IN JULIE O’Brien and Richard Climenhage’s professional kitchen, the lowly cabbage and the humble carrot are given new spark.
“I like to say this is bionic cabbage,” O’Brien says while standing in Firefly Kitchens in Ballard, surrounded by 55-gallon stainless-steel drums filled with tumbled vegetables, garlic, ginger, Korean pepper and other ingredients for their award-winning kimchi, sauerkraut and “Yin Yang” gingered carrots.
The crisp, refrigerated creations are generally viewed as condiments or acquired tastes. The Firefly owners, though, driven by passion about the potential health benefits of fermented foods, created milder versions than most and aim for them to become dietary fundamentals. At public “fermented happy hours,” at farmers-market tables, at teach-ins and bottling parties with groups of volunteers, O’Brien and Climenhage have tried to educate the public on why and how to add the foods to daily meals. In their cookbook coming out in October, “Fresh & Fermented” (Sasquatch Books, $24.95), they share recipes for everything from their “Emerald City Kraut” made with kale and turmeric to a sauerkraut-spiked chocolate pudding.
The colleagues met over food deliveries from a mutual friend, who said, “I think the two of you are eating the same way. I should introduce you.”
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It turned out to be a timely connection. While the probiotics in fermented foods and their potential nutritional benefits have leapt into the corporate mainstream, a few years ago they were still an outlying niche, considered as hippie-style as whole grains once were.
O’Brien, whose background was in branding and advertising, was studying nutrition when she became convinced that sharing the benefits of fermented foods was the biggest contribution she could make to people’s diets. Climenhage, a former tech worker, became a believer when his heart palpitations vanished after changing his diet. He worked an internship with Three Stone Hearth in California, learning to make “big batches of things” and the basics of the business.
Their starting point: “We don’t have a kitchen, we don’t have any money, how are we going to do this?” O’Brien remembered thinking.
So they began small in 2010, walking into a shared rental kitchen with two 40-pound boxes of vegetables and shredding it all by hand.
“It would take us all night to get through it,” Climenhage recalled.
Farmers-market tables provided a constant source of feedback and customers. People assumed the business was about pickling, which O’Brien calls a “cheating” shortcut with its use of vinegar and heat, which destroy live bacteria. They explained that their food was processed only via sea salt and time.
“People said, I want to learn that!” Climenhage said. They began holding volunteer work parties, rewarding regulars with knowledge and jars of kimchi.
As Firefly’s reach expanded — it’s now distributed in three states and Western Canada — the majority of the staff became paid workers.
The company has advanced from beginning tools like the jar-sealer Climenhage invented to a Robot Coupe food processor that can shred 1,000 pounds of vegetables a day. They’ve received a handful of national “Good Food Awards” for “tasty, authentic and responsibly produced” creations.
But they still depend on fans like Bebette Cazelais, a retired teacher who recalled how she came to check out the business one day and was told, “Put on an apron!”
“I kept going back because I always learned something, little things you’d think someone my age would already know,” she said.
“Like how to peel a gazillion gingerroot pieces easily and have them maintain their nutritional value.”
Just the kind of passion and understanding that Firefly was born to brew.
Freelancer Rebekah Denn is lead writer of The Seattle Times food blog All You Can Eat. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.