From Barcelona to NYC: A Chef’s Culinary Journey Promoting
Korean Vegetable Fermentation and Plant-Rich Cuisine
When I initially arranged an interview with Chef Jaume Biarnes at the Yondu Culinary Studio in South Street Seaport, I anticipated a brief conversation lasting about 45 minutes. To my surprise, our engaging discussion stretched on for almost two hours, leaving me with a growing list of questions and an insatiable curiosity.
Chef Jaume, drawing from over 25 years of experience in the food industry, is a passionate sharer of knowledge and a trailblazer in culinary research and development, with a particular focus on health and sustainability. His culinary journey began in his hometown of Barcelona, where he honed his skills in various restaurants. He later spent five transformative years at the renowned el Bulli restaurant under the guidance of Chef Ferran Adria. Starting as a Chef de partie, he eventually became a key figure in the creative department, driving the development of innovative culinary techniques.
Following his fine-dining experience, Chef Jaume made a deliberate shift towards community-oriented projects. He joined the Alicia Foundation, an independent non-profit kitchen and research lab, as their Culinary Director. In this role, he led a multidisciplinary team of chefs and scientists, collaborating on projects tailored to local communities, with a strong emphasis on health and sustainability since 2005.
Throughout his illustrious career, Chef Jaume has spearheaded culinary R&D initiatives in collaboration with universities, corporations, and research centers on a global scale. He has also contributed as an author-collaborator to numerous technical publications and the elBulli Restaurant Books (1994-2005).
Today, Chef Jaume serves as the Director of the Yondu Culinary Studio in New York City, a culinary space dedicated to promoting Korean Vegetable Fermentation and fostering healthy, plant-rich eating. At its core is the flagship product, Yondu Vegetable Umami.
During our conversation, I delved into topics centered around how chefs can draw inspiration from diverse global cuisines and elevate the flavors of plant-based dishes.
Chef Jaume, could you briefly explain how the Yondu Culinary Studio is promoting Korean Vegetable Fermentation and your role?
The Yondu Culinary Studio is a test kitchen as well as an event space. We develop new plant-forward recipes using Korean fermented ingredients and we host events centered on cooking delicious vegetables. Our goal is to share the knowledge of Korean soybean fermentation for chefs in the USA to expand their flavor horizons. I work on new product development, creation of new recipes and coordinating culinary events.
A new national survey, Consumer Curiosity Report, showed that consumers are looking for flavor-rich plant-based meals with global influences and are eager for new ways to prepare veggies. How can chefs satisfy this consumer craving?
I think the main challenge for chefs nowadays is to create veggie-centric dishes that are delicious and healthy at the same time. It is difficult to build flavor without animal protein and trying to keep salt, sugar and fat under control.
As consumers, we all struggle with what we know is good for us and what we actually crave. As a chef, I have to find out ways to satisfy both things.
I discovered Korean soybean fermented products 10 years ago and I realized that they could be a very valuable tool to balance out those consumer needs. These products are packed with umami flavor and provide a remarkable depth to any dish, but they are not overpowering and can be used across many cuisine styles, beyond borders.
What’s the biggest challenge with plant-based cooking, and how can chefs overcome it?
Flavor. We all know we have to serve more vegetable options, but the reality is that in many cases they are not selling that well. As chefs, we have to adjust to consumer demands, but always need to go one step further. Nowadays, this step forward is to create delicious vegetable dishes. But for these dishes to be a commercial success we need to figure out how to build flavor without falling in the good-old easy tricks of adding sugar, fat or too many spices. We want to respect the flavor of vegetables as we respect the flavor of a good beef or a delicate fish.
This is the challenge we are facing collectively and individually nowadays. How to create a native vegetable cuisine that highlights vegetable flavors and sells well. In my opinion, we need to move on and overcome the initial phase of meat protein imitation. We need a flavorful native vegetable cuisine.
One of the pleasures of Korean cuisine is the banchan, the serving of usually small vegetable side dishes, set in the middle of the table for sharing. During our conversation, you mentioned that traditional American side dishes could be more exciting with Korean flavor. Could you please explain?
What’s more interesting for me about Korean small side dishes is that the customers get to choose how to combine them on the table. With so many different elements on the table, the flavor and texture combinations are endless, and therefore the meal becomes much more exciting. In a sense, I feel that in a Korean restaurant the customer is “cooking” at the table because they are deciding how to combine the different flavors and textures according to each person’s own preferences.
In Western cuisines, we have had a very rigid structure, centered on the piece of animal protein. We spend so much effort on the quality of animal protein that often times we do not have time to think about the side dishes. In my opinion, vegetable sides are equally important. Even in a steak house, a good combination of crisp, fresh and interesting vegetables can not only make the meal more interesting and fun, but also can make a steak taste even better. When enjoying a good piece of meat, I prefer a crunchy, garlicky and slightly umami broccoli to clean my palate over mushy spinach soaked in rich cream.
I think we can get inspired by Korean side dishes and their secret flavor: soybean fermented ingredients, soy sauce, soybean paste, chili paste, etc.
For 20 years, Sempio, the maker of Yondu, has been focused on selling to Koreans. Now their goal is to cross over to mainstream foodservice and retail under your direction. How are you and your team accomplishing this goal?
Primarily we are focusing on quality. Sempio products have a superior flavor profile. They are all gluten-free and clean label. American consumers, and especially chefs, are well informed and seek for high-standard ingredients. Sempio is the oldest food brand in South Korea. This family-owned company has been mastering the art of soybean fermentation for over 75 years. It is the reference and golden standard for Korean ingredients and we are bringing these products unaltered to the USA market.
In our experience, the best way to win people’s hearts is by trying the products. When it comes to chefs, it is normally very straightforward because chefs have a sense for quality. In retail, we need to do more education, because even with the hype of Korean cuisine –and Korean culture in general- people are still confused with the myriad of different ingredients with long hard-to-remember names. However, it is only a matter of time. I am convinced that like many other products before, from balsamic vinegar to soy sauce, Korean ingredients are destined to be part of our growing flavor toolkit.
Learn more about Yondu Vegetable Umami at the Yondu Official Website.
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Maple glazed veggies with spicy chimichurri
A mix of chili and cilantro that will lively up your vegetables
From Yondu Culinary Studio
Total time: 60 min
Yondu effect: Spicy and umami
Recipe benefits: Delicious Holiday side dish
- 2 lb. mixed fall vegetables, peeled and cut (carrot, turnip, parsnip, cabbage, mini potato, Brussels sprouts)
- 2 Tbsp. Yondu umami sauce
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ¼ cup maple syrup
For the spicy chimichurri:
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 Tbsp. Yondu umami sauce
- 1 tsp gochugaru chili flakes
- 1 tsp Yondu Spicy
- Preheat oven to 400F. On a baking sheet, toss vegetables with with olive oil and Yondu.
- After about 20 minutes, add maple syrup to the vegetables and stir well. Continue cooking for 20 more minutes, or until cooked to your liking.
- Meanwhile make the spicy chimichurri by combining all the chimichurri ingredients in a bowl.
- Serve the maple glazed vegetables tossed with the sauce, or on the side.
Adjust to your preferred heat/spice level last minute by adding a couple extra drops of Yondu Spicy.