Chef Edward Lee hosts the film Fermented, a guide to the art and science of fermentation around the world

Linda Ando & Aya Bisbee
IE Contributors

Seattle is buzzing with the excitement of celebrated Chef Edward Lee and the premiere SIFF showing of ‘Fermented‘ by Zero Point Zero Production, the film company behind ‘Mind of a Chef’ and Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown.’ Chef Lee and director Jonathan Cianfrani take you on a culinary expedition of the senses. Chef Lee introduces viewers to the ancient traditions of fermentation and master artisans of bread, cheese, beer, miso, and soy sauce. Fermented reminds us of this vital aspect of food culture and awakens our insatiable appetite for fermented food.

We sat down with the director, Jonathan Cianfrani, and Chef Edward Lee for insight into the making of Fermented and the art of fermentation.

International Examiner to director Jonathan Cianfrani: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a filmmaker?

Jonathan Cianfrani: I studied film at Boston University. I got out of there and interned wherever I could. I decided to move to New York which is where I got hooked up with Zero Point Zero Films, who produced this film and ‘Mind of a Chef.’ I rose up to producer/director/editor of ‘Mind of a Chef’ and worked on that for four or five years and then I got the opportunity to direct and edit this film with Edward.

IE: Could you tell us more about your work with ‘Mind of a Chef ‘and how that influenced the development of Fermented?

JC: There is DNA embedded in Fermented that is tied to ‘Mind of a Chef.’ There’s nothing we can do about it. Edward was a host of half of season three [of ‘Mind of a Chef’]. ‘Mind of a Chef’ is peering into Edward’s mind, what inspires him, where he gets his influences. This one is more like he’s the host. He’s taking us on the journey rather than us going on a journey into his head. So he’s kind of asking questions for us. He’s simplifying things for us. He’s simplifying complicated processes by asking direct questions which he might know the answer to, but he’s doing it for the benefit of the viewer. So he’s taking on a different role as host rather than as subject.

IE: How did the concept to make a film about fermentation come about?

JC: We loved working with Edward on ‘Mind of a Chef’ and we had all been in touch with him since that aired. We went back and forth on maybe we could do something again in the future. He was in town one day for a food event. He came into the office with a stack of cocktail napkins with about 30 ideas on them, all about fermentation. He said, “I really want to do something about fermentation.” We said that sounds like a great idea. We just worked together to come up with a storyline, and figure out subjects, and who we wanted to film with, and where we wanted to go, and just launched into it.

IE: What were the challenges in making the film and striking the balance between the science and art of fermentation?

JC: I’d say the biggest challenge, from a visual perspective, is everything happens in vats underground, in darkness. On top of that, it’s all on a microscopic level, so you don’t see the change and we don’t have time to sit there for three months while it’s changing. The hardest part of this was figuring out how to compress time and make it visually appealing. And also how to keep the story engaging because beer in a stainless steel vat fermenting is not inherently interesting. To me, what ended up becoming interesting were the people who were doing it. It was really about the things that they’re doing, but mostly who they are. And getting to know what perspective a beer maker has on fermentation versus a cheese maker. Two different personalities. Two different processes. It’s two different ways to look at the world. I think it’s interesting that they’re all doing something with fermentation, but they all have a different perspective on what it means to them.

IE: How does fermentation represent a philosophy and attitude toward life and food?

JC: It’s about not wasting. If you have a whole harvest of vegetables, you can’t eat them all before they go rotten. You can give them away, but you’re still going to have stuff left over. You have to figure out ways to preserve it. I think it’s a way of preservation. It also helps to enhance health benefits of those raw ingredients. The chemical reactions that are happening a lot of times create new nutrients. It’s about preservation of ingredients, but also preservation of culture. The ingredients and the techniques are passed down from one generation to another. You have to keep that line alive. Just like with fermented ingredients. It’s like the mother in bread. People have mothers that are one hundred years old, two hundred years old. It just keep passing down from one generation to the next. From a cultural perspective, it’s a way to keep that going.

IE: What is the stigma of fermentation that you would like to dispel?

JC: I think people are afraid of doing something wrong that’s going to make them sick. And there’s a way you can get sick if you do it wrong. But there are very simple things you can do to have it done safely, effectively, and deliciously. One of the main things we tried to do with this film was demystify it and have people walk away from it saying I can do it, I’m not afraid to do it. We’re not trying to answer all the questions about fermentation in this film, we’re really just trying to give an introductory course and show many of the different things you can do with it. It’s very complicated, but you don’t need to know all that to do it. You just follow the rules, and it’ll do the work for you. That was kind of the message we wanted to give.

IE: What did you take away in the process of making this film and what do you hope audiences will take away?

JC: I started not knowing what fermentation was and that was what drew me to it—trying to answer for myself, what is fermentation? I’ve heard so much about it, I’ve seen it, I don’t know what it is. Trying to answer that question for myself, I hope that Edward and I were able to help to answer that question for the audience in an engaging, fun, entertaining, but not to serious way.

IE: After making this film, what would the part 2 of Fermented feature or focus on?

JC: There is not a plan right now, but if people like it, maybe we should think about it. I would go throw a dart on a map and go there. It’s everywhere. Every continent, every country, has their own fermentation culture. Morocco, West Africa would be a lot of fun. I think that would be a great place to start. Exploring China would be great, exploring Scandinavia, Appalachia, all those would be fun.

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International Examiner to Chef Edward Lee: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming a chef?

Edward Lee: I grew up in Brooklyn and I’ve been cooking since I was a little kid, so I’ve always known I wanted to be a chef. When I got to New York, I started cooking in summer jobs when I was sixteen and after college, I kind of went into it full time.

