Meet the Mad Scientists Playing with Ferments in Minneapolis

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: John Notman Photography)

Welcome to Kitchn’s series Kitchn Crush, where we highlight some of the coolest, most inspiring people in food you need to know about right now.

Ky and Mel, two sisters from South Dakota, are attempting to crack open the space between restaurant and lifestyle brand. Their fermented food laboratory, GYST, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was probably best-known for their fermentation bar, which served things like miso caramel corn, peanut butter and kimchi sandwiches, and of course kombucha and wine. But the sisters recently closed down regular service (it’s still open for workshops, classes, and private events) to explore other ideas.

There’s Ky’s research with the University of Minnesota, for starters, where she’s looking to see how different fermented vegetables affect your gut. And Mel is excited to be working on a “Meet the Winemaker” series, which connects winemakers directly to the GYST community members. They’ve even recently hosted fitness classes at the fermentation bar that end in a glass or two of wine (my personal favorite idea).

I spent time with Ky and Mel to talk about their favorite fermentation projects and the ingredients they’re most excited about right now.

GYST seems to be a lot of things. How do you describe it people?

Ky: Mel and I are moving into a little bit of a different model now that we’ve been open for five years. We are working toward a new model for a food and drink business — one that is less about being open for service and more about creating more meaningful conversations and connections.

We’ve decided to embark on our original vision for GYST as a creative food business by developing new workshops, recipes, dedicated experiences, and educational partnerships that share our love and quest for knowledge around fermentation.

What got you into fermentation?

Mel: It feels like fermentation found us. We moved to Minneapolis always thinking that GYST would be a simple cheese and wine bar, but we wanted great chocolate and good coffee and kombucha featured on our menu. Plus, we always knew we wanted pickles on our cheese boards to cut through the fat of the cheese. So we started making both quick vinegar pickles and fermented ones. And our fermented vegetables just kind of took off from there.

The more we experimented with fermentation, the more excited we became. We played with different flavors and vegetables. It’s not just kimchi and sauerkraut, but carrots, radishes, beets, kohlrabi — all of them! The daikon with chili on a burger is so good. Or on our pepperoni pizza. It’s amazing.

Tell me a little about the work you’re doing with the University of Minnesota?

Ky: As a fermenter, I’ve always been curious about the microbial diversity of different vegetables. So this got me thinking: Do carrots have a different microbiome than cabbage? Carrots tend to be a little bit more yeast-y when we ferment them. How is it different from beets? Every vegetable has a different nutrient profile and I want to explore how the nutrients, phytochemicals, and microbes all interact. As a researcher, I get excited thinking of how we might be able to treat disease with microbial foods, but there’s so much more to learn.

So, basically how the different vegetables affect your gut?

Ky: Yes. Since cabbage ferments are widely available, we are beginning with cabbage and will be studying the microbial composition of sauerkraut produced from cabbage that grew from both conventional and organic soils in Minnesota. Our goal is to continue to explore different vegetable ferments and how soil health may affect their microbial diversity.

We are also studying how these ferments may affect human health. We are conducting a pilot study looking at the gut microbiome of people who regularly consume lacto-fermented vegetables and comparing them to people who never include them in their diet. We would like to see if we find any difference in the gut microbiome, although this is tricky because there are so many confounding factors that can affect the gut microbiome, like exercise, stress level, and sleep.

I’m also interested in putting these questions into the context of our food system. After World War II, food was all about economy – how can we produce more with less money? Technology like herbicides and pesticides allowed us to produce more, faster. Health departments also became more strict on cleanliness. In fact, we became more and more “clean” as a society. The ’90s was a decade known for its war on microbes. We were a country of sanitizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, which, like it or not, has become a part of our agricultural system. So I’d like to think about the results of our study in the context of our history. Scientists and doctors think this history may have a lot to do with the increase in allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, and autoimmune diseases.

What are some misconceptions people have about fermented foods?

Mel: That they’re stinky or mushy.

Ky: Right, I think people don’t realize that things like cheese and chocolate and coffee and bread are fermented.

Mel: People also think fermentation is unsafe at home — especially if you’re new to fermenting. There’s a fear around mold.

Ky: People are scared that their food is alive.

What flavors and ingredients are you excited about right now?

Right now we love our mokum carrots (from our local producers, Twin Organics) that we ferment with leek and thyme. They add the perfect dimension to crisp green salads and we recommend using some of the brine for a salad dressing.

Have there been any ferments that you tried and totally failed?

Ky: I’ve always wanted to get to a good place with fermented eggplant — we’ve tried it a couple of times and I just couldn’t get it right.

Mel: It’s a texture and the flavor thing. It’s just not appealing — it’s really mushy. We tried to buzz it up into a baba ganoush, but the flavor just didn’t hit work.

Who are you inspired by right now?

Ky: You know, I’m inspired by a lot of people. But I’d probably have to say my yoga teacher next door at YESS Yoga, Marnie Bounds. She has literally taught us to just follow our joy, and everything will come into place. It’s rare to find that in someone.

Mel: She’s a mentor to both of us. People like to put us in a box (you’re a restaurant!), but she’s inspired us to really follow our joy and not get bogged down in labels.

Ky: GYST is really a lifestyle for us. We’re not chefs, we’re not cooks, but we do want to bring joy into food. We want to make people feel the energy and joy behind every single thing that they consume.

What are you looking forward to in 2019?

Ky: We are excited about the new workshops we have up on our website. Particularly, the “GYST of Fermentation” Interactive Tasting workshop. As I said, a lot of people do not realize that chocolate and coffee go through a fermentation process. In this class, we will talk about and taste our way through everything!