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Hidden Gems: Meet Michael Vera

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Vera.

Hi Michael, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
My name is Michael Vera and I’m the owner and sole member of West Coast Koji. West Coast Koji is a small batch fermented foods business specializing in koji-based foods, including traditional and modern miso paste, soy sauces, and umami forward condiments.

My wife and I moved to San Diego in 2014, shortly after I graduated culinary school from the Culinary Institute of America. I’ve been working in restaurants and luxury hotels since I was 17 years old, starting as a dishwasher at a small pizzeria and working my way up through the ranks throughout the years in fine dining establishments. I have always been interested in fermentation, starting with a job I had as a young cook where we would make in-house charcuterie, preserves, and pickles. It taught me not only ways to enhance the flavor of certain foods by preservation but also the reason and philosophy as to why preservation was ever necessary in the first place. Many of the different ferments that I was taught are rooted in tradition that sometimes took hundreds of years to master, and the best that I (as a cook) could do was to learn it and respect it.

Some of my first experiments with fermentation were simple lacto-fermented pickles, hot sauces, kimchi, and sour krauts. Which would all turn out so delicious and head-spinning and leave us asking, “how did this happen!?” That would lead me to dive deeper into the world of fermented food condiments, including koji-based foods.

Koji (aspergillus oryzae) is a culinary fungus that is traditionally used to produce fermented foods, such as miso paste, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and pickles, among other things. My first miso was started in 2018, shortly before The Noma Guide to Fermentation book was released. I was so excited for the book to come out that a friend and I drove to Los Angeles for the book release and to see the authors speak. From there, I was completely fascinated by the subject, using my days off from work to try new things and learn more about fermented foods. I dove into making different types of vinegar from scratch, including hidden, rose apple cider vinegar, or foraged chaparral sage vinegar, or even vinegar using throw-away scraps of fruit from the restaurant I was working at.

Up until early 2020, I had used store-bought koji to make some of my first koji ferments when my chef at Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad tasked me with growing my own. It was relatively simple to do but quite intimidating at first because of the steps involved in growing it properly. Let’s just say the first few times were utter failures, but it motivated me to get it done correctly. So I decided to personally invest in a larger, cleaner, and more reliable incubation set up for growing koji. Koji fungus grows under certain conditions that require a consistent temperature and humidity level for optimum enzyme production. I started growing koji for the restaurant’s use only a few weeks before the first covid shutdown.

When covid came, and thousands of restaurant workers were suddenly out of work, including myself, it left a lot of us scratching our heads thinking, “Ok, how can I keep doing what I love to do, and try to earn some income that will support me throughout this new covid time?” The answer for me was easy, and that was to start selling small batch ferments that I could produce in my home kitchen. The day after the lockdown, I was at the produce market buying everything I needed for a huge batch of kimchi, ready to start preaching the word of fermentation. In the chaos of the first couple of weeks, the mindset was that we need to start to preserve our foods in case of a shortage at a later time.

After only a few weeks, I decided that I could start to make fresh koji for people that wanted to learn these kinds of ferments but couldn’t find a source of koji anywhere else. I started to produce larger batches of my ferments with the intention of sharing with friends, family, and others that wanted to try the amazing umami flavor that koji creates for themselves. My first release of products with West Coast Koji included four different varieties of soy sauce and “soy-free” sauces, as well as two different types of fermented miso pastes. These products had a uniqueness to them in that they couldn’t be found anywhere else. They are made using the same methods of fermentation to make traditional soy sauce and miso but offer different flavor nuances, levels of umami, and taste qualities because of the ingredients that make up the base of the ferments. What makes West Coast Koji unique is that we try to use only ingredients that are grown in California, including the rice that makes the base of our miso, and the beans that are locally grown heirloom varieties.

After a little less than a year of operating West Coast Koji, our koji, miso, and soy sauce can be found in four different Michelin recognized restaurants, along with other award-winning restaurants across the country. I’ve been inspired by the many people who tell me that this is something special and that I should pursue my dreams of being a business owner. The online community of fermenters have also played a huge role in my growth as a fermentation specialist and inspired me to try new and exciting things. I have been dedicated to growing this business into what I know it can become, and teaching others about the fascinating topic of fermentation and koji, as well.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
The road to becoming a small business owner and koji fermenter has been quite rewarding but a very challenging one. Having been working in restaurants my whole career, I was brought up in an environment that was extremely challenging. Working long hours everyday, low wages, no holidays or paid time off, burns and cuts all over my arms, and not to mention dealing with the egos that are so common among chefs and cooks. Unfortunately, none of that was a match to my harshest obstacle and biggest critic: myself.

