You may not be familiar with koji, which some call the national fungus of Japan. You certainly know some of the deliciousness it creates: miso, soy sauce, and sake. Koji has an alchemical ability to turn humble foods into tasty, complex products. One of the country’s most innovative chefs is putting it to the test in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jeremy Umansky, born and raised in Cleveland, is a twenty-first century alchemist and one of the leaders of a growing koji fermentation movement in the United States. For the past six years, the chef and owner of Larder Delicatessen and Bakery has dived headlong into the culinary wonderland of koji fermentation, resurfacing recently with the book “Koji Alchemy.” He co-authored the comprehensive guide with fellow koji voyager Rich Shih, an engineer and culinary enthusiast who he met over Instagram. “For some reason, he and I just clicked,” Umansky says of the Boston-based Shih.
In the book, the duo unlock mind-bending techniques. They use koji to make locally sourced riffs on traditional soy sauce, to make vegetable charcuterie with the savory appeal of cured meat, and as a flavor accelerator, aging steaks and cheeses in a fraction of the usual time. Building on centuries of Japanese tradition, they have cultivated a community and earned praise from such giants as fermentation guru Sandor Katz, who wrote the introduction to “Koji Alchemy.”
Umansky, whose appetite for fermentation goes far beyond koji, is serving a unique and transformational take on local cuisine. He may never have gotten to this point if not for his own personal transformation, following years of struggle with substance abuse and an early run-in with the law.
The chef was born into food. His grandmother ran a kosher catering company. “I started working for her right before my bar mitzvah,” he says. He was a curious kid, often drifting in the wonder of his own cosmos. That curiosity took him out to the woods, field guide in hand, at a young age, but it also led him down a self-destructive path. “The first time I got drunk, I was twelve,” he recalls. He was at the synagogue having dinner with his family, and he left the table to socialize. “That evening, I had half a glass to a glass of wine off almost every table. I must have drunk ten glasses of wine,” he says. “And I loved it.” That began his teenage years, defined by drugs and alcohol. “By fourteen, I was a regular cigarette and pot smoker,” he says. By nineteen, he was riding a continuous high fueled by acid, heroin, meth, and more.
It all came crashing down over a high school senior prank gone wrong. Umansky, facing the possibility of jail time, checked into rehab weeks after his nineteenth birthday. There, he got the help he needed to break through a drug-and-alcohol-fueled haze. Newly sober, he remembers thinking, “I’m going to give this a try. If I last a few days, I last a few days. If I last a few years, I last a few years.” So far, he’s lasted eighteen years.
Maybe his past helps explain his fixation on transformation in general, which he previously put to use as the larder master and forager—managing a pantry of cured meats, cheeses, vinegars, pickles, and other preserves—for Cleveland chef Jonathan Sawyer. He still walks in the woods, too, harvesting wild ingredients for the menu at Larder, which he owns with his wife, Allie La Valle-Umansky, and friend Kenny Scott.
His chalkboard menu changes every day. He sees himself as part of a new paradigm in food sourcing. Instead of asking for specific ingredients, he tells area farmers what he can pay and asks them to deliver what they have. “It’s better for the farmers. They can bring us produce they need to move, and you get more bang for the buck,” he explains. Koji helps him tease diverse flavors from their local harvests.
So far, the model is working. Umansky is making his name as one of country’s foremost experts in koji fermentation and earning national acclaim for his cooking. In 2019, the James Beard Foundation named Larder a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant. Earlier this year, Jeremy, Allie, and Kenny made the organization’s shortlist for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
But the chef hasn’t lost his sense of wonder. He confesses to sometimes stopping to pick mushrooms off other people’s lawns on his drive to work. His mind often wanders beyond his day-to-day. Recently, he’s been brainstorming ways to make nutritious food free to those who need it. With koji in hand and an ever-present sense of curiosity, he continues to pioneer transformational techniques in Cleveland.