IE: What is your earliest memory of eating fermented food?

EL: My grandmother made kimchi, so that’s probably the first thing I had that was fermented.  There was always kimchi in the house.

IE: Could you talk about your philosophy on food as a window into our culture and who we are?

EL: In this day and age, I think food is very important to everyone. I think culturally, we look at food to figure out who our identity is. So I may be Korean, but I also love Southern food. I think that the foods that you eat or the foods that you cook say a lot about who you are.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that your heritage is your favorite food.  I think more and more people are becoming aware of what you put into your body. So what you eat says a lot about who you are.

IE: How has your ethnic/cultural identity influenced your life and your work in the culinary world?

EL:  I cook a lot with Asian flavors.  I don’t cook traditional Korean food and I never have, and I never will.  But it informs a lot of decisions I make, so I see a lot of Korean ingredients going into different foods. It makes my food more diverse.

IE: Louisville, Kentucky is not a place we often associate with a large population of Asian Americans. Tell us about your experience as an Asian American living in Kentucky and introducing Asian flavors to a southern palate.

EL: I think with media, and especially with food TV, I don’t think that there’s any part of the country that’s isolated anymore. So even for the people of Kentucky, they may not have a lot of experience with Asian food, but they know about it through TV and media. Even if they haven’t tasted a lot of it, they still are familiar with it and they want to taste it. So it’s actually not been a struggle at all.  I’ve always felt like people, if anything, were very hungry for it. That they want it. And I’ve found that to be anywhere that you go. Food media has made the world a small place.

IE: Your approach to share the “science” behind the food was really cool as well as introducing the amazing artisans making cheese, bread, kimchi, miso and soy sauce. Can you talk about the role of science in the art of fermentation in the culinary world?

EL: We really let the people talk. We didn’t tell them what to say. It’s what they wanted to say. We thought they were going to talk more scientifically, but most people talked very culturally. We weren’t expecting that, but had no script. We just let people talk, so that was a pleasant surprise.

IE: What are your thoughts of fermentation as a new trend and the challenge of preserving the cultural traditions of indigenous communities?

EL: What I always say about fermentation is, fermentation existed a long time ago because we needed to preserve food. Because we didn’t have refrigerators or canning or anything. In the modern world, we don’t really need fermentation anymore because we have modern, industrial ways of packaging food.  And the fact that it still exists and not only does it exist, but it’s thriving, means that we still need fermentation. Maybe not to preserve food, but along the way, we’ve realized that our body needs fermentation. I think we’re seeing a whole generation of young, home cooks and chefs, and everyone realizing that fermentation is not just out of necessity, but it’s because our body actually desires it and needs it. So it’s very important to our survival as humans.

IE: How does fermentation represent a philosophy and attitude toward life and food?

EL: Well that’s a big question. I don’t have the answer to that. I just think that a lot of it is about having patience and being able to make things from scratch. And don’t always take the short cuts.  Fermentation takes time, but you get rewarded by it.

IE: It is humbling to know traditions and knowledge of fermentation is being passed on from generations for over 120 years, like soy sauce artisans.  How do you see yourself passing on the knowledge and traditions onto your children or in the community?

EL: Well, I definitely want to pass it on to my daughter and also through my chefs. I think we are realizing that this is not just something that was done for preservation. We need it. It makes us healthier.

IE: In the world that we live in today where there is an increased hostility towards immigrants and refugees and others, do you feel food can be a peacemaker between people and nations and if so, why?

EL: Yeah, of course I believe that. If you like food, if you like to learn and explore then you realize that there’s many cultures out there. I think through food you can really understand another person’s culture. That’s really important.

IE: Can you talk about your work in the community to create “social change” and empowering youth with life skills and job opportunities in the food industry. Why is this an important part of your life?

EL: I grew up very poor and people helped me along the way. Not just my parents, but like strangers that I met helped me along the way. I think at a certain point when you get to a certain level of success, you look back at your life and you realize that not all the success I had in life was my own. People helped me along the way, people who didn’t need to help me. And so when you get to a certain level, you realize that it’s my duty now to help other people in whatever ways I can. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, but I can put it out there. And there are people that helped me, that I don’t even think they realize they were. They were just randomly doing things for me and so by the same token, I think I just try and help people along the way. And it’s not my life’s work, but I do what I can. And if it means some young person’s life is going to change because of what I do for them, then that’s a good thing. I think we pass that on, just like we pass on culinary recipes to our next generation, we should also pass on charity and kindness and help.

IE: What are you currently working on? Could you tell us about your upcoming projects?

EL: The next thing is we’re opening a restaurant in Washington, D.C. And then we’re opening a whiskey bar in Louisville. So that’s the two big things we’re working on.

IE: What are some of your favorite sites and foods here in the Pacific Northwest? Would you ever consider opening a restaurant on the West Coast?

EL: I actually spent the day exploring Scandinavian food and the history of Scandinavia. I was in Ballard and we went to a store called Scandinavian Specialties and then we went to a couple bakeries, and then a really cool place called The Old Ballard Aquavit store, so they sell homemade aquavit. It was a really fun day just to get a sense of the history of Seattle.

IE: How do you manage being a business person, a chef, having restaurants and having a family?

EL: It’s not easy, it’s not easy. It’s a hard balance. But hopefully you hire good people that all believe in the same vision that you have, so that’s the most important thing that I do. I hire people who share my passion and my vision.

A big takeaway from the film is that anyone can practice fermentation, start with Sandor Katz’s simple “kraut chi.”

Follow Fermented at fermentedfilm.com and Chef Lee on Twitter @chefedwardlee.

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