Envisioning a More Flavorful Future With Emmer & Rye’s Fermentation Program
Chef Alfred Francese becomes a self-made flavor scientist
Natural tinkerer, microbe-whisperer, and flavor enthusiast Alfred Francese, sous chef and larder master of Emmer & Rye, used to ponder the meaning – and sustainability – of his cooking. "I want to have purpose in the food I make. I don't want to cook for an award, or a position. I want what I'm doing to mean something."
The native New Yorker worked his way up from a teen passing out bingo tickets in a nursing home to the Culinary Institute of America, and after stints at Pondicheri and Uchi (both in Houston), Francese transferred to Uchi Austin in search of a more experimental restaurant scene in a small city setting. A stage at L'Oca d'Oro opened his eyes to the possibilities, and a glance at Emmer & Rye's menu caught his attention: "I didn't have the money to come and eat, so I was like, 'Let me get a stage!'"
After working the plancha station and acclimating to E&R's deeply involved menu meetings, Francese, a disciple of Sandor Katz (author of Art of Fermentation), jumped at the chance to develop the fermentation program when Executive Chef Kevin Fink and chef de cuisine Tim Welch consolidated their bread, butchery, and fermentation operations about a year ago. "At every job I had after the CIA, I tried to sneak fermentation in. [And] I had already been contributing to the [Emmer & Rye] larder [cool food storage space] on my own at this point," he said. "But it was a free-form system at that time – I had to formulate a plan of attack.
"It's like a hive mind collective, [and] we have a strong foundation of flavor. Chef Tim revolutionized our bread program – he knows how to take a very complicated subject and make it tangible. All the chefs here had knowledge about fermentation, so piecing together the experiments they had done, what had worked for them, with my own personal experience and personal knowledge, and what I'd read in books, was a lot of fun."
Around the time Noma, perhaps the world's most famous restaurant, started showcasing their test kitchen's projects, Francese began to shift the focus of the larder, and after the owners' significant investment, Francese scaled up production and diversified the type and variety of products that lend distinctive flavors to the menu. The modest glass-doored dining room closet (visible to patrons) is now filled with a bounty of preserved local and foraged identifiable staples – lacto-fermented cucumber pickles, pickled peppers, and mustang grape vinegar, for instance. Traditional Japanese flavor powerhouses occupy most of the real estate in the gently warmed and humidified room: koji made with Texas grains; umeboshi plums, peaches, and loquats; Bloody Butcher corn shoyu and sprouted and roasted rye shoyu; and miso made from soy/barley blends. An outpost of the larder, a shelf of jars in the adjacent kitchen, holds magic-bullet products such as fermented mushroom powder.
The purpose of one glass jar with a spigot, labeled "citrus preserve," is straightforward enough – the preserved peels and juice will flavor food and cocktails in the off-season – but a murky jar labeled "smoked fish body" hiding in the corner of the room (next to a large tub of fish wings submerged in golden liquid) holds a bit more intrigue. Francese is experimenting with garum, a fermented fish gut sauce created by the ancient Carthaginian empire around the third century BC. It's this controlled-yet-natural building of concentrated umami – the fifth element of taste – that represents his mission to manipulate biology to deepen, elevate, or transform the flavor of everything that leaves the Emmer & Rye kitchen, from sauces to desserts.
Francese explains, "Your palate expands. Vinegar is no longer red wine, white, and apple cider vinegar; and citrus is no longer just lemon and lime. You have this broad array of acids you can use now, and this broad array of umami flavors and all these things, and eventually you start to say to yourself, 'Wow, I could really use some fermented tomato water with this!' It's a switch that goes off in people's brains when they start to reach for these products and use them in a way that is really impactful for the menu. ... Once you move past all the fermentation books out there right now, you have to seek out scientific papers to understand things. It's Google Scholar, it's Khan Academy, it's Coursera, because you have to understand microbiology."
Francese's aspirations for the larder have introduced Aspergillus awamori and he's playing with Aspergillus sojae to create a black bean-based koji whose finished paste will lend a deep funky and savory character to dishes, without introducing any gluten. He also has his eye on a grain polisher (to tailor specific strains of fungi to specific grains) and a cider press (to make 50-gallon batches of special vinegars from local produce). The more formidable challenge is in finding creative ways to keep up with the restaurant's full-time forager and their farm partners as sustainability remains central to the E&R mission.
"Preservation is a better way to look at it. We have invested in a full-time forager, [who] travels up to 250 miles away to forage. It would be insane not to gather this abundance, utilize things such as acorns and mesquite beans. If we really like it, then we'll preserve – not just precious things, but things in their prime, like blueberries and chiles, which have short windows of peak freshness. Citrus in Texas and alliums are also prime candidates for [more diverse] preservation, their essence is being used in so many applications."
Embracing the unpredictable finds sometimes means letting lactic or acetic acid bacteria work their magic on a fruit or vegetable, or introducing fungi to transform a legume. Preservation could involve dry-aging meats and making aminos from their scrap, or dehydrating products to adjust for too strong or too subtle flavors. It could also be a tincture or infused oil made out of a precious herb or leaf, or preserving a rare citrus in salt. Every item receives tailored treatment to ensure it can be enjoyed and utilized in the best way – it's an artistry in this practice, with sustainability always central to the plan.
"When you start seeing these things [preservation programs] in restaurants, those are the people who will be successful long-term. The restaurants on the opposite end of the spectrum, they're gonna be phased out. I think it's gonna become too expensive to damage the environment, to transport these ingredients so far. It won't outweigh buying from your local farmer."
Through this hyperseasonal dance with farmers, the wilderness, and cultures near and far, Francese feels he's finally found his purpose in cooking: to elevate and share every ingredient as he experiences it, with input from the people who tend, grow, and find the products. He also feels a social responsibility to make good use of a mostly local bounty. He says, "Right now, green bell peppers are dirt cheap, so to use them on the menu, and then to take them while they're in this state of being very cheap and preserving them, pushing that forward – or by turning onions into a powder now instead of buying them in six months when they're very expensive – those are the balancing acts that are small and minute. In the long term, it's an investment. You have to take all that into consideration.
"It costs more money to do things like this," Francese says. "But I genuinely believe this is what long-term sustainability looks like: Creating an environment where everybody has habits and skills to save something from the trash can is what is going to save our food system. It's a balance of what's sustainable for the farmer, the environment, the economy, the consumer, and the employee."
"This is going to be the way for us to live for the next 100 years and for our children to survive. We're a small part of it, but we need to create smaller food systems, instead of having America at large as the food system."
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