One of the most common traits I see in restaurant industry workers is a thing called imposter syndrome, which is an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. I myself suffer from this, and it weighs so heavily on my confidence to the point that it has prevented from becoming the leader that I knew deep down I could be. The feeling of inadequacy in an environment that demands absolute perfection can turn any good day you’re having into the worst few days for your mental health. Personally, my mental health has always been something I’ve had to deal with internally, whether it was from the anxiety when I wake up and would feel about getting crushed on a busy service later that evening or depression from feeling like I’ll never be good enough to accomplish what I’ve put so much work in to.

For many years, instead of dealing with my mental health, I chose to abuse alcohol daily. I went on a seven-year bender abusing hard liquor, starting in the early mornings and ending my nights until I would fall asleep. It caused me to head down a deep and dark path where I wasn’t able to do anything until I had my proper amount of drinks. It affected my relationship, my personal life, and my work. I knew that I needed to change, but I didn’t have the proper motivation to seriously alter my lifestyle until 2017, when my alcoholism was affecting my mental health so badly that my co-workers were concerned that I was going to hurt myself.

My sous chef at the time sat me down and had a serious talk with me about what was going on and how he could help. I was admitted to rehabilitation the next day. I walked in with a blood-alcohol level of 17. After detoxing safely in rehab, I started to take getting better seriously. It was a huge wake-up call and a glimpse into what my life was going to be like if I let the alcohol keep controlling me: sad, lonely, and not going anywhere. My absolute biggest supporter throughout my time of getting clean and sober was my wife, who stuck by me and showed me that life can be worth living. Being sober made me better, no question about it. It re-ignited the spark in my culinary dreams and made me motivated to keep learning and exploring different techniques and fermentation.

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
West Coast Koji is a small batch fermenter that specializes in koji-based fermented foods. We make miso pastes, soy sauces, and umami-forward condiments that explore the flavor-enhancing properties of koji fungus (aspergillus oryzae). While we do make traditional Japanese-inspired condiments, we also use a wide variety of substrates and ingredients to make these foods. For instance, traditional Japanese soy sauce is made with four ingredients; soybeans, wheat, water and salt, but what if we substitute some of these ingredients with ones that are grown right here in California? What if we can create new and exciting flavors using enzymatic fermentation and applying it to heirloom beans that are grown just 40 miles away? Or rice that is grown right here in California so its carbon footprint is minimized? The “terroir” of the ferment is so specific to this area that these products and their flavor can’t be produced anywhere else. That is what West Coast Koji is all about.

Koji fungus is a culinary “mold” that produces enzymes. When these enzymes are applied to sources of starch, protein, fat, among other things, they feed and break down these molecules into their constituent parts, such as simple sugars, amino acids (umami), and peptides. It effectively transforms the flavors of simple ingredients into something that becomes incredibly delicious and full of beneficial microbes and nutrients. Think of it this way, how do we derive soy milk from soybean, but also soy sauce from the same bean? The two are very different products but come from the same ingredient. The short answer is koji fungus and its transformative properties over time.

West Coast Koji and myself are best known for being one of the only small-batch producers in California that is making koji-based products. There are very few companies in Southern California making shoyu and miso, and it’s something that I believe will catch on with the public with a little education about the subject of fermented foods.

I am extremely proud of the fact that West Coast Koji doesn’t cut corners when it comes to flavor. Some of our products, including our shoyus take up to a one year to make and can’t be rushed to be done until it reaches its optimum flavor potential. Some people, unfortunately, haven’t even tasted what real soy sauce taste like.

Soy sauce that’s been made using traditional methods of fermentation combines a myriad of different fermentation processes within it and houses billions of microbes that all contribute to an incredible flavor that can’t be replicated anywhere else. We offer varieties of miso and shoyu that are unique and enhance your dishes with a touch of umami, acid, salt, and full-on flavor.

What does success mean to you?
Success is inspiring others to learn more about fermentation. Something that is all too common among many people is that they fear fermentation, thinking there is a risk for contamination or food-borne illness. When in reality, fermentation is very safe! Fermentation is part of our everyday lives so often that we don’t even realize!

Many individuals who are curious about koji and want to learn more will often message me online with questions about the process or certain topics pertaining to koji-related ferments. I’ve found a certain happiness in sharing my knowledge of fermentation with anyone who is curious to learn. Seeing some people take their fermentation game to the next level after learning more and asking questions is a success. In the community of fermentation, our goal is to spread awareness and be an open-source of knowledge to teach everyone about friendly microbes and their health benefits, along with the flavor-enhancing potential.

Contact Info:

Image Credits:

Clarissa Vera

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