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The Secret Ingredient is the Process Itself
Barry Schwartz on Tempeh
I used to go to my local farmer’s market on Sunday and I’d see this guy extremely chilling. He’d set up his booth with some freshly-cooked tempeh samples and maybe something else he was working on, like an edamame dip, and then he’d hang a camping hammock from some trees and just chill between customers.
I eventually learned his name and that his eponymous tempeh business, Barry’s Tempeh, has a devout if quiet following in the city. It’s the only fresh tempeh made in NYC and it’s truly lightyears beyond the pasteurized stuff you get at the grocery store. It tastes like whatever beans he’s using (soybeans, or adzuki, or chickpeas) and, as he describes below, it’s got a nice texture that only needs a little frying to be ready to eat. Lagusta Yearwood, who spoke to me last month about tempeh, is a Barry’s tempeh fan, and it was one of the main ingredients of in niiice buns, my early pandemic business. Last year I helped out on some of his production shifts to see the magic of vast quantities of grains and beans being turned out mycelium-bound bricks.
Unfortunately he’s not selling his tempeh directly to consumers anymore. I’m trying to get a tempeh workshop set up in partnership with the New York Mycological Society, and will let you know when that happens. For now, I hope you enjoy this interview that’s nominally about tempeh but more about a life leading up to it and through it.
And if anyone knows of production space, in the metropolitan area or upstate, Barry is looking! (He wants some space to experiment with mycelium furniture-making, because that’s the sort of thing he does.)
I’m interested in growth, as far as food goes. And the potential of food to change. Because that's what fermentation is all about. It's caring for something and watching it evolve. For me, that's what tempeh is. Every batch of tempeh I make requires me to understand it in a different way, to understand its needs in a different way. I'm always learning. I'm always figuring out new ways.
I recently found this Korean farmer who has been trying to grow heritage Korean food here. He's the kindest, most gentle person and he's got a gigantic farm where he mainly grows heritage crops. He has a variety of soybean that makes incredible tempeh. They’re black soybeans, and from what I understand, those are the soybeans that started tempeh-making in Indonesia. When you take the skin off it’s green inside. So the tempeh has got some black in it and green and white from the mycelium. I’ve been doing it for 15 years but this variety is new to me and it’s just gorgeous. I make tempeh out of things other than soybeans, but soy tempeh is the best. The consistency of the bean makes a difference to the mouthfeel. This one seems like it’s more firm and the taste is different.
Kate: Are there other growing things you interact with besides tempeh?
I sometimes work with Koji, which works the opposite of the way tempeh does. Tempeh brings things together and binds them and Koji breaks things apart. Shio koji is sweet and salty and you can actually pickle with it. I just blistered some green tomatoes and onions in the oven, then added them in a jar with shio koji and I'm waiting to see what happens. I've been eating it just like that. But, my tastes aren’t discriminating. Like, I used to make furniture and everything I sat on was comfortable, but other people were much more discriminating and they would let me know. I'm like water. I can eat something and I think it's delicious just because I made it. I recently made a bouillon out of over-fermented tempeh and onions and garlic. I thought it was good, but I shared it with my roommate and she gagged. [He laughs.] I’m always playing. I’m always stretching what I know.
K: How did you go from making furniture to making tempeh?
I happened to live in Northern California and I didn't really have a viable way to make a living. An American Indian took me under his wing and taught me how to make twig furniture. It doesn't require much, I’d go into the woods and cut down trees and bend them into furniture, bring them to the Bay Area and sell them. Then I came to New York and I had a friend in the 70s that had a gigantic tempeh business. At that time there were a lot of macrobiotics, that's when a lot of people learned about tempeh. I don't think he was charging enough — he lasted about three years and then went out of business. Then I became an EMT, and I was a nurse for a Socialist Youth Movement camp in upstate New York. It was boring because they never got sick. They didn’t really play sports, they were intellectual kids. I was kind of the camp mother. I started playing with tempeh there.
My next job was being a chef at a yoga ashram and that’s where my attraction to food really started. They asked me where I wanted to work, and I told them the kitchen, and I learned a little and I took it really far. I would study all day so that at night when I cooked, I could make a really elaborate, beautiful meal. The beauty of the yoga ashram is they weren't depending on that for income, so there wasn't any pressure on [making money]. So it was a magical place to make food. I was super popular, people would come to my meals, it would draw people to the ashram. And that's where I finalized my tempeh process and then I decided that it had to come to Brooklyn.
I’ve been [making tempeh] now for 15 years. Being in the food business is not an easy business. I see food manufacturers making food because it's a romantic idea. They're not counting their profit and loss and they don't last. I work in an incubator kitchen that's supposed to teach people how to get their business off the ground, but I would say 80% of the people that come in there go out of business within a year.
K: How did you stay in business?
Because I didn't have to make money. I love doing what I do and I stuck it out because I had money behind me. I'm making money now. But it took years. I’ve figured out how to make about 2000 pounds a night, but it's because I make 4-pound packs. I don't make individual pounds anymore. I make it for food service and one company buys probably two-thirds of everything. But I've outlived my stay at the entrepreneur space, so I'm scouting for a new production place.
K: So would you say your secret ingredient is tempeh or the soybeans that make it?
My ingredient is change. My ingredient is taking something to begin with and changing it. It could be soybeans or my most popular tempeh ingredient, adzuki bean. I'm still a big meditator. I sometimes get caught up in thinking about an ingredient and bring it into my meditation, and it all changes as I move through whatever I’m doing. Meditation is really about giving yourself a blank slate. Ideally, your mind is kind of quiet, you're not resting on anything, but you're always thinking, so it'll be the beginning of a seed.
Which, speaking of seeds, sunflower seeds are my next passion. I'm making a sunflower seed hummus that's super delicious. I want to make a cheese. People make cheese from cashews, but everything a cashew can do, a sunflower seed can do and it's local and it’s cheap. I’m really enamored by the sunflower seed, that it has so much potential. It could either become a flower or become a food.
So, it’s change, or it’s taking an ingredient and looking at it differently to change your relationship to it. That's my ingredient.
What I’m Cooking
Inspired by Barry, I tried tweaking a vegan brownie recipe I’ve been working on for awhile to use sunflower butter. I think the result is perfect: it’s rich and very chocolatey, but has a wonderful soft and slightly chewy texture. I like to bake it in cupcake tins so that every brownie is a corner piece.