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Lunch with a Gastronaut

Lunch with a Gastronaut

Photography: Kevin White c/o America’s Test Kitchen

Jeremy Umansky wants to swallow buildings whole, infest your food with mold, and make barren planets habitable.

He also wants to serve you a sandwich, made from scratch, at his new delicatessen. He’s going to do it all with the help of a few friends—some human and some fungi. If this all sounds a little strange, it’s true. The future’s going to be strange. But it’s also going to be delicious.

Technically, Umansky is a chef, but his interests and body of work go far beyond traditional culinary confines. He’s a forager, farmer, and fermenter; an entrepreneur and an environmentalist. Recently he’s been recognized for his innovative use of an East Asian fungus called koji, a highly-anticipated new project named Larder, and his involvement with Chris Maurer, the owner of Redhouse Architecture and the Biocycler. Taking the thousand-mile view, all of his endeavors are connected. His ultimate goal? Becoming a gastronaut.

We ask our children what they want to be when they grow up. Somebody invariably says they want to be an astronaut, trumping all the other kids who said doctor, firefighter, or archaeologist. To actually become an astronaut requires such an oversized intellect, a mastery of many skills, and an enduring spirit that almost no one realizes that dream. But nobody takes you seriously when you’re a kid.

Umansky wasn’t like other kids growing up in Cleveland. He had Tourette’s and couldn’t walk without braces until he was 3 and custom shoes until he was 6. Traditional education was difficult, so he relied on himself, developing a talent for obsessive self-learning by reading encyclopedias cover to cover. Literally. A to Z. He could have honed in on anything as his life’s focus, but he was surrounded by a family who cooked, so that was the spark.

Umansky eventually landed at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It’s where he met his future wife, Allie LaValle, and developed his craft. But something about the Institute didn’t sit right with him; it seemed the Institute cared more about enriching the food industry than producing quality chefs. Umansky and a like-minded cohort of friends laid the groundwork for a philosophical counter-movement. They coined a new term. Something they could actually aspire to become: gastronauts.

The gastronaut is the foil of the gastronome: a snobbish, out-of-touch foodie who considers haute cuisine the only cuisine.

“We looked at it as a play on little gnomes that live underground, who don’t want to change their ways, versus a gastronaut being someone who wants to explore and see everything else that’s out there,” Umansky said.

Gastronauts seek higher planes of existence. They are intrepid explorers who pursue great food to elevate humanity, not keep it to themselves. Among the gastronauts that united with Umansky at the Culinary Institute, one is now head of R&D for José Andrés, one is head captain at New York’s famed Per Se, and another is a brewer in Mississippi. Umansky dropped out of the Culinary Institute three months before graduation to pursue his own path.

Umansky never thought he’d be back in Cleveland, but after pursuing his passion for food preservation and cooking in New York with roles ranging from farmer to executive chef, he moved back home with Allie to start a family in his reinvigorated hometown. Then he landed a role as master larder and wild food forager at Jonathon Sawyer’s Trentina in 2014. It was there that he developed an impressive wild food, pasta, and charcuterie program and witnessed Sawyer win the James Beard Award in 2015. It was also where he met a curious ally: an ancient mold with seemingly magical properties.

Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, is a mold that has defined Asian cuisine for thousands of years. It breaks down sugars and proteins in rice and other grains, imparting an intense umami flavor and serving as the building block for foods like miso, sake, and soy sauce. Umansky originally acquired a sample to make a pseudo-miso out of chickpeas, but soon began experimenting with non-traditional methods, using koji-culturing to encrust scallops and pork chops and to accelerate the aging of meat.

Koji breaks down its host in the most delicious way, transforming its essence and opening up a world of possibility. “The aroma, the smell, the flavor of it, is just beyond intoxicating,” Umansky said. Strictly-speaking, few have done more innovative work with koji in recent years.

Umansky’s next move, Larder, a traditional-style Eastern European delicatessen, might seem like a humble next step, but it’s the launchpad for his gastronaut mission. A full partnership with his wife Allie and chef Kenny Scott, it’s the culmination of Umansky’s experience and history: a callback to his grandmother’s kosher catering company, his Jewish heritage and even further, to the nativized cuisine of Cleveland. “The food that we are doing is Cleveland food. To a ‘T,'” he said.

Larder follows another food philosophy that Umansky likes to call the “Modern Archaic.” Everything is made from scratch when possible. Fermented pickles, cured meat, pastries—even cultured cream and churned butter. Ingredients will be sourced as locally as possible, showcasing the terroir of Northeast Ohio. Inventive techniques will be on full display, such as the use of koji to maintain a zero-waste bread program. Smart design is at the core of Umansky’s approach, drawing inspiration from the past and present to make food both tastier and more sustainable. Larder will also serve as an affordable resource for the community, with various class offerings.

Scott’s unofficial tagline: “Cooking for the masses, without being asses.”

Umansky’s mission to empower people through food is well on its way, but he has his sights set higher. He’s not joking when he says, “the moon and Mars.” He’s been tapped by NASA as part of a civilian consulting program to explore the possibility of terraforming other planets through fungi technology. Apparently knowing too much about mushrooms can help you get to space.

But what about the perfectly good planet that we currently live on? Umansky wants to use mushrooms to make it more livable as well. He’s partnered with Cleveland’s Redhouse Studio to devise a mobile “Biocycler” which uses mycelium technology to recycle construction waste while simultaneously producing new construction material and gourmet mushrooms.

The future of food is the future of life as we know it, and thanks to Umansky, its growing in a jar off W. 29 Street. There’s still much to discover and a great deal of work to do. But for now, let’s eat.

Want to experience the koji revolution for yourself? Larder opens April 24 at 1455 W. 29 St. in Hingetown. Follow along with updates at the Larder Facebook page.

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