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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
Read more (Grub Street)
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.
The world’s most famous fermentation restaurant is serving diners once again during the coronavirus pandemic. But Noma’s reservation-only tables and $400-500 world-class meal has radically changed. Noma is now serving wine and burgers in a walk-up, outdoor patio.
“It’s definitely new territory,” says Rene Redzepi, Noma founder. “I like this thing that it’s doing to us. We’ve become this place where you book, you plan your travels six months ahead of time. The spontaneity of going to a restaurant has completely disappeared for us. I like that people now can say ‘Let’s go to Noma for a glass of wine.’ So who knows, maybe this is part of our future in the long run.”
Redzepi spoke with Denmark-based food bloggers Anders Husa and Kaitlin Orr on Noma’s reopening.
The Noma burger is either a meat patty made with beef ferment, beef garum and smoked beef fat or a veggie burger made with quinoa tempeh patty with fermentation liquids.
Noma’s Nordic cuisine features fermented and foraged food that have earned Noma the World’s Best Restaurant award four times. Noma has been closed since March 14 because of the coronavirus.
Redzepi is one of the first chefs of his caliber to reopen a fine-dining restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic. The burger and wine menu is intended to transition Noma to the July summer season, when the restaurant hopes to again serve diners in the restaurant.
When the coronavirus first shutdown countries all over the globe, Redzepi said “it was really, really scary.” Would Noma have to wait six months to open? A year? About 3-4 weeks in, though, the atmosphere turned.
“There was a little positivity coming through,” Redzepi said. “I started asking myself ‘What do I want to do? What am I missing in my life?’ And the funny thing is I wasn’t at all missing going to a fine-dining restaurant, sitting for 3-4 hours. That was not on my mind at first. I wanted to be with people, I want to be out. … So when you have that feeling, it was just like, there was no way we can open Noma as it was before COVID-19.”
It’s an unusual sight at the exclusive restaurant – Noma is serving burgers in paper wrappers and chefs are wearing disposable gloves.
A burger was picked because Redzepi says: “I have yet to meet anybody that doesn’t like a burger.” In the future, Noma will add a deep-fried chicken burger to the menu as well as oysters and shrimp.
As tourism is still closed in Denmark, Redzepi envisions the new Noma bar as a place where Copenhagen locals can eat and visit with friends again.
“It’s not about us showing what we can do, it’s just about cooking the best we can so people feel great and feel alive again.”
One of the signature dishes at the Burma Superstar Restaurant group in San Francisco is the fermented tea leaf salad, also known as “laphet thoke.” The fermented tea leaves come straight from Burma (Myanmar), a legacy important to Desmond Tan, founder and owner of the restaurant group. He worked for years to source organic, uncontaminated leaves, a major change to Burma’s tea leaf industry. Leaves were formerly notoriously tainted with clothing dyes and plagued with horrible trade practices. The tea leaves take 2-6 months to ferment, resulting in a uniquely sour leaf. Burma Superstar had made a natural tea leaf dressing to enhance the flavors of the tea leaf.
Read more (Forbes)
The current global health and economic situation is a far cry from business as usual. “Pivot” will be the new buzzword in the food and beverage industry, as fermentation brands and food service institutions must implement creative manufacturing and marketing solutions to maintain sales during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are in a real-time focus group situation. …We’ve seen an acceleration of trends,” says Emmanuel LaRoche, vice president of marketing and consumer insights for Symrise, an international producer of flavors and fragrances. “This current situation will lead to new, large structural trends that are going to impact the next 15 years.”
Solving economic challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak will be the “new normal” in the food and beverage industry. Here are six ways to adapt.
- Create More Online Instruction
As a brand, are you helping your consumer cook with your product? And what about the products you don’t sell. Canned goods and frozen foods are flying off grocery store shelves. Can consumers pair your product to create a meal with the pack of canned beans they panic bought or the pound of frozen berries?
“Consumers may be stockpiling shelf stable products, but it doesn’t mean that they know how to use them,” says Melanie Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel. “Brands have an opportunity to help consumers who suddenly find themselves surrounded by dried foods and frozen foods. Direction and support, in the way of webinars, YouTube videos or Pinterest links, will help them feel confident cooking meals with these staples.”
2. Position Your Product into Consumer’s Home Routines
Though some states are lifting stay-at-home orders, allowing businesses to reopen, social distancing will alter regular business through 2020 – and likely beyond. Many people view dining in a restaurant, working in an office and exercising in a gym as too risky. Consumers are now eating, working and exercising at home. They’re also spending more time on self-care routines and home cleaning. How can businesses join the home-based routine?
