Meet the Maker: Farm Boy Kim Chi

October 10th, 2019 | Article By emily

Kim-Chi

Our makers, farmers, and suppliers are the cornerstone of our business.

Without them, we wouldn’t have the array of beautiful produce that greets you when you walk in our doors, we wouldn’t have the well-stocked grocery shelves with high-quality pantry staples and innovative snacks. We wouldn’t have our premium meat products, our delicious frozen goodies, the freshest dairy, or mouthwatering cheese selection.

They bake our pies, harvest our honey, pick our apples, and churn our ice cream. They work with us to tweak and perfect our products week after week, month after month, so you get the very best.

We love the faces behind our products. They are part of what makes us great, and we’d like to introduce you.


This week we are talking to Josh Whitehead, who (along with his wife, Caroline Pilon) is the brain behind our popular, plant-based, probiotic-packed Farm Boy Kim Chi and Kale Kim Chi.

With over 15 years experience running their company, Green Table Foods, he’s a veritable expert in “organic living foods” and a force in the world of sustainability and nutrition. We talk gut health, building a local supply chain, and how he got started in the world of fermentation in the first place.

kimchi makers

Farm Boy: Hi Josh! Thanks so much for chatting with us about your incredible products today. Can you tell us a little about your introduction to kimchi? 

JW: If you go way back to 1989, I made friends with Albert Lee whose parents were from Korea. We would go to his house and feast on all the Korean food his mum had made. I loved it.

Over the years, I guess I ingratiated myself to his mum and she eventually took pity on me because I was trying to make kimchi at home. And this was before the internet, so how would I find out any of the necessary information? She shook her head and finally allowed me to know her techniques for fermentation.

She had two sons and traditionally the daughter takes over the family recipes, so in a sense I became her honourary daughter since nobody else had any interest and she really wanted to pass this tradition along. 

Oh wow. So authentic beginnings. You must have loved it to start making it at home.

Well, to back up a little bit, in ‘88 I was going into high school and my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I was the primary caregiver after she had a radical mastectomy. So right away we were going down to the Big Carrot in Toronto, buying seeds and nuts, doing sprouting, making kombucha.

At that time it wasn’t possible to just go out and buy stuff. You had to make it. It was life or death. I remember making kombucha in big stainless steel bowls and you’d decant like a quarter cup of it and it tasted like pure vinegar. And we were making herbal tea blends. I’ve been doing that since I was 13 years old. So health food has always been a part of my life. I mean, fear of mortality is a huge motivator.

And then you spent some time in Asia. How did that shape your path?

After getting my degree at the University of Guelph, I did some travelling abroad. I lived in Taiwan for four years, which is where I met my wife…of all places. 

When I was living in Taiwan, my language teacher had a business where they made actual herbal remedy meals, so you would come in and eat stew or soup or whatever they would make for you. So a lot of my language learning was about food and nutrition, because we had that background in common. 

They use weird ingredients, like fossilized dinosaur bones ground up into powder. They call it dragon bone, and use it for calcium deficiency.

So being exposed to that led to me really absorbing this hippocratic thing. Like, food as medicine. With Green Table Foods, we go more in the way that it tastes great and hey it’s healthy. But that’s one of the founding principles – nutrition based remediation of health.

We’re big believers in food as a source of nutrition, or more food based nutrients, as opposed to supplement-based nutrients. 

Okay. So that further compounded what you knew already about food and health and Asian foods.

Yeah, so when we came back to Canada, we started up our company, Green Table Foods. Our goal was to nourish communities with innovative and sustainable food staples. 

We were selling our kimchi at farmers markets. And that was 15 years ago. We started out doing markets, delivering direct to stores, and now we have our own processing facility in Guelph and we’re running 7 days a week. We have 8 full time staff and we’re creating for Farm Boy, supplying restaurants and meal delivery services, and we export to the States and the EU. It’s been pretty interesting to see the development and the growth.

 

kimchi bowl

Amazing. So walk me through the process of your kimchi. 

We call up the farmer and say “can we get 4 bins of cabbage?” Or in Mennonite speak, they call them “gaylords,” basically a palette box. We begin the processing. The cabbage gets a double rinse. We rinse it and then the outer leaves get peeled off and it gets rinsed again. And then cored. And then we put it through our slicing or dicing process, and it gets tumbled in a big mixer with its seasoning and all the adjunct things, like carrot and radish and chili flakes.

