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Full of flavour: Why a sustainable food future doesn’t need to be bland

  • 50% of the food we produce goes to waste, and 800 million people around the world remain undernourished.
  • The growing and processing of many of our favourite foods carries a huge carbon footprint or contributes to expanding deforestation.
  • Dr Johnny Drain, scientist and chef, has worked with the very best restaurants, bars, and food companies all over the world to unlock flavour through practices like fermentation.
  • Drain believes that through innovation and experimentation, we can reduce waste, increase sustainability, and eat stunning food!

The way we produce and consume food today is unsustainable. Almost 50% of what we grow and make is thrown away, and our large-scale food processing contributes to the climate crisis in myriad ways – from carbon emissions to deforestation. So, is anyone doing anything about it?

Dr Johnny Drain is a chef with a PhD who has used his unique expertise to unlock new and sustainable flavours.

Dr Johnny Drain is a scientist turned chef on a mission to show us how we can encourage innovative and sustainable food practices, without compromising on flavour. His company, WNWN Food Labs, is the first to ever bring cocoa-free chocolate to market, and he’s made himself famous in the world of high-end restaurants through his quirky experiments with fermentation and rancid butter. In this tasty interview, we find out more about his innovative and imaginative work, and how he is forging the way ahead for reducing food waste and increasing sustainability.

Hi Johnny! Could you tell me a bit about your background?

I have a weird hodgepodge career portfolio. I studied chemistry as an undergraduate and then did a PhD in material science. The science wasn’t connected to food, but I had a lifelong passion for it. After my PhD I worked as a chef, and immediately realised that you need a lot of stamina and it’s physically tough work. If I could sell people the idea that I was a ‘boffin’ who understood chemistry, physics, and biology, then I could do less backbreaking, and perhaps more interesting, work for the top restaurants and food companies.

I have spent the last ten years working for restaurants, places with Michelin stars, bars in the World’s 50 Best Bars list. I would set up labs and innovate products in these places, where I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve launched restaurants, I helped set up an ice cream company, I made the perfect ramen noodle in Switzerland for a chain of ramen restaurants! On that journey, fermentation became something I was known for, as well as sustainability and circularity which is very closely tied to fermentation.

Chocolate, which we often think of as an innocent treat, has a very dark secret.

Microbes, mould, and fermented foods are vehicles for healthy, sustainable flavour, often using waste products in the process.


You’ve travelled across the world to hone your skills on fermentation, among other things. Could you tell me a bit more about that global picture?

One of the wonderful things about food (which is also true of the science community) is that it’s very international and increasingly (also like science) interdisciplinary. Fermentation culture is international; people in all communities all over the globe use fermentation practices. Most of the world’s favourite foods (bread, wine, cheese, yogurt, soy sauce, chocolate) are fermented. I spent time in Japan and Korea, where I got to study with amazing women making miso and soy sauce. I have also spent quite a bit of time in South and Central America learning and then passing on my own knowledge. I’m based in the UK, but I spend lots of time in France, Germany, and Switzerland as well.

Could you please tell me about your venture WNWN?

WNWN Food Labs is a food tech company that I set up with my co-founder, Ahrum Pak, about two and a half years ago. We met over a shared interest in using technology to tackle food waste. Ultimately, the company we’ve created isn’t actually that involved in food waste, but one of the first things we were talking about when we met was what you can do with byproducts that are produced industrially.

Last year, we released and sold the world’s first cocoa-free chocolate. I had this idea about six years ago in my parents’ old house. I was boiling some potatoes, and as I leant over the pan the steam smelled of hot chocolate. Why was that? What is it in the potatoes that might also be in cocoa? Could you make something that tastes like chocolate from potatoes? I’d done a little bit of research, and then when Ahrum and I were talking about a food tech venture I introduced this idea.

But why would you want to make chocolate without cocoa? Most of the world’s chocolate, about 70% comes from two countries in West Africa: Ivory Coast and Ghana. There are about 1.5 million child slaves that work on cocoa plantations, as well as farmers working for very little money to supply cocoa to 12 of the world’s biggest and richest companies. There is widespread deforestation, and the processing of cocoa produces an outsized carbon footprint which is the same or even a little bit larger than that per kilo of chicken, pork, cheese, or coffee. Chocolate, which we often think of as an innocent treat, has a very dark secret.