“The formation of routine, it’s an action that typically takes 60 days to form. If we repeat something on a daily basis, we turn it into this new habit,” Laroche says. “So the question here is how quickly, if ever, will consumer behavior return to pre pandemic levels or are we at the beginning at a shift of how we spend our time?”
It’s unknown whether the affects likely becoming permanent. But brands should adapt to home living. Product delivery and e-commerce sales are essential to fermented food and beverage brands. But brands should also think outside the box. Marketing must pivot from “on the go” to “staying at home.” More than ever, consumers want their products to be convenient.
“The new normal at home may create many opportunities for companies and brands to provide a new and exciting product connected directly to what consumers are experience,” says Dylan Thompson, marketing and consumer insights manager with Symrise.
3. Create Business Opportunities for Consumer’s Shift in Spending
Many of the new consumer spending trends mirror what happened during the 2008 recession. During the Great Recession, consumers shifted their spending habits in the food and beverage industry. Consumers:
- Valued cost more than convenience.
- Switched from mainstream to value brands. There was a big increase in private label purchases especially, as consumers searched for better deals. Premium and top brands were more insulated as consumers sought affordable luxuries.
- Bought smaller, lower-priced food and beverage packages. Manufacturers switched to smaller packages as they downsized to improve margins.
- Shifted to purchasing at value channels, like big club stores (Costco, Sam’s Club).
- Stopping shopping frequently at gas station stores, correlating with dropping gas prices.
- Declined eating at restaurants, increasing eating at home.
Already, new shopping trends are emerging during the COVID-19 outbreak. These include:
- Decreasing brand loyalty. Consumers buy whatever brand is available when their favorites are out of stock.
- Revival of the center store. As consumers stock up and try to keep their pantry full of shelf-stable items, they’re shopping in the center of the store again.
- Stock up behavior. Sales at mass and club stores are increasing while sales at restaurants are decreasing.
- Increased sale of comfort items. Consumers are indulging in purchasing things they can enjoy from home.
- Greater shift to ecommerce. Online shopping and “click and collect” pick-up have become a popular option during the pandemic, especially in urban areas.
“There are opportunities for retailers to fill the void of what consumers are missing out on,” adds Thompson.
4. Restaurants Must Create a New Business Model
Restaurants have been dramatically hurt by the pandemic, especially non-chain restaurants. Estimates by Technomic show that, at the end of the pandemic, restaurants sales will decrease by 14-29%.
For comparison, at the end of the Great Recession from 2008-2009, restaurant sales only failed by 1.2%.
“We know that social distancing will have a long-lasting impact on food service,” Laroche says. “Social distancing has been particularly disastrous for on-premise beverage, alcohol sales as the dining, drinking side of the business has essentially disappeared.”
At the end of the pandemic, Technomic estimates 15% of restaurants will not reopen.
Restaurants must reformat their business model to allow takeout, curbside pickup, no contact delivery, cashless pickups and alcohol to-go. Some restaurants are even offering DIY kits, selling materials to recreate favorite restaurant dishes at home. Others have decreased dining space to expand the kitchen.
5. Capitalize on what People are Already Buying.
Shopping trends are falling into two categories: survival and sanity. There’s been explosive growth in the food and beverage category during the pandemic (74%), especially for alcoholic beverages (24%), according to IRI. Fermented products like foods like coffee (60.6%), spirits/liquor (37.3%), beer ale/cider (37.8%), chocolate (21.2%) are all top purchases. There are bigger trending categories where a fermented food or drink could get creative, like pasta (229.8%), soup (212.7%), salty snacks (51.5%) and cookies (50.3%).
Increased “beer and liquor at home is one of those sanity categories, and it’s always been well-known that it’s recession proof,” Thompson says. Alcohol flies off shelves during recessions. Consumers are looking for comfort and want a way to cope with uncertainty.”
Alcoholic drinks like hard seltzers and craft brew were not popular enough to track in 2008, but in 2020, are not proving to be a permanent part of consumer alcoholic beverage purchases.
6. Consider Consumer’s Storage Space
Storage at home has become a premium, especially for consumers in densely populated areas that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Think of younger, Millennial and Generation Z shoppers living in urban areas with limited storage space.
“The Propensity to stockpile food is a challenge to those without a place to store such products. There is an opportunity for condensed, dried foods, like bone broth soup and contemporary bouillon cubes, to be positioned as more viable alternatives,” says Dasha Short, a global food analyst with Mintel.
