Sebastian Vargo was an up-and-coming chef on the Chicago food scene when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and shuttered restaurants. Laid off from his job as head chef at Merchant Restaurant, Vargo experimented with different gigs — yoga teacher, realtor, even t-shirt graphic designer — but kept coming back to his passion: creating food.
So Vargo and his fiancée, Taylor Hanna, launched Vargo Brother Ferments. They produce a creative line-up of fermented condiments, sauces and beverages, including items like a pickled garlic sauce, chipotle beet sauerkraut, Mighty Vine tomato vinegar, Concord grape kombucha and a Bulgarian yogurt with fermented strawberry jam and miso peanut butter.
“Ultimately, I’m a flavor chaser,” Vargo says. “Fermentation is not really an obligation, it’s a necessity to really unlock certain flavors.”
Most of what they make is seasonal, created from fresh ingredients sourced locally from Chicago community gardens or out of Vargo’s backyard garden. Flavors heralding back to Vargo’s childhood are also featured. Collard greens kimchi is one example, featuring the leafy vegetable frequently served at Vargo’s family dinner table as he grew up in Detroit.
“You can’t help but find a little bit of nostalgia in what you make. Flavors are so connected to memories,” Vargo says. He recalls his mother’s buttery cornbread, her pinto beans flavored with a smoked ham hock and his grandmother’s braised short ribs with sauerkraut. “We were this African-American family in the Midwest in the ‘90s with Southern heritage, so some of my food preserves some of that history. With fermentation, there’s an intersection of both physical preservation and historical preservation. My fermented vegetables are an homage to the past, presenting certain vegetables in interesting and complex ways.”
Vargo and Hanna currently run their business from their home kitchen, selling over Instagram, at farmers markets and through collaborations with local restaurants around the Chicago area. They’re nearing the end of a Go Fund Me campaign to help move Vargo Brother Ferments into a commercial kitchen and, eventually, a storefront. .
Below is an edited Q&A between Vargo and The Fermentation Association.
The Fermentation Association: How did you first get into cooking?
Sebastian Vargo: My origin is with my grandmother. My mom worked really hard, she worked nights and then she was going to school as well. My grandmother was in our household a lot, she taught me and my brothers [the namesake behind Vargo Brother Ferments] a lot of life skills, how to box, how to play basketball, how to cook. I have fond memories of eating sauerkraut as a child out of a coffee mug with a fork. She was my earliest inspiration, I have fond memories of my grandma in the kitchen.
TFA: And how did you get into fermentation?
SV: My grandma introduced me to sauerkraut. It was such an exciting flavor, I hadn’t experienced the brininess of lactic fermentation, the way it feels on my tongue and cheeks. My mom loved to take us to local delis and we loved Reuben sandwiches. We’d go to a lot of Jewish delis in southeast Michigan, and they had salt brine pickles. That was a real fermented pickle, that flavor is something, too, that really kind of jump started my interest in fermentation.
And then, just working with cool chefs. A new part of my mind was unlocked at every restaurant. Great chefs helped cultivate my love of fermentation. Being in the industry in Chicago is so cool. Every last one of us, we’re all trying to experiment and see what we can do with flavors. When I worked for Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat, we were doing kimchi for certain dishes. At Schwa with Brian Fisher and later Wilson Bauer, we made our own yogurt and fermented our leeks, our apricots. And then when I worked for Tony Quartaro at Dixie, he was really pushing the envelope with this Southern-style restaurant where we took inspiration from around the world in a way and applied it to this Southern technique. We had some peaches come in that were underripe, we couldn’t use them for the actual dish, so instead he mixed it with some rum and taught me how to make a vinegar out of it.
TFA: What took you from Detroit to cheffing in Chicago?
SV: It was one Le Cordon Bleu commercial. I was young, I was in a bit of a crossroads and I made the decision to go to the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Chicago. I was working at the Salvation Army at the time and I got on the Megabus with my little thrift bags and maybe $800. I had no plans, I found out $800 will not get you an apartment in Chicago, so I stayed in hostels. Before I got enough money for culinary school, I worked as a canvasser to make money.
TFA: March 2020. You are the head chef at Logan Square’s Merchant and your fiancée was cooking at the Ace Hotel. Then Covid-19 lockdowns happen. Tell me how your lives changed.
