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San Diego Chef Grows Michelin-Star Mold

How Michael Vera launched a business growing the famed koji in his North Park apartment
Koji

Koji

During the day, Michael Vera cooks at standout Pacific Beach restaurant, The Fishery. In his off time, he grows delicious bacteria.

The words mold or fungus may not make your mouth water, but they should. They’re the gateways to fermentation, which gives us bread, coffee, miso, chocolate, beer, kimchi, wine, cheese, soy sauce, other forms of dear-god delicious. And right now, no fungus is hotter than Japanese koji—rice grains cultured with aspergillus oryzae.

“It’s a sweet, funky marinade that tenderizes and intensifies with umami,” says Michael Vera, owner of West Coast Koji, a company he created during the pandemic by using Home Depot racks to ferment various things in the living room of his North Park apartment. “My wife was not happy with the state of our apartment for a very long time. It was a huge laboratory full of funky stuff.”

Now he sells his koji to Michelin-star restaurants like Jeune et Jolie and Rustic Canyon, plus Juniper & Ivy and Consortium Holdings. Koji is famous for its umami-cranking transformation of proteins, and you can taste WCK’s effect on the duck breast at Matsu in Oceanside. Anyone can buy dried koji at Asian grocers, but WCK’s is fresh, and rare. There are only probably 10 commercial koji producers in the U.S., which makes his delicious fuzz business a boon for local cooks. On this episode, Michael gives us the 101 on koji and the fascinating world of culinary ferment.

For “Hot Plates,” it seems everyone is moving to North County. We talk about the northward expansion of Lola55, long one of the best taco operations in the city now headed to Carlsbad. We finally are allowed to spill the news on George’s chefs Trey Foshee and Christine Rivera’s newest concept—Sandpiper, an oysters and wood-smoked meats joint that will go into the former home of Galaxy Taco. The group behind Nolita Hall and Half-Door Brewing have taken over the spot vacated by Civico by the Park—a sprawling space on the bottom floor of the Mister A’s building. And the vegan superstars behind Kindred are going to open their spinoff soon—called Mothership, owner Kory Stetina calls it  “just your run of the mill crashed starship on a tropical alien planet kind of spot.”

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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