As a trusted voice on how what we grow and eat can change the health of the planet, Johnny is a master in creating beautiful dishes in the process.

Could you explain the science behind replicating the taste of chocolate without cocoa?

When you make chocolate you grow cocoa beans, ferment them, roast them, and then put them in a big grinder. You add some sugar and some cocoa butter or vegetable fats and that’s it! We do pretty much exactly the same thing, except we use other plant-based ingredients, such as barley and carob. We work with these ingredients because they’re sustainable. They can be sourced from a greater variety of regions, they’re resilient to climate shock and are relatively inexpensive. With the climate changing, the ability to grow cocoa in the areas where traditionally it has been grown is changing and diminishing and as a result, cocoa prices are going through the roof.

We want to future-proof that flavour profile that we know and love. In terms of how it tastes, the proof is in the pudding! It melts like chocolate, and it grates like chocolate. We are making a suite of products from dark to milk chocolates sold as chocolate bars, but we will also be able to sell these products to people that make chocolate and confectionery products.

You’ve also experimented with rancid food, collaborating with various experts in fermentation; can you tell us a bit more about that?

For most people, the word ‘rancid’ is bad. In the food industry, if people are investigating rancidity they’re trying to stop it. But I had this idea early in my food career, and again I was at my parents’ home, where I found some butter at the back of the fridge which had gone rancid. I was curious; what’s wrong with old butter? I made a salt caramel sauce and it tasted amazing! It tasted kind of ‘goaty’ and meaty and that ‘goatiness’ is connected to what happens when butter goes rancid; it oxidises and produces these short-chained fatty acids which have ‘farmyardy’ flavours. In this salt caramel it worked really well.

I pitched a research project to the Nordic Food Lab. The idea was to intentionally age butter and see if that resulted in something wildly delicious. I undertook the project in Copenhagen at a famous restaurant called Noma. We ended up creating a product we called ‘blue butter’. It didn’t end up going on the restaurant menu, but I wrote some articles on it and I’ve had messages from chefs all over the world saying that they now age their butter!

The idea was to intentionally age butter and see if that resulted in something wildly delicious.

One of Johnny’s many experiments with turnips.
Others include butter, cheese, chocolate, and more.

Why is it important that we reconsider what we see as waste?

Whether it’s in our homes or in commercial factories, as a society we waste vast amounts of food. Around 40% to 50% of the edible biomass that we grow, produce, and process gets thrown away. There are 800 million people in the world who are chronically undernourished, but we produce enough food to feed everyone! That’s why waste is important; we need to reframe waste as a byproduct or people won’t want to eat it.

I found myself looking at what was going in the bin and asking, what can you make with this? Fermentation was the tool I was using most of the time, and we found that you don’t have to work too hard to find incredible applications that hoover up this otherwise wasted mass of food. You can end up with products which are better and more mind-blowingly delicious than the products you started off with! The example that I’m most proud of is what we call buttermilk garam and dairy garams. We combined the process of making soy sauce with buttermilk (a byproduct of making butter). It’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted! A dear friend and collaborate of mine, Doug McMaster from Silo in London, always says that ‘waste is a failure of the imagination’.

What advice would you give to other people that, like yourself, are interested in both science and food?

My career has been a bit haphazard; I’ve intuited my way. Curiosity has informed my interest in these different spheres and I’m good at connecting the dots between different fields or philosophies. I think you should read a lot, and don’t specialise too soon. When you do specialise, try to be broad minded.

Having spent a lot of time in academic institutions, I used to think that all you needed was be really smart and then everybody would listen to your ideas and pay for your knowledge. What’s important in the real world, however, is how good you are at talking about your ideas; most people that you meet will be really up for helping you and curious about what you’re doing. If you read this, my door is open! I get lots of emails from students and chefs and all sorts of people around the world. I try to answer them and reciprocate some of the goodwill that’s been extended to me on my journey.

Interview conducted by Todd Beanlands [email protected]

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Cite this Article

Drain, J, (2023) Full of flavour. Why a sustainable food future doesn’t need to be bland,
Research Features, 149.
DOI: 10.26904/RF-149-5177497122

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(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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