Then it gets put into barrels, where it’s packed and sealed off and left to ferment for  anywhere from 14-22 days at 60°F. We monitor the PH of that. When it drops down to a certain level, it plateaus. Like, once it reaches 3.7 it doesn’t get any more acidic, so we either put it in cold storage or we have it packed in retail or food service packaging and it gets stored in the fridge. 

The jars are hand stuffed. Because the kimchi is piece-y, and has brine, you have to have a certain amount of brine and a certain amount of air and a certain amount of kimchi, so that’s all done by hand. 

Did you have to adjust your recipe as you developed it?

We’e adjusted our process to be a little more scale-able. The traditional Korean process involves…crouching. And you have what looks like a little shoe shine kit and clay vats. For us, it’s the same ingredients but a different process. The Koreans do a very short cold fermentation and they also do a pre-soaking with salt water. But to scale that exact process would be a challenge.

And you have a very clean ingredient list, obviously you’re allergen aware — 

Not to be disparaging about any other product or process, but one of the reasons why I found a gap in the market was because typically the kimchi you’re getting at Asian marketplaces includes fish of some sort, fish sauce, and sugar, and rice powder or corn starch. And sesame as well. So I figured, let’s do a clean ingredient list. With an organic certification behind it. And 100% plant based. We’ve been doing that for years and years before the trends.

We just figured here’s a way we can differentiate our product  — by making it totally vegan and completely sugar free. I guess now they would call that keto [laughs].

It kind of goes with our company philosophy of keeping things simple and clean and wanting to make an impact in the world, and wanting to help people. The probiotic aspect is essential for human health on many levels – to have a diverse microflora in the gut, so contributing to that is great.

You always hear that actual whole, live foods are the best way to benefit your gut…

Yeah, and we’ve seen University of Toronto use our products for research, and the University of Calgary uses our product for research.

Historically, it all comes from the Napoleonic Wars, sterilizing foods for transport. At the time, Napoleon needed that problem solved to supply an army, so they came up with retort canning and lead tins of meat and whatever, and they didn’t really know what they were doing and killed a lot of people with botchilism and whatnot, and then Pasteur came along and solved that problem.

Today we just take it as a matter of course that you can get a shelf-stable ketchup or sauerkraut. And most grocery stores are full of those products. But those things don’t give the human body what it needs.

caroline pilonjosh whitehead

You have a lot of confidence in the integrity of your product – what do organic and local fair trade mean to you? 

Those things are in the mission statement of the business, so we are willing to do what it takes. With the regulations, it’s a lot of work, and it’s off putting for small to medium enterprises to get into the food sector, especially the organic food sector, but we’ve just taken it in stride and day by day are climbing the ladder. 

It’s harder to do what we’re doing with organic certification, but we have a reverse philosophy where…I know in traditional food manufacturing it’s about ease and convenience and then a product goes out onto the market and consumers just have to deal with the lost nutrients or additives or preservatives or whatever. We work backwards and think, “what would actually want to bring home and feed to our kids?”

My wife and I have four kids, and this is our sole source of income so we have to have integrity of product, but also integrity of action and process. It’s harder to do what we do than just make kimchi.

And tell me about your ingredients and the farm connection…

We try to keep a really shortened supply chain and deal directly with our farmers. We call it “local fair trade.”

Fair trade is great for those tropical commodities and we know why it goes on and has a certification body. But what about farmers in our backyard? When they have their carrot harvest in August, the price of carrots is 6 cents a pound, they’re not incentivized to grow them, they’re incentivized to grow things like soybeans and corn. So how do you get a farmer interested in growing radishes, beets, cabbage, kale?

We have a guaranteed pricing system where we pay the price we pay all year round. So when prices drop for them around harvest season they’re getting a fair price, and when prices skyrocket in the winter, we’re getting a fair price. 

It’s like when you do an equal payment for your home energy bill. 

Right! So the farmers have incentive to diversify their crops, which is better for soil health and they can do more effective crop rotations without chemical inputs, so it’s a win-win situation. And they’re also motivated to invest in storage. Because 10-15 years ago, you couldn’t get local beets after January and now we can get local beets whenever we want them. The farmers have these refrigerated storage units full of beets so we can buy them…because it makes sense for them.

