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and fermentation:

an interview with macklin casnoff

recorded january 2022

Elisa:  What is fermentation?

Macklin: The way I would look at it. Right?

E: Yeah,  totally. What is it to you?

M: Yeah. I think at a basic level it's about cultivation of, almost a maternal thing, because you're cultivating a particular environment in which you're raising these little bacteria or fungi or creating enzymes through that process to change food. And I guess it sort of has an alchemy component to it, which is what makes it interesting: to take something that's sort of hidden and nurture that thing into a healthy enough place for it to change something else that you're wanting it to change in hopefully a way that you intended to change it. Obviously there is kind of this property of mistakes to fermentation that are controllable to a certain extent, but also not controllable in the same way that cooking is. So I think that's what makes it interesting and complex and creates something that you can really work with for a long time.

Is that what made you interested in starting to ferment? This precarity, that you are letting the microbes develop the food?

M: No. I mean, I think that I started to ferment because it was the wave that was happening in restaurants, and that was where my interests lie. My interest was, you know, chefs and my heroes were chefs. And I think the first thing that I did with fermentation was probably in 2010 when I was in high school.

And it was because in Sean Brock's cookbook he was starting to make vinegars at McCrady's and so I started to play around with that, just cause it was in this cookbook and it was what I assumed was the thing you did! It started to pop up in restaurants that I was working in as, you know, a way to have a unique product, almost something like, “We make our own bread!”, which obviously is a fermentation too, but has been so normalized that it's not seen in the same way. But you know, you bake your own bread, “We make our own vinegar”, “We make our own miso” or “We make our own this…” It sort of just started to become normalized in a lot of restaurants. I guess that was where I was exposed to it, but I wasn't pursuing it on my own at that point. This was a project that we did and it was part of my prep list too, you know… One of the places I worked, we made thousand year old quail eggs, and we had to soak them in lye, and there's microbial things that are happening during that couple months long process. And it was just something that came up and I was exposed to a lot, but I don't know if I fully saw the benefit until later.

“I guess it sort of has an alchemy component to it”

E: Noma is seen as the restaurant that made fermentation for flavor mainstream, especially with the book that they published, but given your background, where was the beginning of this fermentation revival in professional kitchens in the US? What is the timeline that you actually see as who started it here?

M: I think that, in the last five years it's obviously become huge. Now everybody does it. And if you're a restaurant with a Michelin star, you nearly have to do it. But there was a time when it was probably being done by a lot of smaller restaurants that had an interest in it, or had been doing it for a long time, or were in more rural areas and needed to do it.

But I think in terms of chefs that were doing it, Sean Brock was definitely early. I know he was friends with some of the Noma people. A lot of the research that came out in sort of the mid two thousands, like 2008 to 2013-14, well before the Noma book, was still coming out of the Noma test kitchen and specifically the Nordic Food Lab, which was a Noma project lead by folks like Roberto Flore and Arielle Johnson.

And so I think a lot of people were reading those Nordic Food Lab blog posts, and sort of applying them to their restaurant in the US. I would say the first person to sort of doing it at scale in the US to my knowledge was David Chang out of his test kitchen, and they were early to experiment with koji. They were doing like the pork bonito projects in probably 2011 or 12, maybe 13. I think a lot of people were doing it, but Noma really leaned into it in a way where they created space for a really deep, deep research into it and had a way of writing about it that was accessible. And so I don't necessarily think Noma was first, I think it was sort of a consortium of people working on it, but there's obviously incredibly talented people at Noma who sort of took it to another level for a while

So tell us more about your personal relationship with producing fermented foods?

M: Yeah. That's also sort of a funny story, cause it wasn't necessarily intentional that I was going to start a company. I had maybe, you know, three years ago stumbled upon some old Nordic Food Lab posts on tempeh from probably 2014. And then I started to do my own research and I came across a bunch of studies out of Cornell. And I realized that nobody had really been working on this. It hadn't really been big in the US. There were a couple companies that made tempeh in the US at a relatively small scale for the size of the industrial food industry. I mean, compared to other meat alternatives, it's a drop in the bucket right now.

