In a University of Toronto conference room one recent Saturday, chefs, culinary experts and food enthusiasts sat sniffing and licking a light brown paste from small plastic vials. It was creamy, slightly sweet and salty, with just a hint of acidity – a brand-new flavour for the tasters. Chef Dan Felder, who was running the seminar, called the mixture a "miso," which is a more approachable-sounding name for what it really was: a nutty cocktail of fermented cashews, made by combining cooked nuts, salt and grain that had been colonized with mould, then left to rot in a controlled environment.
Chefs don't normally like to talk about things that grow on their food, but it's a job requirement for the 28-year-old Felder, head of research at the Momofuku test kitchen – a culinary lab for David Chang's restaurants in New York, Toronto and Sydney. Part scientist, part chef, Felder studies new techniques and methods of cooking. His current obsession: concocting new flavours from microbes and mould.
Felder has worked from a 300-square-foot space in New York's East Village for the past few years. Soon, the test kitchen will move into a much larger space, with an eye toward getting those "misos" out of test tubes and onto dinner plates. Working with Harvard microbiologists, the test kitchen – which is crammed with Tupperware containers filled with things like six months' worth of mould and bacteria covering a rotting piece of pork loin – has experimented with several kinds of fermented pastes, including pistachio, cranberry bean, pine nut, sweet potato, lentil and chickpea.
While Chang calls the pastes "game-changers," convincing people to eat bacteria and mould may be his biggest challenge yet. Maybe that's why he's tight-lipped on the project. While the plan is to create a product line of these pastes under the name Hozon (Korean for "preserve") – Chang won't reveal what the scope of the line will be or whether he'll take them to retailers. "One step at a time," he said.
Chang and Felder are hoping to minimize any discomfort and capitalize on our current infatuation with fermented foods such as pickles and kimchi. Fermentation is "one of the most exciting food trends," said Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food & Wine magazine. "It's people's palates. People became addicted to Korean food, then pickling took hold," she said. "People want to eat sour and tangy, and fermentation is just the epitome of that."
Here in Canada, restaurants have used fermentation at an approachable level, like the "kimchi" pears at Toronto's Swish by Han, or the "fermentation" station (pickled vegetables) at Hogtown Charcuterie.
But Chang and chefs like him are beyond pickled peppers. René Redzepi, of Copenhagen's lauded Noma restaurant, has used the fermented cricket guts in his cooking – it reportedly tastes like soy sauce. "It has nothing to do with shock value or trying to be novel in that sense," said Redzepi. "It's a search for flavours."
"It's like discovering a new star, or a new colour," Chang said. "At the end of the day, the top 10 flavours I've had in the past year – almost all of them came from the lab," he said. "In a world where flavours are becoming increasingly redundant and the same, it's refreshing to taste something that's bright and new, even though it's rotten and old."
But Jonathan Goodyear, chef at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club and a current contestant on Top Chef Canada, says the "rotten" and "old" Hozons may take some time for people to get used to. "Would I eat it? I absolutely would. Would other people eat it? I hope they would," he said.
While many of the pastes are still in the testing stage, a pistachio Hozon has made it to the kitchen at Momofuku Ko in New York, where it's brushed on a plate and served under a piece of fluke and a few drops of pistachio "tamari." The pistachio paste, according to Felder, has a fattiness, fruitiness and complexity from the fermentation, but also a "backbone of umami."
That umami characteristic is something that all of the Hozon pastes have in common, although they vary in flavour, depending on the original ingredient. Felder said they wanted to create that elusive, savoury flavour from scratch, rather than rely on soy sauce and MSG.
This might sound like pretentious food culture run amok, but it's really just exploring the ancient process of fermenting soybeans to make miso. "It's challenging, but we're trying to create new flavours based off old techniques," said Chang. "I don't know if it gets any more simple than that."