We’re contributing to making our small impact on the viable local food economy. We don’t have to switch to California organic in January because there’s nothing available at home. 

Does anything come from further afield?

Oh definitely. The hardest time is May – June. But we can still get things like carrots, beets, onions. And last year we actually had no gap in the cabbage supply, which was great. But it all depends. There are so many variables.

But with our model, the farmers know that they can grow more because they can sell it. And they just want to focus on growing their veg. They don’t necessarily want to go and market themselves. And we’re not really telling that story because a lot of our farmers are older Mennonites, and they don’t want anything to do with that side of things.

They just want to farm. 

Yeah. You have to schedule your phone call and stuff. No tractor. No hot water. They hire a driver to bring us the veggies.

farm boy kimchi

Wow. Now, you work with wild fermentation versus…what’s the opposite, a bacterial culture that gets introduced?

Yeah. There are companies that will do that – use an innoculant, like you add it to water and you put it in your product. And someone else is trying to market a vegetable fermentation capsule. So I would liken a wild fermentation – which is using the ambient bacteria on the vegetables that you have that are hopefully local to you – to getting Bordeaux wine from Bordeaux. You don’t necessarily want Bordeaux wine from Alberta. 

You can taste the difference. Here’s an example. If you go to one of these “wine depots,” it’s just vats of pasteurized juice. But if you drink drink something from a region that has a terroir, it reflects the time and place where it was made. And that’s what you can taste in a quality product and what we are trying to achieve. 

Another analogy would be the difference between Cheddar and Velveeta.

Or Wonderbread and a naturally-leavened sourdough. 

Exactly, so on paper they look similar enough, but there is such a massive difference. 

So you’re minimally processing it, and it’s sort of terroir-driven. 

Yes. So for example, we get our beets from the same place. This one farm. And the farmer has horses and sheep, and he sells manure, and the soil is so healthy and just black. The beets are the size of baseballs, not these enormous softball-sized ones you get, and they’re rock hard. You have to sharpen your knife to top and tail them, like often. They’re really nice. 

It’s an actual food commodity that represents that particular farm.

Amazing. And you’ve created basically a micro economy between you and your local farmers.

Yes. And we don’t have a slick marketing team, We just have product integrity and products that solve a problem. I guess the challenge is to have something that’s healthy and delicious, and relatively affordable. Something that’s relevant to our agri-food system in Canada. You’ll never see us have a guacamole because it’s not relevant to our food supply chain.

We try to think, “What can we do in Canada? Can we make new commodities?” In the way that maple syrup and ice wine and smoked salmon are kind of Canadian things. There aren’t that many.

And that’s unfortunate because we are an agricultural powerhouse. And that’s part of our mission, is to make new staples that are globally recognized as essential food commodities that only Canada can make. 

Look, we’re using cold weather crops. We can have the highest level of organic certification in the world. And they’re nutri-suitable, they have an impact on peoples’ health.

And they’re allergen friendly in a world of increasing intolerances. 

Yes. And if you look at bulk food services, you don’t want sesame or wheat in one product, because it will contaminate the rest. I was at another store the other day, and went to the salad and hot bar, and there was a kimchi I thought I would try, but it had a sign warning about what was in it and had a list of all the allergens – like 40 ingredients, and I just thought, “why?”

You know it’s possible to do it without. 

Yes. Exactly. So, why? And it’s totally unnecessary. And it doesn’t taste that good. 

So you really love your own products. 

I really love the Kale Kim Chi. 

And how do you like to eat your kimchi? Your family must eat a lot of it? Unless you’re tired of it. 

[Laughs] We do eat it. It’s good to add to miso soup and tofu as a kimchi jigae – like the Korean kimchi stew. That’s instantaneous. All you need is hot water. Another great way is kimchi fried rice. It’s really good in sandwiches with ham and swiss. Kimchi butter is a really cool ingredient to make. It’s excellent as a breakfast with scrambled eggs and rice. It’s good in ramen. As a hamburger topping. It’s good in tacos – like as part of a sesame beef taco. Kimchi fries are great. If you make a mayonnaise with the gochujang – chili paste. It’s very versatile. 

The one takeaway is to pair it with your favourite proteins, because it really complements protein foods. 

 

Thank you so much Josh! We can’t wait to try out some of your suggestions for the Farm Boy Kim Chi. It was so great to talk to you to hear about your process and delicious products. 

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