Fermented food and drink brands should consider selling items in single-service packages and snack sizes.
In the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants around the world to remain open only for takeout or to close until stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, food icon David Chang has emerged as an advocate for the industry.
The founder of the Momofuku restaurant group says government intervention is desperately needed for food service to survive — without it, only big chains will remain. “I have a hard time seeing [smaller establishments and even chef-driven eateries] survive and making it through the end of this.”
“Telling restaurants they should close or only do delivery or just be 50% open was a death sentence,” Chang says. “And I think all restaurants would have happily have done so if we were given some type of safety net.”
The restaurant industry has suffered significant job losses since the outbreak of COVID-19. The Momofuku Group laid off 800 employees during the pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association, 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed.
Chang and Marguerite Mariscal, CEO of Momofuku group, shared their thoughts on what can be done to save the restaurant industry in Vice Media’s new “Shelter in Place series.”
“Right now, any small business owner in New York is put in a very precarious position where they either are closing, which means they can’t financially afford to pay their staff, or they’re trying to stay open to get any sort of income that will then allow them to keep people have,” Mariscal says.
Though restaurants have business interruption insurance, that only covers physical business damage. Restaurants can still remain open for takeout, but with great risks.
“I think we’re all looking for a little guidance,” Mariscal says. “If restaurants are going to be deemed an essential business, then treat it that way, right? Like, what are the protocols or safety procedures that we should be using to make sure that we’re operating in the, you know, safest, best light? But instead, you have business-to-business everyone making these calls. And I don’t think we feel were the best equipped to make them.”
Like who is regulating proper PPE use among restaurant workers? Should staff all be wearing gloves? Is a cloth mask good enough or should cooks wear a N95 mask? Where is the supply chain for restaurants to get this gear that wouldn’t hurt the medical supply chain? Chang says the lack of guidance from government leadership “it was so bad, it was embarrassing.”
“We need the state-level authorities, because it’s not going to happen from a federal level to say, ‘Hey, it’s dangerous to make food, in a COVID-19 world, this is what you need to do,’” he says. “There are a lot of people serving food in maybe not a safe situation.”
Government aid to help the restaurant industry is only short-sighted, Chang adds, because it’s not covering beyond summer. Unemployment will only cover a few months. There is no unemployment coverage for undocumented workers. Businesses can only receive money from the economic stimulus bill, CARES Act, if they rehire 100% of their workforce by June 30. Chang points to the aftermath of September 11 as an example. Restaurants closed for only a few days, but it took years for the New York tourism industry took years to recover.
The restaurants that will survive the pandemic will be large chain restaurants with big pocketbooks and corporate power – like McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
“That’s unfortunately the future that I feel we’re headed to unless we can have proper intervention and guidance and support and leadership from the government,” Chang says. “There’s a good chance Momofuku may never reopen again. Or the restaurant that you loved to go to so much in your neighborhood may never reopen again. If we don’t support the supply chain and the purveyors and the farmers and the workers all surrounding it, there may not be a new restaurant that’s going to be delicious, that’s going to have the vibrancy that you want, for a considerable amount of time. People are going to realize just how important the food industry is and the workers that have been neglected for so long, I think they’re going to realize, holy shit, we didn’t realize how much we depend on the food industry.”
What will restaurants look like, after the pandemic? Sanitation standards will be increased, there will be greater oversight from the FDA and CDC. But the future “is going to be predicated on something that we have no preparation for,” Chang says. Ghost kitchens, delivery and e-commerce will become the driving force of restaurants, operations most restaurants are not set-up to implement.
“What you’re going to see is maybe there’s less of a restaurant industry and it’s more of a food industry,” Mariscal says. “Everyone’s going to have to reimagine how they make money.”
Chang says big corporate, quick-service restaurants are prepared. Large chains “they’re never touching the food, it’s just an assembly process,” Chang says. Smaller restaurants, independent diners and even upscale chef-driven eateries rely on culinary touches, though. Chefs taste the food and experiment with dishes.
“It would be hard to live in that world where there isn’t variety,” Chang says. But “in terms of food, I think there’s going to be less choice.”
Superchef David Chang is transforming his restaurant business into a multimedia empire. The restauranteur, author, publisher, TV celebrity and podcast host announced this month that he’s adding another television gig to his resume: “Family Style.” Chang will co-host the food-centric talk show with celebrity and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen.
