and culture, it has to do with artistry and storytelling, you can’t really do one without the other. Science, that biology and chemistry, is really integral to unlocking the creative, artsy-fartsy elements to these types of food.

TFA: When you partner with these different chefs and kitchens, what expertise are they looking for from you?

JD: Especially these days, it’s different from five years ago when I first started doing this type of work. Five years ago when you’d go into a kitchen, people really wouldn’t know what fermentation was. And often they wouldn’t be interested in it, or they wouldn’t understand why might a scientist be able to help me make better, tastier food or drink. But now, most people I work with, they know that and they’ve already dibbled and dabbled a little bit with some of these ferments. Let’s say they’ve made some kimchi or sauerkraut or some kombucha. Really what they want now, especially the high end places, they’ve dibbled and dabbled and they want to make sure that, A, what they’re doing is safe and isn’t going to kill anyone, which is very sensible. But secondly, they want that kind of X factor, they want the ability to unlock that real deep magic. That’s when I go in. 

One of Drain’s fermentation experiments with vegetable charcuterie with koji (A. oryzae) grown on a courgette (he calls it a Kojiette).

I was just in Lithuania last week working with this really great restaurant called 1918. Michelin doesn’t cover Lithuania, give it two years I expect, and they’ll get at least 1 star, possibly 2. It’s really high end, great quality food. And they’re trying to play around with egg yolks and koji, which is basically this aspergillus, this war horse of Japanese food culture that’s also present in Chinese and Korean cultures as well. They want to be able to have that scientific rigor and have someone to come in “Pick that lock,” as I describe it, and be able to unleash their creativity so they can put this into action in their dishes. They’re wanting to tell these stories about Lithatian food culture and use this food they’re growing on this farm about 50 minutes outside the capital.

TFA: That sounds very rewarding, to help different restaurants create new dishes. 

JD: It is. My role is this enabler, picking that lock, unleashing people’s creativity and helping these chefs. Really, fermentation is just a tool. In many ways, the way we see knife or a chopping board, it’s a tool. If you try and cook without those tools, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. You’re limiting what you can do, you’re limiting your creativity. Fermentation really is just another example of a type of tool. In five or 20 years, people will just  see some of these fermentation techniques just as the way they see a knife. It’s just this tool. And by empowering these chefs with these tools, I’m helping to unleash that creativity. When you unleash people’s creativity they get very excited and very passionate.

TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?

JD: The funny thing about fermentation is we all eat fermented products, but we don’t realize it. You could read off a list that lasts five minutes. Bread, all booze, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, etc. It’s just that most of those products, we’ve become so used to them because there are these staples of everyday life that we don’t realize they’re fermented. Also partially because the way the food systems now work, that work of creating our own bread or beer or cider, it’s now been outsourced for most people in much of the world to some other party. So we’re not making these products at home where our grandmothers, our grandfathers, would have been. My grandmother would have understood that bread, wine, cider was a fermented product because she was making those or her grandmother was making those. Whereas I grew up in a household where we bought all of those things and somebody else made it. All those steps had already been performed. 

First, there’s this awakening of realizing much of the food we know and love is fermented. And second, from a chef, foodie world, there’s been a renaissance in fermented food because they offer this exciting flavor profile that chefs always want. Chefs are looking for the new. Especially in the last 20 years, with that modernist cuisine movement, people reached science to kind of process foods. That’s where the novelness came. In the sort of last 10-15 years, we saw this move towards what new ingredients do we have on our doorsteps, foraging, this local-vore movement of people rediscovering what incredible food products are on their doorstep. Now people are asking “Where can we discover new flavors that are on our doorstep that are new, now that everyone has foraged everything. Where is the newness? Where can I reach out to access this incredible, novel flavor profile?” Fermentation is this toolkit that gives you access to these incredible new flavors. It’s the other frontier.

When you talk about what’s on our doorstep, we get into this idea of microbial territory. 

What microbes are unique to Britain or unique to France or unique to Argentina? Actually, the microbes are as unique and defining of place and of the food culture in a place as the grapes that grow or the cheeses that we make or the strains of wheat varietals that might grow in a place. Microbes are sort of this hidden category of food that have shaped the food that we eat in the place that human beings live as much as any other kind of meat or dairy or fruit or vegetable.

TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation in the culinary world?

JD: So the focus now is very much on people within the food industry looking for what produce they have in their backyard or in their country or their culture and how do they ferment those? I think, currently, the sort of toolkit of fermentation is dominated by a couple of prevailing techniques or cultures, microbiological cultures. 

I think there is so much to learn from slightly undiscovered fermentation food cultures in the world. Ones that really haven’t had a bright light shone on them — like the Japanese, fermentation has had quite a bright light shone on them. And that’s amazing because Japanese fermentation culture is amazing and incredibly rich, so lots of people around the world have learned a lot from it. I think the next frontier for me is going to be people looking at fermentation in Sub-Saharan Africa, fermentation in the Indian sub continents. And those fermentation cultures are currently not that well understood, certainly by people outside those cultures, and they’re not documented in clear and concise ways in much of the way now that that Japanese food culture and Western European fermentation food culture has been documented. I think people are realizing there’s all these incredible, beautiful, rich ferments that we just don’t know about and don’t understand in Sub-Saharan african and the Indian subcontinents. I’m currently working on projects with people who are from those countries and cooking the food of those cultures. There’s just so much for us to learn. People like Sandor Katz, he grew up somewhere in Africa, he obviously documents some of those techniques and ferments, but there’s so much for all of us to learn from people cooking the food from those cultures and the people living in those places. 

TFA: What’s been the wackiest or funkiest food thing you’ve ever fermented?

JD: On the menu at one point at Cub (restaurant in London where Drain worked in research and development), we had a pest season where the head chef was trying to base the menu around things that are perceived as pests or invasive species.

In the UK we have this animal called the Reeves’s muntjac. It came originally from India. This guy called Reeves visited India as this colonizing force and came back and had, as a rich guy, a bunch of these species of flora and fauna as pets and novelties, one of which was this Reeves’s muntjac. It’s a very small, muscular deer. It’s bigger than a bulldog, but as muscular, then with a head of a deer and these horns. You see them driving along British country lanes at night and they look very scary, they basically look like devil dogs. They look like the harbingers of the apocalypse, sort of like something very bad is going to happen as you’re driving down the fog down this dark, British country lane. They’re very weird, scary and other worldly. They’re a pest and they outcompete the native species. So they are hunted to control their numbers.

Muntjac garum. Rich, gamey, and slightly stone fruity. Drain cooked up a whole deer muntjac as part of the “pest”-only series @lyan.cub and this garum was made from the trim. The muntjac came from @gamemeatmike #owlbarnlarder, a wild deer management company. All the deer they hunt are wild, decide their own diets in the woodlands, and all parts of the animals — hides, antlers, meat — are used.

So we made a muntjac garum. Using this technique of garum, which is a Roman word for fish sauce, we created this umami-rich, meaty garum. And that got used to dress these various,  wonderful, meaty dishes. We did deer faggots. A faggot in the culinary sense of a word is the the offal of meat wrapped in the coals, part of the intestines, and basically pan fried. It’s a very traditional British dish. We made these deer faggots and dressed it in this muntjac garum. 

That was quite a weird but delicious example of that whole 360 idea of sustainability in not just the techniques that we use but the produce we’re using. How do we use invasive species?

The conversation with Johnny Drain continues in our September 16 newsletter. To find out more information about Drain, visit his personal Instagram and the Instagram of MOLD magazine.

A food science professor weighs in on the Sqirl restaurant mold scandal. The trendy Los Angeles eatery is famous for serving toast on a housemade jam without preservatives. But allegations surfaced that Sqirl was making the jam in an unlicensed kitchen where buckets of jam were covered in mold. Dr. John Gibbons, an assistant professor of food science at University of Massachusetts Amherst, is an expert on beneficial and detrimental molds. He says: “Because I study this stuff, and I’ve seen some of the really bad effects of different toxins, I don’t really take chances with it. That being said, fungal-fermented foods are some of my favorite foods — I just don’t trust it happening spontaneously.”

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