When Chef Trevett Hooper prepares fermented food, he’s not just nourishing bodies, he’s nurturing life.
“Canning is preservation through sterilization. There is no life,” Hooper explains. “When you’re fermenting foods, you’re nurturing life. Fermented foods are living foods. Instead of creating an environment where no life can live, you are creating an environment where good bacteria can survive and thrive.”
At Legume, his bistro on North Craig Street in Oakland, the menu, coolers and pantries are filled with pickles, sauerkraut, cherries, tomatoes and other tasty offerings.
The restaurant has served fermented food since it opened in 2007, but ramped up production several years ago after Hooper read a book by Sandor Katz, a writer, activist and “godfather” of the fermented food revival.
Hooper’s goal was to minimize the number of commodity foods he used at Legume and rely instead on local produce. Thanks to fermentation, he can use those farm-fresh foods year-round.
Educating the public about fermentation might be the hardest part of the whole process.
“People might be a little bit scared when they hear the word bacteria,” Hooper says, “but those organisms are essential to good health and digestion. It’s hard to think of a meal in which fermentation didn’t play a part. Chocolate, cheese, coffee, alcohol … it’s in all of these foods we eat and drink all the time.”
To help demystify fermentation, Hooper, along with other local chefs, educators, artists and experts, will participate in the Pittsburgh Fermentation Festival this Sunday.
Held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Spirit in Lawrenceville, the third annual event features contests, panel discussions, workshops, games and interactive stations where guests can make their own sauerkraut, miso and chicha. Founder Justin Lubecki says kids always get a kick out of the mold table, which is covered with cheeses and other foods that have sprouted life.
A potluck dinner and variety show will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center. That’s Lubecki’s favorite part of the whole weekend.
“We have a variety of food-inspired acts, including comedy, plays and acrobatics,” he says. “And we have one really special performance where people will dress up as vegetables.”
Lubecki started fermenting at home years ago.
“It’s basically a natural way of preservation by using the forces of nature,” he says of the ancient practice.
After years of traveling, studying and talking with numerous chefs, he considers himself an authority on the subject. He created the Pittsburgh Fermentation Festival to provide a resource for the city and a central location where people can collaborate and share ideas.
The inaugural affair was put together in about five weeks and generated a lot of interest in the community. Thousands of people turned up for last year’s event.
And there’s a reason the festival is held in the dead of winter — it gets people excited for the spring planting season.
Hooper, who sold kimchi at previous fermentation festivals, will this year participate in a roundtable discussion called Troubleshooting Ferment with Sally Frey, a professor at Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability.
“Anyone can do it,” Hooper says. “All of our ancestors did it. It’s happened in homes and communities for millennia. It may come across as a specialized thing, but it’s not that hard. It just takes a little bit of practice.”