We've got local produce. Local meat. Even local vegetarian meat substitute. But what else can be done with all those waving fields of soybeans surrounding St. Louis?
Saint Louis University student Dan Brewer had an idea: local bean curd. Which brings us to the recently launched MOFU Soy Beanery and Brewer's line of handcrafted artisanal tofu.
Schlafly Bottleworks took notice. It's the first restaurant in St. Louis to add MOFU-based dishes to its menu.
Gut Check caught up with Brewer earlier this week to hear the tale of his tofu venture.
Gut Check What prompted you to make tofu? Where'd you learn how to make it?
Dan Brewer I am currently about six hours from finishing a master's degree in nutrition with emphasis in culinary entrepreneurship. It's a mouthful, I know. As part of my emphasis, myself and another student took a course to study gastronomy. We had already studied food and culture pretty extensively, so we decided to research what would happen if we were to be exclusively local. The only exception we allowed ourselves was the use of salt. Straight away we had to eliminate about everything in our pantry. Given the large scope of global cuisine, we decided to focus on the Asian pantry, and we had our project: "Asian Pantry: Going Global with Local Food."
We set off and had several long discussions/feuds about all things food and eventually came up with a list of what to make. We made our own fish sauce, rice wine, rice noodles, soy sauce, miso, soy milk and tofu. We did all of this with local ingredients. We then used our pantry to make several dishes and conducted taste tests with the student body at SLU to get some feedback. The results were very good.
During the project I fell in love with tofu. Everything about it. Initially the quality of the tofu was great but not spectacular. After a lot of research, countless hours of trial and error, I figured out the science behind making amazing tofu and decided that I am going to run with this!
What are your thoughts on mass-produced tofu? What's the difference between your tofu and the mass-produced stuff?
My initial response to this question would be: Everything has its place. Mass-produced tofu is created in a factory with large machines, several pneumatic features, and has very little human involvement, if any at all. Big factories also try to limit the small nuances and subtleties that soybeans offer.
MOFU, on the other hand, tries to highlight the nuances and subtleties, essentially letting the bean shine through. In a sense, MOFU is like French press coffee and mass-produced is like drip coffee.
You will not find tofu fresher than what MOFU provides, and if you have not had fresh tofu you are in for a treat. I make MOFU in very much the same way they have for thousands of years and still do in the countryside of Japan. It's made fresh daily and picked up much like the daily bread in Europe and parts of the States. This artisan small-batch production style results a much higher-quality product that is fresher and tastes superior to that produced by large companies.
MOFU is a small local company that desires to be a tangible part of the local food community. You will not find this in a large mass-production company that is only concerned with its bottom line. Are you working with any particular Missouri soybean farmer?
I am currently working with a co-op in northern Missouri that specializes in non-GMO soybeans. It's made up of about 70 Missouri farmers. So I'm not working with a specific farmer, but I know which farm the beans come from, and the exact variety. In fact, I pick them up myself. I love getting to know where my food comes from.
Why are there so few artisan tofu producers?
I have spoken with another tofu company owner in California, and he said it best: You have to be crazy to start a tofu company. Making tofu the way I do is very labor intensive, and many people would probably not want to do it just because of that. But I think the main reason is that the end user has several misconceptions about it. I've learned that most people do not know how it is made or that there are different types. When I ask people, "Do you like tofu?" they say no, and then I ask them why and more times than not they say because it does not taste like anything and they've never had good tofu.
This might scare some entrepreneurs, but it makes me excited. I love talking about food and helping people learn how to up their chef game. Being a registered dietitian and chef, I love any opportunity I get to interact with people to better their lives healthwise and socially. So MOFU is the perfect opportunity to not only make a great product but also a venue to educate people about how tofu is made and why it is special.
What's your favorite way to prepare MOFU?
Currently I'm doing a lot of research and development on some value-added MOFU products. It's pretty hush-hush, but I'm excited to bring them to market in the next few months.
When I cook with it at home, I cut thick slices and sauté them until crispy and golden-brown in hot peanut oil, then serve them over some YellowTree Farms pea shoots or arugula from my garden, with a little rice-wine vinegar and soy sauce. I keep it simple.