And I started to do all this research and realized that it could be really interesting if it was utilized to be a fermentation process with interesting grains and beans, and it could add flavor, it could add bioavailability of nutrients and all these things. So I started to basically put together a research packet, and my intention was to send it to every chef that I knew or knew somebody that knew them. And I was hoping basically to get that.. I hadn't been working in a professional kitchen in a while, I had been working for some brands and cooking privately and doing some consulting. And I was basically thinking, “Oh, this could be a leg up to do an interesting project back in a professional kitchen.” This was just before the pandemic and at a time when a lot of restaurants were kind of bringing in people to do project-based work, it was becoming part of the culture of very high end restaurants. So I sent it to Dan Barber and I sent it to Ignacio Mattos, and all these chefs that I really admired. And then the pandemic happened and basically all of them were like, you know, we don't have any time for this, we just need to try to figure out how to keep our staff employed.


M: So from there, I sort of got a little bit antsy, and I was like, “Okay, how am I going to turn this into something?” And I called a friend of mine who's also a chef, and I convinced him that we should do a pop-up restaurant during the pandemic that was an outdoor dining experience, and we could explore some of my ideas about sustainability and sort of collaborate on it. And we ended up serving tempeh at that project, as well as a bunch of other dishes that represented sort of other ideas of sustainability.

I want to get back to sustainability, but I also wanted to ask if you can define tempeh for people who are unfamiliar with the product. What is tempeh?

M: So tempeh traditionally is an Indonesian product that is typically soybeans that are boiled and then cooled and dried and inoculated with, you know, a member of the mold family called Rhizopus oligosporus. And that is incubated at which point, this sort of mycelium network grows and knits the par-cooked beans together to create a kind of cake which can be sliced and fried or steamed or smoked or anything. Marinated... and it can be really delicious, and it can be made with all types of beans and grains. Traditionally it's soy, but you could do peanuts or lentils or quinoa, and it allows for all these sorts of textual opportunities for a grain and bean product that doesn't have any starch binder or synthetic binder. And yeah, it can be really delicious. It can also, and I think it represents for a lot of people, something that's sort of like cardboard and bland and reminds them of the granola sixties hippies that were probably not eating very well.

“This mycelium network grows and knits the par-cooked beans together to create a kind of cake which can be sliced and fried or steamed or smoked”

So I’ve heard it proposed a lot as a meat alternative.  What is it about it that makes it a good meat substitute?

M: I'm not a huge proponent of  high protein diets to begin with, but a serving of tempeh theoretically can have as much protein as a serving of beef, depending on the legume you're using to ferment. And also it has a really high bioavailability of that protein because of some of the enzymatic processes that happen to the bean during the fermentation process, which allows the protein to be more absorbable than it would be in a bean that wasn't dehulled properly, that wasn't fermented. So it actually makes it nutritionally a very good comp for meat. It doesn't taste like meat, which I like about it, it tastes like vegetables. And I think that, you know, people that are vegetarians looking for meat substitutes need to be eating more vegetables and not necessarily always be looking for “How do I replace meat in my diet?” That would be my hope as sort of a dietary trend, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen that way.

Obviously there's two camps. There's the Impossible (Foods) camp and the people that want people to eat more vegetables.

E: If you are saying that a diet needs to include meat, then you are going in saying that I need to replace the meat with something. But if you are saying off the bat that diet doesn’t have to include meat, then you are just incorporating tempeh in other ways. So it doesn’t have to be a tempeh burger, it could just be you have tempeh and you are learning to incorporate it in all these different styles. Or do you think it needs to be sold as a patty, sold as a sausage, to kind of help the American diner and consumer understand how they could be consuming this product?

M: I think that that's the reality of meeting the consumer halfway. And that's something that I have to think about now. When I originally started to research tempeh, I saw it as an interesting way to utilize beans and grains in a dish that's a unique dish unto itself.  I think that a hundred percent, if you want to sell a lot of something, it's very difficult and almost silly to rely on the idea that like, oh, you're going to create something new and suddenly there's going to be a market and interest in it where there isn't already, I think that's a really difficult pill to swallow. And so from a business perspective I want to meet people halfway and create that nugget or that sausage or that whatever, using no binder, or using mycelium, using these things that are much more interesting to me and sort of create this synergistic relationship between what I want and what I think people will buy.

