An Interview With Joseph Yoon, The Chef Behind
Brooklyn Bugs: A Celebration Of Edible Insects
by: Justin Butner, Little Herds Volunteer Media Correspondent August 25, 2017
Brooklyn Bugs is a 3-day event bringing the exciting field of edible insects to one of the world’s food capitols – New York City – this Labor Day weekend. The event is the brainchild of fine-dining chef Joseph Yoon of Dinner Echo and Yummy Eats. In anticipation of Brooklyn Bugs, I caught up with Joseph to talk about the event, his history with insects, and what it all means.
After working in the music industry for 15 years, Joseph switched over to cooking, starting his private chef and catering company, Yummy Eats, more than six years ago and founding Dinner Echo earlier this year. Both companies bring Joseph’s skills to everything from ten course tasting dinners to large weddings to client appreciation events. While he works tirelessly to learn new techniques and ingredients, “my bug eating experience is quite limited. [It has been] mainly as a novelty when someone would travel,” he said.
That all changed when Miru Kim, an artist and a friend, asked for Joseph’s help with her project ‘Phobia/Phagia.’ The series was “an exploration of her fear of bugs and her conquest to destroy her fear,” including hosting an insect tasting event. This project presented both a challenge and an opportunity for Joseph – to work with new ingredients and to step up his game. “Little did I know that was a spark to something that would essentially transform and change my life.” In the half year since the event, he has dedicated a lot of his time to entomophagy (the human practice of eating insects).
Though I wasn’t at the event, the pictures I’ve seen and reviews I’ve read make me wish that I was.
Lobster Medallion with roasted wax worms (courtesy of Dinner Echo)
In preparing for the event with Miru, Joseph reached out to insect growers and end-product sellers. He talked with people across the industry and found them to be open and encouraging. The more he learned, the more the signs pointed to edible insects as part of the future of food. And as a talented, high-end chef in New York City, he wasn’t about to let the future of food pass him by.
Thus was born Brooklyn Bugs: a Celebration of Edible Insects.
With the inspiration to bring that “Brooklyn funk” to the rapidly expanding field, Joseph began reaching out to all of the insect vendors he worked with for Miru’s event. He reached out to event spaces he loved from some of the hundreds events he had previously organized. And as he shared his excitement and vision for what could be, “I got an overwhelmingly positive response. ‘If you actually do this, we will be 110% behind you.’” No stranger to working hard, what might usually be a nine or twelve month lead up process was condensed down to three. “I want to do this while the weather is still warm and have an outdoor market as one of the components of the festival.” And while he could have pushed this to next year, this was too exciting to wait.
So what’s in store for us with Brooklyn Bugs?
In short, a little bit of everything.
“[I want to] have it be fun while also have it be jam packed full of great and creative content.” Joseph wants to bring industry experts together to discuss and learn what is going on, but not at the expense of the curious and interested public. This is an open event, as much for those who love food as it is for those who work in the field. “It is a meeting of the minds. It’s a meeting of people from all different parts of society.” All with the energy and joy that comes from being in a world-renowned food city.
Friday, September 1st will focus on talks and education. “There will be speakers, there will be panel discussions, there’ll be some workshopping.” Speakers will cover a range of topics on the state of the industry and where we go from here. Interspersed throughout, Joseph will ask rapid-fire questions to keep things flowing smoothly and the energy high.
Though the event will be in Williamsburg, a center for wonderful food, Joseph thought it a bit silly to host an event about edibles and not have food as an important part. So, there will have snacks by Seek, lunch by Nha Minh, canapes by Bocuse d’Or 2017 Winner Chef Matthew Peters, and dinner by Dinner Echo (sponsored by One Hop Kitchen) served on Friday. Or, as Joseph puts it, “Let them eat bugs!”
Insect cuisines’ variety means there are countless flavors and textures for chefs to experiment with(Image courtesy of Dinner Echo)
Saturday the 2nd will begin with a couple hours of children’s programming. Educational non-profit Little Herds (where I volunteer) will bring the excitement and nutrition of edible insects to the next generation. The Guerilla Science squad’s Entomophatron – a petting zoo and edible insect diner – will help in this mission. After the kids have had their fun, the event will shift gears, transforming to an outdoor vendor market. Producers of insect products from around the US and Canada will be present to share the wide range of insect foods and products now available. Attendees will get to try a range of things including cricket protein from Aketta, grasshopper products from Merci Mercado, and cricket and mealworm bolognaise from One Hop Kitchen. Chances to sample such a wide variety of insect products are rare, and it would be a shame to miss.
“Later that night we’re going to have the Bug Banquet, hosted by the one and only David George Gordon [aka The Bug Chef], a dinner which he is very famous for.” Attendees will have a chance to taste some of Joseph’s skilled cooking as he (under Dinner Echo) assists with the banquet.
Sunday the 3rd will find Brooklyn Bugs transforming into a more casual affair at Guadalupe Inn in Bushwick, a gathering for conversations in an informal setting (though RSVPs for the day are still appreciated).
At the end of the three days, attendees will have learned much and tasted more. They’ll be leaving with their brains and stomachs full. But more than just tasty food, this event is designed as a springboard for the future.