SV: Merchant was the first restaurant where I was head chef, it was fun. We made our own hot sauces, we fermented pickles. But once I had the call that we were closing for Covid, I was ready to figure something out. I was a little bit burnt out from the industry at the time. I was ready to leave, it’d been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress for a while. So, like a lot of Americans, we took the unemployment. I had never been on unemployment. Being unemployed gave me a chance to finally reset. I was working up to 120 hours a week cheffing around. Now I could see what else is out there.
The whole time I was looking outside of the industry, me and Taylor were still doing a lot of experiments in the kitchen. We were making a lot of bagels, making pickles. I have a friend Joe Morski who runs a one-man sandwich operation called Have a Good Sandwich. It’s like a rotating sandwich club in Chicago. Meanwhile, I was trying to start a pickle club, and I asked him if he wanted to serve my pickles in the lunch pack for his sandwiches. That was my first foray into getting my pickles out there. From there, we just started peddling our jars.
TFA: What was the transition to your own business?
SV: To this day, there’s so few fermented, unpasteurized pickles on the market. It wasn’t even a search for a niche, it was something I love to do and I was excited to share my flavor palette with the public. Fermentation is a fun way to be creative, to use it as a platform for new dishes, to play aground with colors. It’s definitely been a great medium to pursue my love of food, of art. Feeding people is my love language. And fermentation is definitely something that’s going to live on forever. It’s wellness, it’s never going to go out of style.
TFA: Tell me about your G-Dilla pickle. That’s a customer favorite. What makes it so special?
SV: The G-Dilla pickle is a flagship that’s always in season. The name G-Dilla, we have blank labels and I didn’t want to write “Garlic Dill” each time. So I started G-Dilla as an homage to J-Dilla, a great producer [and rapper from Detroit].
The taste is akin to a Jewish deli, a garlic dill pickle, the one that would accompany a Reuben sandwich. I just take it kind of a step further with the herbs and the garlic. We use black tea in our pickle brine, it is a fun way to add tannins to the mix which provides that nice, crunchy skin. We really enforce the flavors through fresh herbs, fresh dill from our backyard, parsley, grape leaves, fresh bay leaf and we add lots of garlic and toasted block peppercorn and mustard seed. Maybe a little gochujang, some turmeric. You bite into one and you’re getting that loud crunch and you’re just getting that lactic acid zing that’s electrifying the flavor. It makes you stop what you’re doing, you can’t talk through it, you have to finish chewing and enjoy the whole experience. It’s been a journey — I think back to the first pickle I made to now and it’s something I’ve kept at, I’m a student of the game, always striving to learn more techniques and refine what I’m doing.
TFA: Why do you think more and more chefs are exploring fermentation?
SV: I think so many chefs are seeing the flavor benefits alone. Food fermentation offers a more nuanced flavor that you just can’t achieve the same way. Fermentation is in everything that we do, everything that we eat. There is really an endless source of inspiration and flavor for chefs. We’ve seen the interest pick up in fermentation, but it’s not a fad in the food world. Fermentation is something that is here to stay, with the recent explosion and interest in it, fermentation will find a nice settling place in food.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation?
SV: I would like to see a future in which fermentation is no longer just a trending topic, something that everyone acknowledges for its real health benefits. So people aren’t just taking a probiotic gummy, they know they can get probiotics easily through so many foods. Society is at a place where we are not quite as healthy as we should be. Maybe we can make fermentation convenient, maybe we can show people that it’s not hard, we can show folks that there’s food you can have that has enhanced flavors and there’s something in fermentation for everyone.
Yoko Nagatomo Shiomi, president of the fourth-generation Kanena Miso & Soy Sauce Brewery, is one of few female toji (head brewers) in the miso industry. Japanese traditions delegate that businesses are passed onto male heirs. But when Shiomi’s father suffered a debilitating stroke, she was the only heir left.
Shiomi’s great-grandparents started the miso and soy sauce brewery in 1877. Shiomi never expected to inherit the company. “I had no expertise or information, and knew it was uncommon for girls to do this type of work, however I needed to strive,” she says. Before officially taking over, Shiomi and her mother spent three years with the company’s brewers learning the intricacies of the business. Like the most effective ways to combine soybeans and barley with koji spores.