From a culinary perspective, I want people to know how to cook tempeh, I want people to know about tempeh. Not because I think they should eat it every day, it's much easier to eat a patty every day or a nugget every day. But because I think it should be something that's utilized in addition to our diet. And I think it should be utilized in a cultural dietary change type of way, where this is just another thing you can eat that's a vegetable, that's a grain, that is more delicious and tastes better and is better for you. So, I don't know if that answers it, but I think there is a different market for the Impossible burger than for tempeh. At the same time, I think there's a crossover when you make a tempeh nugget or a tempeh patty.

E: And what about the sustainability angle of tempeh?

M: The sustainability angle of tempeh... I mean at a surface level, it's the reduction in eating meat. If somebody switches to tempeh, they're eating less meat. But there's also the idea of scale. If more people are eating this, if there's this sort of natural clean label version of a meat alternative, which I think tempeh can be utilized to become, you're taking products like soy, and rather than feeding them to animals where you have a crappy feed conversion ratio, you can alter them and make them more digestible for the human gut, skipping a step in protein delivery. It's essentially a more efficient delivery vehicle for protein to the human body.

“ You're taking products like soy, and rather than feeding them to animals where you have a crappy feed conversion ratio, you can alter them and make them more digestible for the human gut, skipping a step in protein delivery.”

E: And what about the use of drought resistant grains and incorporating them in the tempeh. Have you looked at that as another approach?

M: Yeah. I mean, that's something that I want to get into. It's hard to, when researching supply chains, to find the scale of these things. I've made tempeh from fonio, for example, which can be really delicious. There's obviously different farming methods. There's people who are dry farming grains in certain places. With the current scaled supply chain I have, I haven't been able to have that sort of negotiating power, but it's something I'm talking with a couple of companies about right now.. You know, meeting with specific farmers to grow specific crops for specific tempeh, I think is definitely like a future project of mine that I really want to get into.

So what are the challenges in terms of scale? Is it getting the raw ingredients, or is it being able to produce in mass because you are trying to control the environment for the tempeh to grow and it’s just hard to do in a large space?

M: The products exist. You know, these are bulk commodity products, which was what made it sort of interesting as a business is the fact that you can buy, you know, a pound of a bean or you can buy 10 truckloads, you can buy 45 tons. These things exist in the US not always at the quality I want, but it's doable.

What's difficult for scaling the production of a fermented food product is that the equipment and the facilities aren't readily available in the co-packing space in the same way as if you were creating a power bar. If you wanted to create a power bar and you were like, “I really like Clif Bar and I like LaraBar, and I want to do a mixed protein bar with fruit,” there's are a lot of co-packers you could call up and get samples in a few weeks and be in production in six months. It might be a really competitive business. But there's a path to do it. Most of the people doing fermentation right now, if they're at any sort of scale, they're doing it out of their own facilities.

And it takes time to build a facility that you can make these products out of which inherently creates sort of a barrier to compete and to grow and to be able to produce enough product for the market that you have an opportunity to be disruptive in any capacity.

E: So part of the issue is that the co-packing itself is just not set up, but it’s also a problem in the stability of the ferment, I would assume as well? Or is that part of the co-packing problem in terms of you can produce in mass, but then you have to… the turnaround needs to be fairly rapid for fermented food?

M: Yeah, you can. You have choices, right? You can pasteurize it, you can freeze it. You're going to change the texture slightly with each of those processes in different ways. I think that pasteurized tempeh can be really delicious, it's part of the reason I'm currently pasteurizing the tempeh that I'm making.

I find that freezing tempeh that's made fresh messes up the texture even more so than pasteurizing it. But no, essentially the main issue is the expense of building a facility that's equipped to ferment, that's equipped to hold a large room at a specific temperature for a prolonged period of time.

E: What about challenges with regulation, for example? Is that space well defined?

M: No, there's not a super specific rubric for FDA approval or local and state approvals. But in my experience with the California state approval system, they're fairly flexible in terms of showing them information that it's a safe product. As long as it fits within their food scientists' understanding of the tenants of what makes a product safe or unsafe, you're fairly likely to get approved.

