9th April 2020

Food / Mike Keen

Food, Life & Fermentation by Chef Mike Keen

12 7 mins 0

Chef Mike Keen is not afraid of flavour. Born in Colchester but brought up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, Mike got a taste for exotic tastes and adventurous cooking at an early age. He definitely pushes the boundaries of normal taste buds, once famously putting pickled sardine ice cream on his Feast menu at The Good Life Experience. He is an expert on fermenting, curing and smoking. He can rig up a makeshift smoker in a matter of minutes.

Fermented foods are really hitting the spotlight at the moment, due to myriad of healthy bacteria benefitting our guts. Mike explains four top reasons as to why fermentation makes food good and why we should always be questioning the status quo.

My road to fermentation came about as a slow realisation over many years spent in the hospitality industry. The more I worked in different countries, with local chefs, watching the style of cooking they employed, it struck me that there were two warring methodologies at play. 

Nearly all were governed officially by a regional and national environmental health policy conforming to the same principles; governing temperature of food at prep, storage and cooking points, personal hygiene, contamination and the time constraints at each level. Too many times, food was binned because it had hit its “Use By” date despite it smelling or tasting ok. Whilst experimenting with curing meats in England around the early 2000s I kept running up against Environmental Health. They had no policy, regulations or advice about curing meats and as a professional chef I couldn’t get permission to cure my own meats in a commercial operation. This was clearly crazy! No officer could explain why it was ok for me to buy meat that had been cured in Italy, outside the regulation temperatures let alone way beyond the usual time constraints. 

At this point, I was starting to give food demos at festivals and teaching at cookery schools which involved a certain amount of research. I was often looking at how techniques came about, what people did before the advent of electricity and all that the industrial revolution brought. What did restaurants and commercial food operations -let alone the domestic user- do before fridges?! The domestic electric fridge has only been a serious player in home for less than a hundred years. In Britain alone, only 2% of households had a fridge in 1948. This was a massive moment for me, looking back, I find it amazing that it took so long! 

So, what did people do before fridges? They preserved! There are a whole bunch of ways to preserve food: salting, smoking, drying being well known. But the big player is fermentation. Coffee, chocolate, salami, bread, cheese, beer and wine are all products that go through fermentation. And what’s the common thread running through these foods? They’re all perceived as luxury items and dominate the Best Foods of All Time list. I’d now add a second batch of products to the fermentation list: kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, kvass, kimchi, sauerkraut. These are all mainstream foods now and are widely recognised to be super healthy for you. But what is it about fermentation that enables this stuff to be turned into delicious foods?

Here are my four main reasons. 

1) It unlocks nutrients and vitamins that would otherwise be biologically unavailable to us. Fermentation effectively pre-digests foods for us making it way easier for us to access the goodness. Soy wouldn’t be digestible without fermentation. 

2) Preservation. Left alone, a cabbage will rot and turn horrible pretty quickly. But chop it, salt it and submerge it in its own juice and it’ll last for months due to the presence of lactic acid bacteria (which are present on pretty much all vegetables and fruit). 

3) Fermentation boosts the microbiome because it produces probiotics. These add to and assist our microbiome (the vast ecosystem of bacteria that lives in our gut). We’re only just starting to understand the incredible and diverse methods which different bacteria employ to keep us healthy, not only in our digestive system but they also play a really important role in maintaining the status quo in a healthy immune and psychological system. 

4) Taste! Fermentation makes food taste better. Just as a by product of all the above. I don’t think that’s a happy coincidence either, nature making something taste better means that we’re more likely to eat it. It’s nature’s way of trying to get us to eat the foodstuffs that will keep us healthy and living longer. 

Good bacteria works in harmony with our bodies, interacting and assisting our own gut zoo of bacteria that we have developed as a species.

Mike Keen

Fermenting is a natural process and one that humans have lived with for tens of thousands of years. Good bacteria works in harmony with our bodies, interacting and assisting our own gut zoo of bacteria that we have developed as a species. But humans being clever and forever mucking about with stuff means that pretty much instantly (on an evolutionary scale) we decimated our bacteria with antibiotics as we moved away from traditional techniques and invested all our foodie futures in the fridge. Discarding thousands of years of evolutionary improvement! 

 

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Mike Keen is a chef, based in Suffolk but cooks around the world. Mike got a taste for exotic tastes and adventurous cooking at an early age and definitely pushes the boundaries of normal taste buds, once famously putting pickled sardine ice cream on his Feast menu at The Good Life Experience. He is an expert on fermenting, curing and smoking. He can rig up a makeshift smoker in a matter of minutes.

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