“We’re not trying to promote the restaurant; we’re trying to promote our ideals. And I think, to the younger generation, that’s more important to them than ever before,” Chang said at Recode’s Code Conference.
The Korean-American founder of Momofuku restaurant is known for shaking up the restaurant industry with cutting-edge culinary innovations. A major proponent of fermentation, Chang’s innovation in the cooking technique has propelled fermentation’s recent renaissance in America. In his Kaizen Trading Company fermentation lab, Chang develops his own line of fermented products for restaurants.
Chang aims for his media projects to reflect the values of the restaurants he’s created all over the world – authentic and honest. He compared starting a food-based media company, Majordomo Media, to chef Wolfgang Puck’s entrepreneurship. Puck “created a giant business of every kind of thing related to food,” like consumer-packaged goods, cookware and catering.
“If the media takes off, that’s more stuff we can bring back to the restaurants,” Chang said. The media arm feeds his restaurants. “Maybe people will never want to pay that much money for [Momofuku] food, maybe we can subsidize some of the costs with [the media projects] that’s alleviating our bills.”
Changing Kitchen Atmosphere
Majordomo Media produces the Netflix series “Ugly Delicious” and the podcast “The David Chang Show.” Chang won’t discuss viewership numbers. But he says the exposure has made Momofuku busier than ever, and that’s not because the restaurant is featured heavily in the TV show. It’s the message about the food industry and corporate responsibility that sticks with viewers, piquing their interest in Momofuku.
“Everyone has an understanding of food now; the food awareness is higher than ever before,” Chang said. “But no one quite wants to understand how that food gets made. They understand maybe from an environmental perspective, but they don’t understand it from a restaurant perspective.”
Customers should make themselves aware of restaurant ownership, especially in a post #MeToo world when sexual assault accusations have put into light the deplorable behavior of restauranteurs like Mario Batali.
Important, too, are proper working conditions. The culinary industry is historically a “brutish system,” Chang said. The hours are long and tiring. Today’s labor force is changing workplace culture, though. Millennial employees are disrupting the horse race work pace, they are “allergic to the working conditions and the stress that we were creating.”
“You work long hours in the culinary world, and I’ve always believed that the culinary world and those that lead people in the culinary world have maybe one of the hardest jobs because you can’t motivate people with a giant stock option package or a giant bonus that you might get on Wall Street. You have to motivate someone to do physical hard labor and to try and get better at that through sheer integrity and personal will and that’s hard, that’s incredibly hard to motivate people,” Chang said.
He added: “How do you balance out what’s essentially still a blue-collar labor, which is cooking, [that] is now glamourized to a point that it now has white-collar values? That’s a collision that’s hard to mitigate and sort out.”
Chang’s creating that white-collar environment at his restaurants, giving vacation days, mandatory breaks and a shift drink at the end of a service. He wants to professionalize the restaurant industry when, historically, it’s never been professional.
“I’ve been so allergic to a corporate body for so many years, but now I think I’ve convinced myself it’s the only way to go,” Chang said.
Experimental Triumphs & Failures
Lauded as the bad boy in the food world, Chang is a chef willing to take unapologetic risks. His innovation has not come without failures, though. Lucky Peach, the award-winning food magazine he co-founded, shuttered after creative differences. Maple, a New York food service Chang backed that prepared and delivered gourmet food, folded amidst massive debt. Ando, another Chang backed food delivery service, suddenly closed, then was acquired by Uber Eats. Chang closed Má Pêche last year, citing declining foot traffic around New York’s midtown thanks to extra security at Trump Tower. New York Italian restaurant Momofuku Nishi closed too after a touch review, then remodeled and reopened.
That review – by Pete Wells of the New York Times – was Momofuku’s first bad review. It destroyed the restaurant, Chang said. But he added that he’s weirdly thankful for that review because it helped Momofuku reevaluate, “our restaurants around the world are doing better than before because of that review.”
“My fear is that once you become too systemized in the restaurant industry, you’re going to lose any of the coolness, creative parts,” Chang said. “I got into cooking because it wasn’t cool. Everyone thought it was career suicide when I said ‘Hey I’m going to start to cook,’ it was sort of that sense of danger, that sense of recklessness that no longer really exists.”
“It’s completely different than a tech business because scaling a brand in food, yes, it can work in McDonald’s or if you have a beverage,” Chang said. “But the idea of scaling something that’s intimate, some kind of contract between you and a prospective diner, that’s hard because we’re still trying to be best in class in making the most thoughtful, delicious food and it’s hard to scale excellence I think.”
(Photo by Wall Street Journal)