Waaaay back in February of 2020, before the pandemic hit NYC and CT, Alex and I spent a weekend filming with my former college roommate and dear friend, Chef Ken Fornataro. "Kenny" (I think I'm the only person who still calls him that) used to cook fabulous meals in our dorm kitchen.
In addition to my attraction to his culinary skills, Ken and I also bonded over our mutual passion for social justice. Our freshman year, we fought for gay rights and protested against Tropicana's choice of homophobic Anita Bryant as their spokesperson.
(Anita Bryant getting pied in the face by gay rights activist Tom Higgins.)
Ken left college at 19 to become the head chef of the world-famous Hermitage Restaurant in Boston. There he met and worked with some of the avant-garde of the food world. He learned macrobiotics from the masters - Michio and Aveline Kushi. Thus began his exploration into the art of Asian fermentation, which he has passionately expanded upon over the decades.
(Aveline and Michio Kushi, macrobiotic advocates and founders of Erehwon - "nowhere" spelled backwards - one of the first health food stores in the US.)
In the mid-1980's, ever the activist, Ken formed The Network, which became home to The Access Project, a database of Aids information that connected patients with clinical trials and affordable treatment options. I served on his board for over two decades, until the organization merged with NYC's Housing Works several years ago.
That merger gave Ken the time to begin his next social venture, Cultures.Group, a platform from which he hosts specialized webinars and Meetup groups and posts almost-daily videos of his koji, sake, miso, shio-koji, natto, pickling and scores of other research and recipes. The day he dropped his iphone into a vat of moto (sake yeast starter) while filming, I realized that perhaps I could help make his culinary science more accessible to a wider audience.
(Ken's koji and shio koji products)
Alex and I had been kicking around the idea of creating a culinary video series of our own. Our experiences in the food world included founding the first certified organic poultry and game bird farm on the East coast (Animal Farm), winning awards for Martha Stewart and Lidia Bastianich's TV series', and producing the independent documentary film Two Angry Moms, about connecting children with their food. I am also a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Alex is a darn good French chef.
We wanted to focus on the culinary artistry as well as the science of traditional and non-traditional ways of preserving, preparing and curing foods for enhanced nutrition, flavor and health. We decided to name our series Cultured & Cured. Both words have double meanings, and together they embrace the spirit of what we hope to bring to the world. We want to convey the pleasure in the making process, the immediate gratification of delicious cuisine, and the long-term benefits of a balanced micro-biome and good health. We didn't have to search very far for our first guest expert.
Watch our our first full episode!
Ken shows Amy how to make a flavor-enhanced meal using koji-coated mushrooms in kasha varnishkas, served with sautéed golden beets and lamb chops spiced with coriander, black pepper, cinnamon and his powerfully pungent powdered mushroom miso. We'll soon release an extended segment that demonstrates the full process of making the koji-coated mushrooms. And more segments that explain the basics of koji and what to do with it.
Ken's work is complicated. He's a microbiologist, an artist, a chef, and an overall brilliant person. It's a challenge to communicate the essence, the results and the replicability of all his research. But Alex and I are story-tellers. And TV producers. So we packed all our gear into the Prius, and set up a multi-camera studio in Ken's lab in NYC. It was a long, chaotic, exhausting weekend for the three of us.
We emerged with enough material for several shows. Coming Soon: Shio-koji overnight pickles, miso from scratch, and, because it was Super Bowl Sunday, miso barbecued chicken wings, baby greens with miso dressing, and a surprise favorite, miso butter croissants.
Watch Ken make a Four Cultures Golden Beet Borscht
A couple of weeks later, Ken came to CT for ten days, and set up a lab in our home kitchen. We filmed a few more shows and segments, and we learned some of his koji-making secrets. We made mushroom koji, chickpea koji coated with sorghum, brown rice koji, koji chicken, shio-koji sautéed broccolini, preserved lemons, and pickled Asian vegetables. We now have three jars of soy sauce marinating on our countertop, ready next winter.
There's still time to sign up for Chef Ken's ZYMES 2020 Zoom Conference on May 23! It's a 9-hour, multi-part event, and you can register for all or part of it. Featuring some of the world's most renown fermenters, brewers and curers. https://cultures.group/register/
Then came a global pandemic. Which, if truth be told, was the only way in hell we would have ever had the time to stay put and edit this material. I was let go from the Executive Producer gig I had just started with an agency. Alex had recently completed his sixth season editing a show for Discovery. The universe was reminding us that life is short and precious. We dove in and began the process of branding and editing Cultured & Cured.
As we dug into the rich content with Chef Ken, Alex and I were inspired to document some of our own culinary endeavors. The discovery of a field of wild leeks in April led to the launch of another series of Cultured & Cured videos - The Quarantine Edition. We filmed ourselves pickling ramps using a sous-vide technique, making ramps pesto, cooking a 10-minute pasta dish with ramps, preparing seeds for planting, and curing cast iron pots and pans. This week we'll be attempting to grow pears in bottles.
We're now editing both Ken's series and our Quarantine Edition, and filming more of our at-home projects. There's still many more hours of material to sort through. We're having a blast. As long as we can, we'll keep putting out content. Our goal is to release two short segments each week, and one feature show (15 - 20 minutes) every month.
It's frustrating though to work without a crew, a food stylist, or post-production assistance (and we would really appreciate a bit of hair and make-up help). And we're eager to travel again to film the work of fermentation, brewing and curing innovators in Nashville, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and L.A. We would love to partner with a sponsor, another production company or a network that could help us make these series' as visually and emotionally powerful as we know they can be. For now, we're making do with the resources we have. We hope you find these videos entertaining and inspiring.
For more information about Cultured & Cured, please visit our webpage.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.