Chefs Collaborative, the national network of food professionals which earlier this week brought its annual conference to Charleston, is primarily concerned with nurturing a more sustainable food system. So it made sense that the conference agenda included workshops on bycatch, hog farming and genetically-modified crops. But in reviewing the schedule, I was immediately struck by how much meeting time was devoted to fermentation.
Conference attendees were herded into the Francis Marion Hotel’s ballroom for two fermentation talks, and had the option of signing up for additional workshops exploring microbial fermentation and creative ways of fermenting vegetables. Fermentation became a kind of catchphrase for eventgoers, who seized upon the bubbling-up process as a symbol of their grassroots energy.
Fermentation certainly has a counter-cultural appeal. But is it a critical component of sustainability? While fermentation is easy on the earth, it doesn’t appear to directly solve any of the problems with which responsible chefs wrestle: To the contrary, it has the potential to create new hassles with health departments, which don’t always look kindly on controlled rot, and customers, whose palates might not be tuned to the funky flavors which emerge when food ages. As fermentation hero Sandor Katz told the crowd, Americans are trained by soap slogans to fear bacteria.
Since I was stumped by the fermentation emphasis, I asked the group’s executive director, Melissa Kogut, to explain the programming. Here’s what she told me:
“From a chef perspective, fermentation is a new frontier for exploring food preservation, eating food beyond seasonal availability and exploring intensified flavors,” Kogut said.
Although there are other ways to preserve food, such as canning and drying, Kogut suggested fermentation’s long history makes it an especially attractive topic in the post-molecular gastronomy era.
“We see fermentation as the perfect symbol of looking back and cooking forward,” Kogut says. “It’s both an ancient idea and revolutionary direction for the future of food.”