Creativity is Brewing at St. John’s College Fermentation Station
- by Peter Todaro
Bon Appétit’s Michael Cleary got started in the restaurant industry in the early aughts, when a new farm-to-table zeitgeist was dawning in the United States.
Working under Georges Perrier, the celebrated French chef and émigré to Philadelphia, he was immediately hooked. Michael began working at Restaurant Nora, the first Certified Organic restaurant in Washington D.C., and later at Whole Foods, the then upstart natural grocer, as a Research and Development Chef. In each role Michael pushed the farm-to-table envelope, always testing the limits of what was possible in the kitchen.
When Michael joined Bon Appétit as the Executive Chef of St. John’s College in 2010, he brought his forward-thinking approach with him. He and the St. John’s team have long wowed students with eclectic dishes. In recent years, house-pickled vegetables have filled the salad bar and alongside creative vegan and vegetarian entrées, a weekly local chicken wing special has been a big hit with students.
Engaging with students about food has been a priority, too. In 2012, Michael saw an opportunity to partner with student interns on the creation of a food blog, which they dubbed Formaggio Electrico [Electric Cheese]. The long-running blog provides an opportunity for interns to explore food writing. They share stories, recipes, and even write-ups about specials served in the Higgins Dining Hall. The blog has had the additional benefit of allowing the team to learn from international students, many of whom have shared recipes which have later been served in the dining hall. But with the onset of COVID-19, and the many adjustments to new safety precautions and service styles that followed, student internships and the blog were put on hiatus.
Michael and the Team Get Funky
As St. John’s gears up for a return to a new normal this semester, Michael and the team have been hard at work on a new project, one that continues to push the envelope. Taking inspiration from the positive feedback they received about their pickled vegetables at the salad bar, as well as the likes of Sandor Katz, and the Noma Guide to Fermentation, the team plans to unveil a new fermentation station in the dining hall this fall.
Michael, Executive Chef Michael Berard, Catering Manager Sylvia Wilkerson, and Sous Chef Kenny Tribbet have spent the latter half of the summer creating a funky assortment of house-pickled and fermented dishes, including pickled peaches, lacto-fermented radishes, dill carrots, and kimchi, all with vegetables from local food aggregator Lancaster Farm Fresh. Following Bon Appétit’s stringent safety guidelines, all of the dishes are cold-fermented.
Because of the team’s focus on local, seasonal vegetables, they make new products depending on what is being harvested each week. Currently, a flush of hot and sweet peppers from Pennsylvania farmers means that local hot sauces will be served during the weekly local chicken wing special when students return to campus. In the months to come, the team will begin making inventive misos and kojis to spice up vegan and vegetarian dishes on campus.
Beyond simply serving students delicious probiotic-rich vegetables, the fermentation station possesses a broader educational and community-oriented mission. Michael aims to rehire student interns and rebrand Formaggio Electrico as a fermentation blog. He is also sponsoring the creation of a “kimchi club” on campus, which will entail gathering together with students, many of whom are originally from Korea, to try kimchi recipes new and old.
With care and time, students and the Bon Appétit team at St. John’s College will continue to cultivate a delicious and creative dining program together.