There’s something alchemic about fermentation. A sort of delayed gratification, it slows down time, celebrating, at some undefined point in the future, the spoils and surplus that nature gives us in the present. Beneath the fizzing and the funky smells, there’s an underlying sense of nurturing and keeping safe that comes with fermenting. Sometimes we use it to deal with a glut, sometimes to embalm an ingredient whose annual presence is precious and fleeting. More often than not, it involves allowing the process of time, as well as the simple addition of salt, to transform an ingredient into something altogether new.
There is no single way of making kimchi, and I’ve spent years trawling through online recipes and tinkering with my own. My exploration of kimchi has been a constant, almost indiscernible hum beneath the pace of frenetic kitchen days. Constant - if also irrational and unpredictable - companions, my kimchi jars would be there on my return, gurgling in the corner behind the teabags, ready to explode, or gently bubbling away in the fridge.
I’ve never retraced my steps into cooking before, but given that this time is so ripe for reflection, it seems apt to explain where this all started.
Back in 2016, as the greenest of chefs, I stumbled into Padella’s floury world of pasta and cheese. I quickly learned that there’s something addictive about working in a kitchen: the sense of accomplishment as you master a new challenge; the cigarettes that go straight to your head at the end of a busy night; the decompression that comes from a cold beer in the dark. So too come exhaustion and dwindling resilience. My heart would be racing as I’d push to finish prep lists, grinding on past breakfast, hasty eggs and hunk of bread in hand.
But as weeks became months, things slowly slotted into place. The expectations and pressures I had experienced at university were still there, but the physicality of chef-work was liberating. I moved across to Trullo, Padella’s big sister, where my love of the kitchen found serious roots. as i honed my craft. Behind Trullo's navy awning I gradually learnt how to hold myself, how to think and speak as a chef, and also as a woman in that environment. But after four years I was hankering for the time and space to allow my own thoughts and ambitions to come into play again, and the kimchi jars were impossible to ignore. As I was ramping up for one final December in Trullo last year, my partner Freddie and I were beginning to piece together the bones of Hot Hunk and a Wedge, our food truck business which sells kimchi and farmhouse cheese toasties.
Hot Hunk and a Wedge is how we want to create change in the food industry. Its values stem from what I learnt in the fields and glasshouses at Ballymaloe Cookery School, where my understanding of what food is - and where it comes from - was revolutionised. There, I spent as much time outside as I did in the kitchen. We planted corn seedlings, and three months later snapped off their proud yellow husks and raced to plunge them into boiling water and devour them, smothered in salty butter. We made cheese from Jersey cows’ raw milk and filleted line-caught fish. To feel so connected to the earth was humbling. I gained a respect for the land, and learnt more from the skills and traditions of the people that represent Cork’s thriving food culture than I ever did in my university library.
Through Hot Hunk and a Wedge, we have tried to design a system that is as sustainably and environmentally cunning as possible, reflecting the many lessons I learnt at Ballymaloe. We grow everything we can to make our own kimchi, and search tirelessly to find and champion small producers. Shoddy, badly sourced ingredients that put profit before anything else were never an option. We work closely with our suppliers to tap into existing waste streams, such as offcuts of cheese that aren’t pretty enough for the deli counter. We want to show that small businesses can have the power to push back against the dominance of irresponsible, greedy-guts Uncle Spam and his soil munching mono-crop cronies. We want to prove it’s possible to function as a business and use real ingredients.
We’re still passionate about achieving these goals, although the reality has shifted dramatically since the outbreak of Covid-19. Recent events have caused us, like so many in our industry, to be cut adrift. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in a perverse paradox: given all the time I could have longed for, but none of the freedom to do with it what I choose. I’ve spent days grappling with how to understand the weeks and months to come, trying not to worry about the what, how, or when. I’m conscious of the strange dichotomy between drifts of gloom and despair, and the vibrancy of spring and new life.
It’s easy to pin the myriad problems we are facing onto Covid-19. But the reality is that many of them have always been there. The flaws of industrial food supply chains are being revealed, as vegetables rot in the fields and people go hungry. The futures of millions of passionate, hardworking individuals and the establishments that make up the hospitality industry are at best uncertain, at worst irrevocably destroyed.
However, Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to change things: to use our choices, as consumers, to guide our farms and food businesses into safer waters in the future. The determination and resilience of small producers has been inspiring. The systemic problems of the restaurant industry are being discussed and challenged, and the voices of its workers are starting to be heard. The importance of sustainable farming is clear, and I’m all the more driven to make good my commitments to it, when Hot Hunk and a Wedge gets going once again. The day we can stand behind our grill, flipping crunchy, topsy-turvy kimchi toasties may seem distant, but it will come.
When restaurants and street vendors can return, we must support them as much as we can. But we must do so in ways that reflect the things this pandemic has taught us - about how and what we should eat, and who we should support. As Johnathan Nunn rightly states: “To move forward, we must start by examining what we would like to save about the industry, giving space to the things that nourish us and our communities, and discarding what we believe doesn't deserve to survive. After all, the real danger the restaurant industry faces isn't annihilation – the danger is that it comes back the same as it was before.”
Recently, a friend told me that happiness has its roots in three things: purpose, connection, and pleasure. I believe food provides us with all three of these. It is an enabler of making, meeting, sensing and experiencing. We need to celebrate food, to respect it, and to support those who bring it to us in so many different ways.
One last thing, then. If your mind is feeling stormy, do something today that connects you to the earth. I’ve found solace and gratitude in haphazard gardening and long walks trawling through hedgerows looking for pennywort, herb robert, wild garlic and three-cornered leeks. And obviously, I’ve been making kimchi.
Rose Maxwell is an ex-Trullo chef, painter, part time gardener, full time kimchi lover and mother of @hothunkandawedge