As we discussed the finer details of Brooklyn Bugs, Joseph didn’t shy away from offering his thoughts on the mindset he thinks should be underlying it all, where it all goes from here, and how we get there. He is an energetic and positive person, and the messages he was sharing flow from that.
#BrooklynBugs will be a place for those directly involved in the industry to come together and share their experiences, to talk about their successes and their challenges, with each other and with the public
Message 1: Bugs can taste GOOD. Yes, they are better for the environment than beef. But converting the general public will take more than statistics and doomsday preaching. People are convinced by their excitement about taste and presentation. That’s why Joseph tries to win converts by pairing insects with guilty pleasures like lobster and steak. Incorporating insects into delicious meals helps people realize that insects are more than that thing that crawls by. They can be that delicious ingredient their meal is missing. “We think about the plated meal. And that’s why I really prefer to introduce people by serving them a plated meal of the dish instead of just the raw insect in its raw form.” And while for some, the push may be to eliminate livestock consumption entirely in favor of insects, Joseph prefers a more moderate approach. “What if we were to just eat one meal a day – or one meal a week even – where we remove meat … and instead incorporate insects?”
Message 2: Normalization is key. “Step by step we need the whole community … to help normalize edible insects and to find new ways to make it delicious and to make it appetizing.” It is the job of chefs to learn new skills and incorporate these new ingredients. It is on artists and celebrities to raise visibility. It is on “companies that are out there sharing their food as a ready to eat product.” It is on everyone interested in seeing this field grow to proselytize, to normalize. Western society won’t just automatically get over the shock factor or past the click-bait titles. We have to work daily to reach a world where water cooler conversations involve questions “like, ’Did you see Chef Ramsey cooking with scorpions last night?’” It is a process of acclimatization.
This might be why the speaker list for Brooklyn Bugs features (among others) artists like Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) and Miru Kim; ento-industry figures like Lee Cadesky (C-fu Foods), Jarrod Goldin (Entomo Farms) Robyn Shapiro (Seek Food), and Juan Manuel Gutierrez (Merci Mercado); entomophagy figures like Aly Moore (Bugible), Dave Gracer, and Robert Nathan Allen (aka RNA of Little Herds); and food professionals like Fany Gerson (La Newyorkina and Dough), Chef PV and David George Gordon, “who is kinda considered one of the grandfathers of western bug cooking and eating, who wrote the now infamous Eat a Bug Cookbook. I’d like to really put him more where … [he is] regarded as the rock star that he is.”
Message 3: Language is a part of normalization. Entomophagy (a term Joseph dislikes) sounds scientific. People don’t like eating things that sound scientific. Few people can say it right or even remember it. This is why Joseph prefers to use the term ‘entorian’ to refer to “someone who eats bugs as part of their diet.” “I also want to find new words for crickets, for worms, for grasshoppers. Because we don’t say, ‘I can’t wait to eat that pig,’ or, ‘I can’t wait to eat that cow.’ It’s, ‘I can’t wait to eat that pork chop,’ or, ‘I can’t wait to eat that steak.’ … Because when we think about eating a steak, we’re not thinking about this massive 1-ton cow out in the field.” (Aspire Food Group, producer of crickets, has done just this by referring to their cricket products using the trade name Aketta (which will be available for sampling). While a few other companies have taken similar approaches to new language, the majority have not.) Guests at Brooklyn Bugs may hear some newly coined terms, and will be encouraged to be a part of creating the new language.
Message 4: Inclusion will benefit everyone. This is a young field in the West, and there is enough room for everyone to work together and to elevate the whole. “When one of us goes up, it really helps all of us go up.” Anyone that closes off and refuses to work with partners may find their trade secrets safe, but they may also find themselves on an island all alone. That’s why Brooklyn Bugs will be a place for those directly involved in the industry to come together and share their experiences, to talk about their successes and their challenges, with each other and with the public. With the variety of events and workshops over the three days, anyone who wants to share their knowledge or learn from others will have ample opportunity.
Message 5: Going forward from Brooklyn Bugs, we need to keep the momentum. Joseph hopes to see a few additional things come out of this event. He wants to see policy and decision makers getting together to continue to work on moving us forward. Moving beyond companies interacting with each other or people speaking one on one only, he wants to see the creation of community message boards, where ideas can be more widely shared and exchanged.
For his immediate part, he will be sharing hosting responsibilities with DJ Spooky for a series of events in the fall. And there will be much more coming from Joseph as well.
Joseph’s energy about Brooklyn Bugs is palpable. It is hard to remain stoic when the person across the table ponders, “I don’t know what insect pounds their chest like a gorilla. But if there is one, I’m going to get a suit with that and start pounding my praying mantis claws. And my cicada wings, [I’ll] start chirping.”
The line-up has come together well. Though he spoke of some of the things planned, I expect he’s got much more up his sleeve. I’m excited to find out, and will be seeing this all first hand. Hopefully if you’re reading this, you will too.
Brooklyn Bugs: A Celebration of Edible Insects will be held across several venues in Brooklyn, New York on September 1, 2, and 3, 2017. Further information and tickets can be found at www.brooklynbugs.com. If you plan to attend and would like to talk with me, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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