At a larger scale you'll need more specific HACCP plans and equipment and control stages and testing in order to get to that national production scale. But there are people that do it. That's the good, the good news is that there are people that have scaled kombucha, tempeh, these things up to fairly large national production and it's doable.

The language and access to figuring out how to do it, It's not super readily available, but there are people that do it.

E: But even when you are scaling up, you need to make some sort of concession when it comes to the flavor or quality I would imagine. That it’s just very hard to make something on such a large scale, especially something that is microbially driven. What are you willing to give up, if anything, to produce on a large scale. Add if you are not willing to give up anything, what are alternative models of production?

M: Yeah. I mean, I think pasteurization is one of those choices, right? Extending shelf life is one of those choices. I think there's a choice of your supply chain and beans. Can you get enough beans grown by small farmers or do you need to go to more of a national supply chain which is going to be a consortium of a lot of different farms? You're not going to have that traceability aspect to what you're doing.

I think that in terms of shipping, it's easier to ship something that is refrigerated. It's even easier to ship something that doesn't need any refrigeration at all. And what sort of factors, how pasteurized or annihilated does the product need to be in order to last on a shelf without refrigerator?

I think that all of those factors are the concessions one would have to make. Right now I'm willing to make the concession of pasteurization for tempeh because through my tests, I find it to be just as good. Maybe not quite as good as a fresh block of tempeh coming right out of the fermentation chamber, but certainly better than a block of tempeh that's sporulated five days later in my fridge and has started to degrade and texturally soften. So,  it's a concession, but it's not, to me, it's the best case.

E: What that made me think of is that there are all these articles that are coming out now in terms of the fermented food trend has just started. You’re making this right now, right, you’re trying to scale up. What do you see as the future of fermented foods? Where do you see it going?

M: I see an industry of co-packers that specialize in fermented foods. I think that's going to be a business that's going to arise in the next 5 to 10 years. And so I think it's going to be easier to create products in this industry. There's also, and I think that you probably know more about this than me, but there are two fermentation industries. There's the people that are utilizing yeast cells to grow heme, there's the Chr. Hansen sort of products. And then there's the, “How do we utilize older methods of fermentation to create novel uses for them and to create flavor?” And it's sort of like the fancy cooking version.

I don't know if one inherently has more value than the other. I know that I wouldn't have the skill set to genetically modify a yeast cell to produce heme, but you know, there's a lot you can do with sort of the fancy cooking version that can go really, really far. And especially with the help of labs and scientists, like what you're doing, I think there's a lot we can learn and refine the products. hen I look at fermentation, I look at it as a way to create flavor and to make a thing that's recognizable more beautiful and more interesting. And I know that you can't do that unless you're working with whole foods and whole products.

So, I would hope that there is an access point for people to be able to create more interesting products and better products for the market that can have some sort of viability, whether it's shelf stable or refrigerated, to be able to be bought a lot more.

E: Totally. I think you bring up a very interesting point because I’ve thought a lot about that too in terms of fermentation and commercially available products are based on the idea that there are good microbes and bad microbes, and so we pasteurize and then throw in some microbes to ferment, so everything is very controlled.  and that allows for a very stable flavor outcome as well. And it’s the same idea with cellular agriculture and using bioreactors to produce a very specific ingredient that can be added in, so fermentation as a technology. This recombinant protein production. But I think the space is largely unexplored when it comes to what microbes are actually doing, and what flavors they are producing, and I do agree that there has to be more communication between labs that are studying the diverse communities in these fermented foods and people that are actually making the food product in order to control flavor. If you want to even be able to control flavor. If you were to sign up for a course in fermentation, fermentation science 101, what would you want to be on the syllabus?

M: I feel like I would want to be studying, as you said, probably have an understanding of, uh, different types of each type of bacteria or mold that I work with. So understanding how different varieties of yeast will create different flavor profiles in a wine, a beer, a vinegar, how individual strains of lactobacilli or yeast differ…

I mean, there's obviously a lot of individual types of each of these bacterias. Oftentimes we kind of reduce things to… For example, in the natural wine world, we like to use wild yeast, right? It’s great to use wild yeast rather than industrial cultivated yeast, but how do you create the right environment to have the right things that you want to make your wine delicious, or to make your cider delicious or to make your vinegar delicious?

