Just Outside Kansas City, Slow Superlative Flavor

By Sean Kenniff | Victoria Brown | Megan Swann


Sean Kenniff
Victoria Brown
Megan Swann
Bass Crudo and Smoked Bass Fritters: Soyless Soy Sauce, Fermented Potato, Penny Cress
Bass Crudo and Smoked Bass Fritters: Soyless Soy Sauce, Fermented Potato, Penny Cress

Jonathan Justus is interested in umami. In truth, he’s interested in everything. He has a science-forward approach and relentless curiosity out-stripped only by his passion. Justus dabbles in everything from seaweed that’s been partially digested in the belly of abalone to ground toasted persimmon seeds—all in the noble pursuit of flavor.  

At his restaurant/laboratory, Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, Justus combines three original techniques on one plate: fermented potato powder, soyless soy sauce, and selectively bred penny cress. 

Fermented Potato Powder
“We had sweet potato vines growing in planter boxes outside the restaurant,” says Justus. “They were for decoration, not for food. The tubers got so big that the cedar boxes burst and were destroyed. I’d never seen such giant tubers! I thought, ‘What can we do?’” Here’s what: Justus thinly sliced the orange and white sweet potatoes, added salt, transferred them to nonreactive five-gallon containers, secured cheesecloth over the buckets, and let the potatoes ferment in a cool backroom. After six weeks, Justus liked the flavor but didn’t dig the texture. He ended up fermenting the sweet potatoes for months before finally deciding to dehydrate them—separately, by color—in a low oven. The result? “Pretty amazing!” Justus says of the chips he pulverized into powder. “They’re like flavor accelerators. The orange tastes like spicy kimchi, and the white like pure MSG, pure umami.”       

Soyless Soy Sauce
Inspired by the soy notes in a porter from a brewery in Marseilles, France, Justus started with Bully! Porter from local Kansas City brewery Boulevard, and after months of experimentation, he struck on a technique for this ultra savory sauce. Over several days, Justus cooks bags of porter sous vide at a low temperature, evaporating the alcohol, releasing it, transferring the porter to a new bag, and repeating the process until all the alcohol is gone. Then he adds salt, brewer’s yeast, caramel, and powdered smoked shiitake stems. He ages the mixture a couple months before straining it. No cash crops harmed in the making of this umamiful sauce.    

Breeding Penny Cress 
“I started collecting penny cress in the spring and tasting it. It’s a bitter plant” says Justus. “Suddenly, one day I tasted one and it was nutty.” Penny cress has a high yield for a small planting area, and Justus  began planting the seeds from the less bitter, nutty-tasting cress. He continued planting, selecting only the seeds from the nutty cress for replanting. He’ll never completely breed out the bitter cress because of cross pollination, but the proportion of useable nutty cress is high enough to keep planting, picking, and plating penny cress.      

On the Plate
Justus adds his soyless soy sauce to a local bass crudo along with ginger oil. Also on the plate are smoked bass fritters garnished with duck egg salad, sturgeon caviar, pickled day lily bulbs, pickled shallot, and native perilla leaf. The dish is finished with a dusting of fermented potato powder and penny cress. Delicious? Yes. Also, an incredible technical feat.  

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