Part cook, part designer, part scientist (having earned his PhD in Materials Science from the University of Oxford), Johnny is a leading expert on helping the world’s best bars and kitchens and food brands to use fermentation to create and amplify deliciousness and sustainability and reduce food waste.
(Writers note: Read Food for Thought, where Johnny discusses the slow food movement. It’s arguably one of my best pieces I’ve written.)
Most recently he set up WNWN Food Labs, a food company named after an ethos of ‘Waste Not, Want Not’. It helps transform plant-based whole foods and unloved ingredients into high-value food and drink. Its first product? Chocolate made entirely without cacao.
Here are 5 Minutes/ 5 Questions with Dr. Johnny Drain:
How did you navigate building a career after completing your PhD at Oxford?
JD: Given that the career that I have since carved out was to be somewhat unconnected to what I studied and researched, I started by getting experience in kitchens, even working as a pot-wash a few times. Watching, learning how kitchens function, trying to understand how chefs work and what they want. At the same time, I started emailing high-end restaurants that had R&D facilities, where the skills I had could be put to best use. Through those endeavours I secured a stint at something called the Nordic Food Lab, which was one arm of Noma in Copenhagen at the time.
And since then it’s developed in a fairly chaotic, unplanned way. My career is pretty weird, it doesn’t fit neatly into a mould. And people—e.g., airport security! —often don’t believe me when I explain what I do. So, there’s been a lot of trial and error. I’ve done so many strange and wonderful things: starting an ice cream company in Switzerland, hunting for aged butter in the markets of Marrakech, explaining why ice cream does or doesn’t melt on British TV.
One thing I’ve learned is that in hospitality your network is everything. It’s a people industry. So, my advice to young people wanting to carve out a career in bars, kitchens, food design would be to try to meet as many people as possible.
Why do you think the interest and popularity in fermented food has grown over the years?
JD: Fermentation practises are old. Very old. They’ve been around, and helping us keep our bellies full and our bodies nourished, for as long as we’ve been around. For that reason, much of the world’s favourite foods (bread, cheese, wine, beer, coffee, chocolate, some teas, butter, soy sauce, vinegars) are fermented. (In reality these processes would happen without us, humans—yeasts would grow on fallen fruit and create alcohol—but we’ve simply harnessed them.)
What’s happened is that, as we’ve become divorced from our food (or at least the production of it), we just forgot these techniques. My great grandmother would have made her own butter, yogurt, bread but there’s no need for me to. So really, it’s just people of today rediscovering fermentation (and then the internet amplifying how readily we can learn about techniques and practises beyond our own traditions).
But why it’s so attractive is its ability to create and curate incredible new flavour profiles, to make nutrients more available, to serve as a vehicle to get useful microbes into our bodies (amongst others).
In the last year you have worked with Santa Monica, a restaurant in Asuncion, Paraguay, Akoko Restaurant in London and you founded WNWN Food Labs, also in the UK – what gives you most joy when working with different clients all over the world?
JD: The work I do is very broad… One week I’ll be making kombucha from coca leaves in Paraguay and the next I’ll be helping a zero-waste restaurant in Lisbon set up ferments, the next help a British oat milk company create perfectly foaming oat milk for tiptop cappuccinos, or at Akoko helping Aji, Theo and the team to make the restaurants take on iru and egusi, traditional West African ferments made from African locust beans and melon seeds, respectively.
However there are some unifying features at the heart of everything I do. It’s about people, their passion for food, Their stories. It’s about me helping to tell those stories (and it may sound odd that a former scientist has ended up doing that!). It’s about (sharing) education; me learning from people and sharing the knowledge I’ve acquired from others to create delicious things and better food systems.
What do you see is the biggest trend in food for a world coming out of the pandemic?
JD: There was lots of chat at start of crisis about how zoonotic viruses get passed from wild animals to domesticated animals and then to humans (whether this is what happened with this particular coronavirus is academic; we know this pathway does happen and it’s happening more and more because of how and where we raise and use animals).
This has helped shine a spotlight on the flaws of and damage produced by much of the highly industrialised global food system. Clearly there are lots of efforts going into finding alternatives to meat and dairy. But there are products that are as environmentally damaging and ethically flawed as those that don’t get much publicity.
This is why I just set up WNWN Food Labs, to create chocolate with cacao. Cacao produces similar amounts of greenhouse gas emissions as cheese and some meat products. Plus, child labour and slave labour are hard-baked into cacao supply chains. So, we’re creating a more ethical alternative, at the same time as supporting the families whose livelihoods rely on cacao (but who currently aren’t paid or looked after appropriately for their labours). We will start by launching our substitute for chocolate later in the year: it tastes, melts, indulges exactly like chocolate but it’s made entirely without cacao.
My book, The Love List changed my life. What are the top three characteristics on your Love List (characteristics or qualities you are looking for in a potential mate or current mate)?
To be interesting and interested
To be gentle
To have passion(s)