Arielle Johnson: Hi. I’m Arielle. I’m a sci­en­tist. My job is to work with cooks to fig­ure out the sci­ence behind food and cook­ing. But some­thing that we’re also inter­est­ed in with my job is using the knowl­edge that we pro­duce by doing that to improve the world.

So, you may have heard about food waste, includ­ing just now. But it’s a big prob­lem in the world. Each year we waste about 1.3 bil­lion met­ric tons of edi­ble food. And that hap­pens on every con­ti­nent, at every link in the food chain. From farms, to dis­trib­u­tors, to mar­kets, to peo­ple’s home kitchens, and restau­rants. So, it’s a com­plex prob­lem that’s not going to be solved by any one idea.

Some parts of it, like cos­met­i­cal­ly less-desirable fruit and veg­eta­bles can be dealt with by devel­op­ing alter­na­tive mar­kets for this pro­duce such as Fruta Feia in Portugal. And these pro­vide a way for these to be dis­trib­uted bypass­ing the inef­fi­cien­cy of the con­ven­tion­al ones, which tend to fol­low EU reg­u­la­tions that say that a straw­ber­ry that looks like that, or a Kirby cucum­ber can’t actu­al­ly be sold because it does­n’t pack well.

But tonight I’d like to tell you a lit­tle bit about how our exper­i­ments in fer­men­ta­tion have giv­en us some real­ly inter­est­ing tools for deal­ing with food waste.

So this is where I work. It’s four ship­ping con­tain­ers in the back park­ing lot of Restaurant Noma. We built this lab to have a space to study food prac­ti­cal­ly, not so much to make new dish­es but to make new knowl­edge. And we built a lot of it our­selves, as you can tell from the wiring job on our ther­mal con­trollers. And this is Noma head of R&D Lars Williams look­ing quite skep­ti­cal about my paint­ing abil­i­ties.

But you may be won­der­ing what I’m doing in a semi-apocalyptic bunker in a park­ing lot behind the restau­rant. And I’m not gonna lie, a lot of the sci­en­tists I went to grad school with kind of shrug and say like, Hey, you real­ly don’t need a PhD to do what you’re doing, to work with a restau­rant. But if it makes you hap­py I guess…it’s your life.”

But real­ly I left the aca­d­e­m­ic sys­tem to work at MAD. Not because I want­ed to stop doing sci­ence but because I think that some of the most pow­er­ful and inter­est­ing and inno­v­a­tive new ideas about food are com­ing out of restau­rants, not out of uni­ver­si­ty labs. [applause] Yeah. Yeah.

So spaces like the one that we built let us exper­i­ment with things like Aspergillus oryzae. That is this moldy stuff back here that’s rich in culi­nar­i­ly use­ful enzymes. But more broad­ly speak­ing, it let us com­bines sci­en­tif­ic and restau­rant approach­es to make more, bet­ter knowl­edge about food, faster.

So, the rea­son that we have this mold is that one of the big projects that we’re work­ing on is fer­men­ta­tion. And fer­men­ta­tion is the trans­for­ma­tion of food ingre­di­ents by microor­gan­isms such as bac­te­ria, yeasts, and molds. It occurs spon­ta­neous­ly. A lot of these microor­gan­isms are just like in the air, on our skin, on var­i­ous oth­er sur­faces. So it’s been a part of human gas­tro­nom­ic his­to­ry since we’ve been eat­ing fruit or mak­ing grain por­ridges or milk­ing cows.

But it also cre­ates com­plex new fla­vors in ingre­di­ents that we’d oth­er­wise over­look because they’re bland on their own or we con­sid­er them waste prod­ucts. Basically it turns trash into trea­sure. And in doing some of this study­ing fer­men­ta­tion, I recent­ly went to Japan, where I want­ed to vis­it the grand­moth­ers and guys with gigan­tic vats of squid sauce out their back sheds, and peo­ple who’ve been mak­ing miso for ten gen­er­a­tions, to learn some of the things about fer­men­ta­tion that I was­n’t gonna learn in books or aca­d­e­m­ic papers. So here we’re grind­ing some soy­beans to make miso.

Japan is one of the most food-obsessed cul­tures on Earth, and a lot of extreme­ly deli­cious things are made out of mate­ri­als that we might oth­er­wise write off or over­look. So, this is a win­ter turnip pick­le. A lot of the win­ter tsuke­mono, or pick­les, are made of turnips. This one’s called [sugu­ki?]. And through a series of salt­ings, and press­ings, and care­ful fer­men­ta­tions at dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures, the turnip’s trans­formed into this incred­i­bly com­plex, rich, meaty pick­le. And the greens are some of the best part, and in its raw state the greens are sort of more of a throw­away mate­r­i­al. And each of these pick­les retails for about like sev­en or eight dol­lars apiece.