Understanding that complexity and being able to look in the microscope and understand the colonies that are there and to know how to get it tested and to know how to read those results, I think would be really illuminating for me in producing products. And I don't even necessarily think that Noma is doing that, or a lot of these places are thinking on that level.

You know, if you have a space that becomes contaminated with yeast or bacteria that’s not desirable it can ruin a lot of projects.

I don't know if that's a full syllabus, but I think that understanding more about what's going on… The Noma book is great, a lot of these resources are great. A lot of the research about tempeh from the 60s is great. But as you said, there's not a lot of understanding of the specific enzymes that are being created, the metabolites that are being created by specific strains of yeast or strains of bacteria, or, you know, you hear people talk about a kombucha SCOBY being amultitude of different bacteria and yeast cells living together, creating a symbiotic relationship.  What are those strains and what is in your SCOBY? You know, what is your vinegar mother? Why is it good? There's very little language to talk about that.

“It’s great to use wild yeast rather than industrial cultivated yeast, but how do you create the right environment to have the right things that you want, make your wine delicious, or to make your cider delicious or to make your vinegar delicious?”

E: Yeah, totally. What are some projects that other people are working on that you know of that you are really excited about?

M: I have a friend in New York who works at a meadery called Enlightenment Wines (Harris Gilbert). And they are doing, I think, really special mead. I've never had any mead that is as good as this. I've drank some mead, but these, you know, drink like beautiful floral wines and have acidity and utilize fruits. And they're doing a lot of citizen science work on trying to understand their yeast colonies and when they're dying out and why certain sugars are easier for them to metabolize than others. And they monitor their ferments really closely while staying very much true to the tenants of,, natural wine, unadulterated product.

And I think that their sort of drive to understand why things are happening, goes far beyond what the average in that part of the fermentation industry.

Do you think there is going to be more of a pivot to allowing scientific technical expertise in the kitchen, or if there is going to be a shift back to this craftsmanship of people that are specialized in intuition around these ferments and how to take care of them?

M: Well, I mean, I think that sort of the perfect example of the meeting of both is Sandor Katz who is interested in the science and is also very much interested in the craftsmanship of it and sort of allowing it to stay magical. I think that you sometimes get more beautiful things out of the craftsmanship side and you sometimes get better results out of the scientific side. So I'd hope that there's something in the middle. And it's definitely the reason why I'm drawn to wanting to work with somebody like you or wanting to be involved in these conversations. BecauseI have a drive to want to understand the science, and I have the ability to consume it at a certain level.

So the more I can learn from an academic side, the more interested it makes me in the craftsmanship side. And I think that there's a lot of people whose fermentation goes rancid, wine turns out mousy or has off flavors and they should know why. We shouldn't live in a world where professionals don't understand why. An architect can build a beautiful building, but they understand how to draw it, and they also understand the science of it, the physics and the reasons it's not going to fall down. So I think it should be… it should be a necessity for somebody who's a professional fermentor or chef to educate themselves on the side.

I first noticed it in wine because I am really interested in wine, where there's all these natural wine producers that, you know, do everything right. They farm organically, they are you using wild yeast, they're wanting to eschew the use of sulfur as a preservative and you know, some of the wine is good and some of the wine is bad and that can obviously be attributed to a lot of factors.

I'm not a winemaker, but I love it. I do it as a hobby. I make cider as a hobby and there's a lot of reasons why those types of ferments can end up badly. And I think that's easier for me to sort of talk about then the tempeh because tempeh needs to be so specific for it to work.

But even with tempeh, sure, would I like to understand why my tempeh starter is not as good or better than another tempeh starter? Can I cultivate a better tempeh starter? Can I select for a better tempeh spore that doesn't sporulate with a black spore, which to a consumer will look off? One hundred percent I’m interested in that. That's something that I could work with a scientist on, it wouldn't necessarily be something that I would have the skillset right now to do completely on.

E: Tell me more about your cider, I didn’t know you made cider.

