By Jolene Ketzenberger
Soured ramps? Chocolate sauerkraut cake? The menu at Wednesday’s special dinner at Black Market may sound challenging, but for fermentation fans attending the meal and a pre-dinner workshop with food preservation expert Michaela Hayes, it’s a sweet deal.
Hayes, founder of Brooklyn-based Crock & Jar, is 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’ workshop is sold out, and the dinner is sure to be a talker. Hayes has worked at New York’s Gramercy Tavern on the “pickling station,” a position that Gramercy executive chef/partner Michael Anthony created for her.
“The restaurant was my playground in a way,” Hayes said when I talked to her last week. She started out pickling a variety of ingredients, things like chard stems that might otherwise be thrown away. She then 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, who has a background in art, “It was another paint on your palette.”
The 42-year-old Kansas City native has been cooking since 2003, she said. “Before that I was in commercial photography,” she said. “I’m a career changer.”
But once she discovered food preservation, she was hooked. “I started with canning,” she said. “Fermentation was a natural step.”
After leaving Gramercy Tavern, Hayes and her wife relocated temporarily to California in 2010 for an agro-ecology program. Fermentation was everywhere in California, she said. “I wanted to bring it more to the East Coast.”
So Hayes took a business course and launched her company, Crock & Jar, in the summer of 2011. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “At that point I was ready to go.”
She sold her first jar in November of that year. “When I see it in the store, I’m excited,” Hayes said. “It’s still exciting.”
She started Crock & Jar with sauerkraut, which she says is an easy way for the fermentation curious to get started. “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, who said she enjoys spreading the word about pickling and fermentation, will be demonstrating several techniques during Wednesday’s workshop, including a couple of types of sauerkraut. “I call it a ‘gateway fermentation,’” she said. “I like to show people how easy it is to do it at home. I love the teaching part.”
And the interest continues to grow, she said. “It’s becoming a groundswell now,” Hayes said. “I feel like people are getting more in touch with their food system. I think people are getting more and more excited.”
As for the dinner, Hayes has been working with Black Market executive chef and co-owner Micah Frank to create a menu that will include ginger ale, a Vietnamese fish soup with soured ramp greens, spicy dumplings, a deconstructed tempeh reuben, ginger-pickled beets with potatoes, yogurt and beef sausage, and, yes, chocolate sauerkraut cake with coconut kefir ice cream.
“This one has been really fun to do,” said Hayes. “I’ve been madly texting back and forth with chef Micah.”