This is anoth­er turnip pick­le called sen­mai. If you can see it it’s sort of like lots of over­lap­ping slices. And this is a turnip and kelp pick­le. Seaweeds are a good exam­ple of a plant that grows in lots of dif­fer­ent places that a lot of cul­tures don’t even real­ly con­sid­er as a food source. But in sort of nat­ur­al resource-poor areas like Japan, they’ve rec­og­nized its poten­tial and devel­oped it into a real­ly fla­vor­ful and high­ly prized food source. Basically to make these deli­cious prod­ucts they’ve tak­en an unsexy veg­etable and weed, and by rec­og­niz­ing the inher­ent poten­tial for fla­vor in these ingre­di­ents, they’ve devel­oped tech­niques to real­ize that poten­tial. And a par­al­lel to that, what we found in Copenhagen is that we can use fer­men­ta­tion to real­ize the full fla­vor poten­tial of many dif­fer­ent kinds of waste and food scraps.

So since it’s the evening, we thought you might like to have some­thing to drink. I think that was passed around before­hand. So, there’s some whiskey in that drink, if you haven’t had it yet. It’s at the back, in part because our jail­house bread wine isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. But 67% of that drink is pump­kin scraps that we fer­ment­ed into vine­gar. Yeah.

So when we’re fer­ment­ing, basi­cal­ly what we’re doing is a sort of microen­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing. We’re cre­at­ing con­di­tions using salt and tem­per­a­ture and oxy­gen that allow the microbes that we want to grow and flour­ish and trans­form food into some­thing deli­cious. And we’re using all dif­fer­ent kinds of tech­niques like mak­ing vine­gars, doing lac­tic fer­men­ta­tions, mak­ing kom­buchas, and then doing like protein-rich fer­men­ta­tions using that mold that you saw before to make lots of enzymes and then break down a legume or an ani­mal pro­tein.

But basi­cal­ly the take­away that I’d like you to have from this is that… I hope you can tell by tast­ing that deal­ing with waste sus­tain­ably does­n’t have to be a big pain in the ass. It’s just about redis­cov­er­ing the ways that these waste and scraps can be deli­cious. And to be hon­est you know, work­ing togeth­er we only stum­bled upon waste fer­men­ta­tion as a tech­nique because we were already inter­est­ed in fer­men­ta­tion. Because fer­men­ta­tion is deli­cious. And to be able to get the sort of tangy and uma­mi and oth­er fla­vors that you get from fer­men­ta­tion using Nordic ingre­di­ents, it became nec­es­sary to learn about enzymes, and molds, and spores, and fun­gus, and dif­fer­ent bac­te­ria and oxy­gen lev­els and salin­i­ty. But once we had that knowl­edge and were using it reg­u­lar­ly it became triv­ial­ly easy to apply it to the prob­lem of waste fer­men­ta­tion, or deal­ing with food waste. But if we’d approached food waste with­out hav­ing devel­oped that appre­ci­a­tion for fla­vor to begin with, we would­n’t have been able to just brute force inno­va­tion out of nowhere.

So some of the stuff we want to do going for­ward is fig­ur­ing out some of the more com­pli­cat­ed things about fer­men­ta­tion, like how do dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture pro­files affect the enzyme lev­els in our mold­ed bar­ley that we then use to make a left­over meat or left­over bread soy sauce, and how do those enzymes even­tu­al­ly impact fla­vor? Other ques­tions like that. But what [indis­tinct] comes down to is that if we’re going to tack­le waste in a sus­tain­able way, and oth­er food issues in a sus­tain­able way, we have to do it with an eye to fla­vor. And speak­ing as a sci­en­tist, nobody under­stands fla­vor and deli­cious­ness bet­ter than cooks do.

As a lit­tle bit of cir­cling back, at the very first MAD here in Copenhagen, this is in 2011, David Chang also gave a speech about doing fer­men­ta­tion at his restau­rant. He’s an American chef. He has a restau­rant called Momofuku in New York. And one of the things that he said about hav­ing worked with micro­bi­ol­o­gists from Harvard is that oh well, we need them more than they need us. Which is a nice sen­ti­ment, but I think it’s actu­al­ly the oth­er way around. Because we’re stand­ing here in 2015, we have greater tech­ni­cal knowl­edge of food than we’ve ever had before, and we also have the patent­ing of indige­nous plan­t’s genomes for the sake of so-called tech­ni­cal progress. And bee life about to be wiped off the plan­et from pes­ti­cide use for inten­sive agri­cul­ture. And the mak­ing and eat­ing of Soylent instead of real food. Food waste, as we said before. Antibiotics about to become a thing of the past because of the way that we con­cen­trate our [lot?]-based meat cul­ti­va­tion.

So, not to be a fatal­ist, but if these results are what we get from com­bin­ing food and sci­ence the way that we’ve always done it like, yes we absolute­ly need cooks as part of the sci­en­tif­ic progress. So if there’s any take­away I’d like you to have from this it’s that seek­ing out knowl­edge, the impe­tus for knowl­edge that sticks, and tools that enable it sus­tain­ably, all comes down to fla­vor. And so please enjoy your drinks, and tip your wait­ress. Thank you.


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