Every winter, Jori Jayne Emde makes Ice Pickles. She peels and pricks young daikon radishes, submerges them in a soy sauce solution, and sets them outside on a picnic table. For the remainder of the season, the radishes freeze and thaw, as if breathing with the temperature’s fluctuations.
“Ultimately, what was happening is while they were thawing, they were releasing their water content,” explains Emde. “And when they were freezing, they would suck up the soy content, and that would get all through the cell structure and the salt would act as a preservative.”
Once ready, Ice Pickles are spongy to the touch and crunchy to the bite. “If we chopped them small and they were cold and [we] put them on an oyster, it would possibly trick you into thinking it was a granita,” she says.
On a Monday morning in July, Emde introduces herself to 18 students in her fermentation workshop. The youngest of four girls, she was raised in Austin, an upbringing that, when combined with years spent carving her name into New York’s culinary scene, makes for a charming mix of Southern warmth and sarcastic wit. She began her career in the kitchens of the Batali Empire — “No, he didn’t touch me,” her obligatory disclaimer — before moving to 5 Ninth, where she met her eventual husband, Zakary Pelaccio.
Emde’s students create various vinegars like flower blossom and carrot. Photo by Steve Fowler
In those early years, Emde was bothered by the heaps of food she and her colleagues routinely discarded. But like any young chef, she was preoccupied with her own responsibilities, and her concerns dissipated.
At 5 Ninth, Pelaccio acquainted her with fermented food, but it wasn’t until she visited markets in Malaysia and Thailand that Emde experienced the taste-bud-bursting flavor fermentation adds to a dish; it also clued her in as to how she might repurpose those food scraps.
She started to experiment at home, teaching herself through recipes and research. For a long time, her yields were unsatisfying. Eventually, she pinned down the culprit: lab yeast.
“If I wanted to make a carrot vinegar, but I used a champagne yeast, the end product didn’t taste like carrot,” says Emde. “And that bothered me.”
While reading about biodynamic wines, she discovered native fermentation, which relies on ambient yeast strains to initiate the breakdown of sugars. Unlike lab yeasts, which are simple, efficient, and consistent, native yeasts are complex, imperfect, and unpredictable. They are The Goonies of the fermented world, and though unlikely to command swaths of market share, they have garnered a devoted fan base. Just ask the folks at Graft Cider or Plan Bee Farm Brewery.
Around this time, Emde and Pelaccio quit the city to open Fish & Game in Hudson. At home, she suddenly found herself with an entire barn to house her fermentations.
Seven years later, her creations are incorporated into everything from appetizers to cocktails at Fish & Game, and kitchen production has been scaled to implement the methods Emde catalogued during her time as a chef. “All the carrot peels and the carrot tops, all the herb stems, even asparagus tips — all that stuff gets saved, and I turn it into another product,” she says. “Most of it goes to vinegar because we have a huge wine program.”
Through her brand, Lady Jayne’s Alchemy, Emde sells her wares online and teaches fermentation principles to workshops full of eager students, the majority of whom are deferent chefs and industry members. When she travels for work, her fermentations often travel, too — clinking and sloshing in the trunk, her Australian Shepherd smiling in the passenger seat. Yet at Fish & Game, fermentation has evolved beyond sustainability and flavor: In a mark of their maturity as chefs, Emde and Pelaccio have adopted bacterial processes into their dining philosophy.
“We’re not young kids in New York City who want to put as much pork on the plate as possible and watch your stomach hurt and laugh,” Emde says. “We want you to feel so freakin’ good after eating our food.” That mentality governs the composition of their plates, as well as her work in the barn. “The flavors and the fermentation then go back into the food as the base flavor notes and as part of your digestion at the end of the day.”
Ice Pickles, ready for action. Photo by Jori Jayne Emde
Far from common practice, this consideration has been framed by her own food sensitivities and research. In conversation, she organically dispels myths, sometimes with unpopular information: Kombucha advocates will be disappointed to learn that the fermented tea can still contain 95% active yeast, which — unless you’re hung over or fresh off a round of antibiotics — is simply yeast overload. Even probiotics, heralded for their healthy bacteria, work best when combined with prebiotics, found in foods like berries and squash. Too much of either digestive agent will have your gut grumbling.
“I mean, you can drown by drinking too much water,” says Emde. “If that’s not a lesson, I don’t know what is.”