M: It's something that I got interested in maybe four or five years ago. I went to work at a cidery in Vermont. I was making cider in LA and it's just something that I love. I love the idea of utilizing perennial plants as a means of creating products. And it's definitely something that I've thought about. If Lovely Bunch releases any other product after tempeh, it will be something from a perennial plant. It might be an apple juice, it might be a fermented apple juice, it might be any number of things. But I love the idea that cider or one sort of is this singular representation of a year in a bottle? It represents the climate and the rainfall and the soil conditions of that specific year, in I think this really ephemeral way that is really beautiful. So that's maybe that's honestly how I started to fall in love with fermentation through cider and other fermented foods.

“It represents the climate and the rainfall and the soil conditions of that specific year in, I think this really ephemeral way that I think is really beautiful. So that's maybe that's honestly how it started to fall in love with fermentation through cider and other fermented foods.”

E: Yeah, that’s really  interesting, I hadn't thought about it that way. I read a paper once about flavor compounds in natural wine, and it basically was like the bacteria and the yeast that were playing a role in the development of the flavor was from the soil itself, and they jumped on the grapes during tillage, and that is where the wild yeast came from. And so the idea that it was years or centuries of manure or whatever that was building up on that land, and that is what is really fascinating to me. Compared to the idea of just, someone made the strain in a lab  and then sold it in a little freeze dried packed and inoculated it and that was it.

M: Yeah, of course. That's the reason why natural wine people don't like industrial yeast. Not because industrial yeast is necessarily bad, but it sort of takes away the idea of it representing terroir or a time and place. I also have a feeling there's yeast, you know, in a really old cellar there's yeast in the ceiling and the air, and I think that maybe in a really old winery can maybe create a consistency that isn't there in a new winemaker's facility. But also why do some of these young winemakers end up making really bad wine. Are their barrels not cleaned properly? Or is it just the grapes aren't old enough so they haven't created a resilient (yeast) colony? I find it one of the most beautiful processes.

E: Have you also noticed that your relationship to flavor has changed the more you ferment? Where there are all these complex flavors that before you might not have enjoyed as much that now you enjoy more because you are increasing the diversity of flavors you are exposed to?

M: For sure. There's definitely things that are fermented that are challenging, you know, especially really concentrated amino pastes and fish sauces and that sort of stuff that can be challenging texturally or flavor wise with extreme funk. Oftentimes with those things, we get served them because they're, you know, new to a restaurant, so restaurants are experimenting with it and it's this intense amount of a umami, but sometimes they're best used subtly, as a couple of grams in a larger sauce to add the depth of flavor. I think that when the fermentation sort of adds depth to something that’s just delicious, It’s maybe the most perfect version of fermentation.

And I'm curious to see how, maybe it's too late, or maybe it's just not part of the culture now, but I'm curious to see how that can become part of American culture in a new way. What ferments will be created or will feel that they have a specific place in a new American diet and how are they used.

“When the fermentation sort of disappears in something it’s just delicious. It’s maybe the most perfect version of fermentation.”

E: I definitely see this expansion of the more we think about ferments in the American cultural context there is going to be this expansion of ways in which people can make their own ferments that utilize more local ingredients to set these things up and share them with the community. And so I think I am really  excited if that is the future of fermented food, of just every city has its own fermented flavor, which is something the US never really developed I would say. There isn’t much of a fermentation history of the United States.

M: No. And I think that as those things become more prevalent, maybe it's at home, maybe it's at farmer's markets.  In a lot of cultures there's a lot of fermentation in home cooking, in Korean culture there's an enormous amount of people who make their own kimchi and make their own things, it's very common. I would hope that as America becomes more interested in cooking, this is a part of that. Because it creates a really special bond with food.  Even on, on a larger scale, all of these conversations are about dietary trends and change, and people are fickle. So who knows what will happen, but I hope that it adds more flavor to food, and I hope that people become more connected to food through this.

Yup! Thanks so much!

Yeah of course! We’ll talk soon.

Macklin Casnoff
is a chef focused on cultivating sustainability in food and culture. He utilizes research and conversations with experts in various fields such as ecology, agriculture, and sustainability as a guiding force in the food he cooks. Macklin has spent time cooking in top restaurants, hosting experiential dinners, and working with brands to create unique events. He most recently founded a natural foods brand called Lovely Bunch specializing in tempeh and committed to bringing sustainable and often fermented CPG  products to market.


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