Soured ramps? Chocolate sauerkraut cake? The menu at a recent "preservation" dinner at Black Market may sound challenging, but for fermentation fans who attended the meal and a pre-dinner workshop with food preservation expert Michaela Hayes, it was a sweet deal.
Hayes, founder of Brooklyn-based Crock & Jar, was in town at the request of Black Market co-owner Ed Rudisell, who has been corresponding with Hayes since he read a story in The New York Times in 2010 that mentioned the pickling expert. He has been hoping to entice her to Indianapolis to present a workshop since before Black Market opened, he said.
"We just didn't know exactly how or when we'd be able to do it," he said, "or if Black Market would end up being the kind of place where we could draw someone like her."
Apparently, it is. Hayes' April 30 workshop sold out, and the dinner was certainly a talker. She worked with Black Market executive chef and co-owner Micah Frank to create a menu that included ginger beer, a Vietnamese fish soup with soured ramp greens, spicy dumplings, a deconstructed tempeh reuben, ginger-pickled beets with potatoes, yogurt and beef sausage and chocolate sauerkraut cake with coconut kefir ice cream.
Hayes now leads her company, Crock & Jar, as chief food preservationist, but when Rudisell first emailed her, she was working at New York's Gramercy Tavern on the "pickling station," a position that Gramercy executive chef/partner Michael Anthony created for her. The spot allowed her to explore the possibilities of fermentation and food preservation.
"The restaurant was my playground in a way," Hayes said.
She started out pickling a variety of ingredients, things like chard stems that might otherwise be thrown away. She experimented with different varieties of sauerkraut, then moved on to kimchi, even though she figured there wasn't much chance of getting it on the menu. "But they used it," she said.
Still, there wasn't a universal appreciation for her pickled and fermented creations. "There were some cooks who were super psyched about the pickles and ran with them," she said. "Others, it was really challenging for them to think about how to use these on the menu."
For Hayes, a 42-year-old Kansas City native who has a background in art, pickles and other fermented foods were "another paint on your palette." After leaving Gramercy Tavern, Hayes and her wife relocated temporarily to California in 2010. But fermentation was everywhere there, and Hayes resolved to bring it back to make her mark on the East coast.
So she took a business course, then launched her company, Crock & Jar, in summer 2011. Hayes started by selling sauerkraut, which she says is a good entry point for the fermentation-curious. "It's a great canvas," she said. "If you mix cabbage with salt, it will pretty much take care of itself. It's pretty forgiving. You can use that cabbage as a base, and then add whatever flavor profiles that you want to."
Hayes demonstrated how to make pickled ramps and a chili and turmeric sauerkraut at the Black Market workshop. She says interest in fermentation continues to grow: "I feel like people are getting more in touch with their food system. I think people are getting more and more excited."
Rudisell certainly is. He and Hayes have already talked about another workshop and dinner at Black Market, perhaps making it an annual event. "It's something that we're really interested in and passionate about," he said. "There are so many avenues to take for future workshops."
Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JKetzenberger.