Though miso and soy sauce have long been staples in Japanese dining, Shiomi told the Japan Times she was shocked to learn how much miso consumption had declined in the average household. “Miso is a really nutrition fermented seasoning and really authentic to our tradition,” she said. She began volunteering to teach kids how to cook with miso. It also inspired her to create a new miso product easier to use for the modern shopper: dried miso packets, make-your-own miso kits, and miso-marinated cuts of pork.
Read more (Japan Times)
Kimchi, fermented sauces and tempeh are driving growth in the fermented food and beverage category, a $9.2 billion industry that’s grown 4% in the last year.
“We’re excited about the growth potential for fermented food. While fermented food represents about 1.4% of the market today, there are segments that are tracking well above the growth of food and beverage [overall] that are poised for disruption in the future,” says Perteet Spencer, vice president of strategic solutions at SPINS. Spencer shared this information in a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association. “There’s a ton of opportunity to scale and increase the footprint of these products.”
SPINS spent weeks working with TFA to define the fermentation industry’s sales, drilling into 10 fermented product categories and 57 product types. Wine, beer and cheese sales were excluded from the data — those categories are very large, and would obscure trends in smaller categories. (All three are also well-represented by other organizations.)
Pickles and fermented vegetables “is a space that’s seen [a] pretty explosive uptick in growth over the past year,” Spencer says. Every segment is growing — kimchi, sauerkraut, beets, carrots, green beans, sliced and speared pickles and all other vegetables — with pickles the largest, nearly 60% of the category.
The biggest growth, though, is coming from products other than pickled cucumbers. Kimchi is at the center of numerous consumer retail trends. Consumers are purchasing healthier food made with fewer ingredients, and they want food with international flavors. Kimchi makes up only 7% of the category, but sales are increasing at an explosive 90% growth rate.
More people are experimenting with fermenting while they’re at home during the coronavirus pandemic, but these kitchen DIYers do not appear to be detracting from sales.
“The more people make fermented foods, they appreciate what’s available in the store that maybe didn’t exist five or 10 years ago,” notes Alex Lewin, author and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar. “Anyone who has made kimchi knows it takes a lot, it makes a big mess, you get red pepper powder stuck under your fingernails and onion in your eyes. I can make kimchi (at home), and then once I’ve made kimchi, I’m like ‘Ok, maybe next time I’ll buy it.’”
Fermented sauces are also growing, up 24% in 2020. The largest segment in sauces is, of course, soy sauce, almost 85% of the category. But gochujang, less than 2% of the category, is increasing at over a 56% growth rate.
Versatility is helping sauces, pickles and fermented vegetables, Spencer says. Any food product with multiple uses is selling well. The condiments and sauces can be used as a topping on eggs, hamburgers or pizza, or mixed-in a salad, rice dish or soup.
Sake, plant-based meat alternatives and miso had combined annual growth of $75 million in 2020. Sake grew 16%, and both plant-based meat alternatives and miso each grew 26%.
Yogurt and kombucha still dominate the fermented food and beverage market. Yogurt is 81% of the market; if yogurt is removed, kombucha is 51% of the remainder.. Both have experienced slowdowns in sales from their peaks. Kombucha sales have slowed recently, as grab-n-go opportunities have shrunk during the pandemic.
Yogurt giant brands Chobani, Yoplait and Dannon still dominate the category, as do GT Kombucha, Health-Ade and Kevita reign for kombucha.
Spencer notes the 4% growth rate of fermented products overall would be higher without yogurt. It’s a large category that — despite an uptick in 2020 during the pandemic – has been fairly flat in recent years. Core (traditional) yogurt has been growing at a 1.6% rate; Greek yogurt, at about twice that pace. Those two segments account for roughly 80% of the category.
“This is an opportunity for disruption for emerging brands,” Spencer says. “We’re already seeing some of the legacy segments start to get disrupted by new innovation, so I’m excited to see the evolution of that innovation and where that goes and kind of what opportunities peek out of that.”
“Overall, we’re seeing historically small segments gaining traction in the marketplace,” Spencer adds. “The pandemic has brought a renewed consumer focus on the fermented space.”
Though fermented products have an added healthy benefit, customers are looking for delicious flavor first.
“In these fermented categories we covered today, taste first is always really important. I think people are going to these categories for different taste experiences,” Spencer says. “If you can level up with a functional benefit, that’s fantastic, but we have to balance the taste first. If it’s highly functional but doesn’t taste good, it just doesn’t have the same success.”