Sebastian Vargo doesn’t want to come off like a snake oil salesman, but he is very much an evangelist for the power of pickling.
“I think that fermented foods have changed lives,” he says. “My form of love and expression is just being able to give that to the community.”
Vargo is the brother behind Vargo Brother Ferments, which has been churning out a prodigious variety of lacto-fermented pickles, krauts, kimchi, condiments, and kombuchas since last summer when the furloughed chef and his fiancée started selling his signature garlic dill pickles on Instagram, @vargobrotherferments. What later became known as the “G-Dilla” is an extraordinarily crunchy, sour pickle suspended in a cloudy salt-brine teeming with probiotics.
“I did work hard for that crunch,” he says, also crediting the tannins in the brew, lent by black tea, bay, and grape leaves. “You gotta build a foundation, like making a stock. I approach my pickles the same way I would any dish.”
Vargo received an early fermentation indoctrination growing up in suburban Detroit, where his mother led regular forays to the area’s classic Jewish delis. “It was too much meat for me as a kid,” he says. “It was these stacked high sandwiches and these half and full sours. My first time having a salt-brined pickle was so different than Vlasic and everything else. And I have nostalgia too: really good memories of us all being together.”
It stuck after he moved to Chicago for culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu and throughout his stints on the line at Grange Hall Burger Bar, Girl & the Goat, and Schwa. But an epiphany occurred when he was working at Dixie, under chef Tony Quartaro.
“We got a batch of white peaches in for a country ham with ricotta dish, and they were underripe so we couldn’t really use them. [Tony] said, ‘Let’s make vinegar.’ He threw them in with some water, a little bit of sugar, and let them sit. After three to four months he showed me the mother was forming. That really sparked my fascination with fermentation, the vitality it brings, the health benefits, and the fact that you could throw a grape into a brine and it would be untouched and pristine in appearance a year later.”
This is about when he mounted his quest for the perfect salt-brined pickle. In salt brining versus vinegar-based pickling, helpful bacteria digest the sugar in the vegetables, releasing lactic acid. The presence of these probiotics and the enzymes they produce make for tangier and more interesting flavors than those of shelf-stable vinegar-and-heat-pickled “dead” varieties—which also have none of the qualities that make them so good for the gut.
Vargo was the head chef at Logan Square’s Merchant, and his fiancée Taylor Hanna was cooking at the Ace Hotel when they were furloughed last year. They dabbled in the pandemic microeconomy at first, making bagels or T-shirts, but they eventually settled on ferments. Live cultured foods are still relatively rare on store shelves, and “I wanted to give people a product that they can’t really find in stores. A lot of people just don’t recognize the average jarred pickle or kraut is pasteurized, and in essence, dead food. I saw a lack of selection, and the selection that was available was lacking in diversity, so I wanted to also bring my experience to some well-seasoned chef-driven ferments,” he says.
These have included his PowerKraut, with cabbage, Thai basil, jalapeños, pickled mustard seeds, turmeric, ginger, and garlic; a nuclear horseradish mustard; and a silky smooth variant of the Middle Eastern garlic spread called toum. There’s been pickled baby bok choi with Thai basil and galangal; brussels sprout-radish kimchi; ginger-turmeric beer and pineapple-lemongrass kombucha; Bulgarian-style yogurt parfaits with miso peanut butter and fermented strawberry jam; ramp hot sauce; chipotle beat-kraut, and tomato vinegar. There’s a new and nearly different drop each week, exchanged for “suggested donations” via Instagram—but always the garlic dill pickles.
Like most chefs, Vargo and Hanna are looking forward to what the summer will bring to pickle, but they’re not looking to go back to restaurant kitchens. They say they’ll do what they have to do to pay the bills, but the priority is to go big—or bigger—with ferments. They’re working with the food business incubator the Hatchery to set up a permanent commercial kitchen with a HAACP plan by mid to late summer, and then start stocking local store shelves with Vargo Brother Ferments. For now, there are ongoing collaborations with the likes of alt-economists @haveagoodsandwich and @funeral.potatoes, and this Saturday at noon they’ll make the scene @welcome.2.thee.jungle’s pop-up market at Haddon and Campbell.
After that, a deli? Well, something. “Possibly a commissary stocking our friends’ products as well as having a space where people can come together. Maybe a little bookstore where we host local artists, writers, producers. A space for everyone, that’s what we want. If you can’t uplift community while you uplift yourself, then I think you have to find a way to do both. It’s all about mutual aid. And I think to have a healthy gut biome is pretty punk. It’s pretty anti-capitalist.” v