’It’s not what’s cooking but what’s fermenting’

Jacob Richler on the newest trend in restaurants
Jacob Richler
Just the right degree of rot
Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani

In the Mission, where San Francisco’s trendiest new restaurants have been opening of late, I recently began a meal with a plate of a sort I have not yet experienced hereabouts, but know we will be seeing plenty of soon. Picture a glass bowl laden with wedges of bright-red-fleshed radish in a pool of translucent red liquid. The radish was softened from a short stint of fermentation in the company of kombu and calamansi lime juice, but it still possessed some lingering crunch to go with its mild pungency.

The venue was the much-discussed Bar Tartine, companion to the revered Tartine Bakery. And the dish was just the latest variation on a recurring theme. One day, its expression might be Romanesco broccoli brined with onion, garlic and chillies; another may bring mixed peppers and fennel, or turnips pickled with dill, or daikon preserved in beer. What they all have in common is some degree of rot. Or, as the Zagat guide summarizes the food at Bar Tartine: “It’s not ‘What’s cooking?’ It’s ‘What’s fermenting?’ ” And all the same, on the food front, the restaurant scored a rating of 25 out of 30.

“Fermentation is having its moment in the sun,” asserted Pawel Grezlikowski, a Toronto cook with whom I caught up shortly after my return, when I visited him to collect some of his excellent kimchee. Grezlikowski started out producing charcuterie, but over the last year, his work has evolved from the smoker and the curing fridge to buckets of fermenting cabbages, peppers, ramps and the like. His bestselling item is in fact a hybrid of both trends: a pork sausage spiked with minced kimchee. Until a few weeks ago, he operated a shop in Kensington Market called Hogtown Charcuterie; now he sells at the farmers’ market in the Junction, and wholesale, while on the hunt for a new, larger storefront.

“If you’re used to store-bought pickles, they just taste of vinegar and sugar and cucumber or whatever it is,” he explained. “There are no nuances. If you ferment them, it’s totally different, there’s so much more. And each batch is totally different.”

In traditional pickling, a controlled degree of fermentation occurs beneath the brine. My preferred pickled cucumbers rely on a few slices of sourdough bread for a nudge in the right direction in their journey to apotheosis. In the production of more assertively flavoured pickled vegetables—say, the conversion of cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchee—the bacilli and fungi responsible for the change run rampant a little longer, sometimes to the point of forming a carpet of mould at the surface, and producing so much carbon dioxide that bubbles breaking at the surface are large enough to gurgle audibly.

And they pong something awful. So while all you need to make this stuff at home is a good crock (German ones are best), or even a plastic bucket, from my point of view, fermentation is one of the points of cookery that one is best advised to leave to someone else. Someone like Grezlikowski, who makes kimchee that is funky, spicy and ultra-pungent, and whose sauerkraut has all the rich, floral notes of a warm wheat beer, its tempered acidic bite just right as counterpoint to any fatty pork sausage.

“People who are into food right now are really ultra-conscious of the health benefits of eating things like real sauerkraut,” Grezlikowski added. According to influential food writers such as Michael Pollan (The Ominivore’s Dilemma), and the fermentation guru Sandor Katz (The Art of Fermentation), non-threatening microbes present in these living foods are all but essential to our health. And their depletion in our digestive systems due to consumption of processed foods is a likely root cause of everything from asthma and allergies to heart disease.

Maybe. Maybe not. What is perfectly clear is that proper sauerkraut and its ilk tastes very good. Add to that the fact that the most popular chef in America these days is likely David Chang, who made it his mission to bring kimchee to the white masses. It all points to fermentation becoming the biggest new culinary trend since charcuterie, and arriving soon on a restaurant table near you, mixed up, one hopes, with a combination as tasty as lime and kombu.