What do you call a 43-year-old Korean-American man who can play the saxophone, cook an ant-topped chocolate mousse, and run his own catering company?
Only one name: Joseph Yoon.
Before he traded his white double-breasted chef’s jacket for a black chef’s jacket and a tie. Before he founded his own private catering service. Before he became one of the most prominent names in the New York entomophagy field, and before he created New York City’s first entomophagy festival, he was just a saxophone player from Brooklyn.
Yoon traveled through Europe for a year and a half, playing his sax everywhere he went. He spent time in Valencia, Spain for a year before returning to New York.
His hopes of life as a professional musician hadn’t panned out, so he transitioned to working in the music industry. In 2002, after working with different companies for several years, Yoon saved enough money to start his own company and worked as a music executive.
In 2011, however, he started to burn out.
“It is a very demanding and very challenging industry. While it’s very rewarding and also has its challenges, sometimes there’s very little rewards. Sometimes there’s people that just aren’t very grateful for the work that you do. I wanted to find something that I was passionate about again, and something that was really a spark of fire in my life.”
In high school, Yoon cooked a lot. He had pictures of dishes he had cooked for his girlfriend in his high school photo album. In his large Korean family, he connected with the women, who cooked, and developed a close connection to cooking. Yoon would go to parties and barbeques and completely take over.
“They’re like, ‘Oh we don’t have to do the work anymore! Joseph’s here!’”
Born from a true desire to cook and serve, cooking became his passion. In 2011, after receiving a fair amount of interest from his pop up events, Yoon launched his private culinary company, Yummy Eats.
In 2017, just before Cinco de Mayo, Yoon connected with the artist Miru Kim, known for taking nudes photographs of herself in different settings such as the jungles of Peru, and on the rooftops of Istanbul. They met a random party and subsequently became friends.
Around that time, however, Kim was working on another photo series titled Phobia/Phagia. She wanted to address and conquer her fear of insects.
One night a concept emerged, "I’d love you to cook bugs for me if you are interested.’
"I didn’t even think twice. I knew nothing about cooking bugs. I knew nothing about edible insects. All I know is when someone that I want to work with is interested in working with me, I say yes.”
They hosted an event on Cinco de Mayo, a fundraiser to help Miru Kim purchase new equipment.
Yoon cooked nine dishes for the event, ranging from cricket sesame balls to crickets in a bourbon whiskey.
Here are a few pictures taken by Joseph Yoon from his event with Miru Kim back in 2017:
It was the first and only time he purchased his own insects.
The leading providers of edible insects in North and South American, Entosense, Entomo Farms, and Merci Mercado, instantly became sponsors after he presented this project.
A month after the event, Joseph called his three sponsors together and offered them a proposal.
“Hey, would you guys be interested in attending a festival in New York City if I hosted one?’ They said, ‘Yeah if you hosted the festival, we’ll be 110% behind it.’ So I was like, ‘It’s a bug festival, edible insects. New York City’s never hosted something like this.”
Yoon managed to put together his festival in just three months. On Labor Day weekend 2017, the first annual Brooklyn Bugs festival was born.
The three day festival served edible insect dishes throughout the day, had an outdoor vendor’s market, a community brunch, and a banquet highlighting David George Gordon, one of the leading edible insect chefs at the time.
Brooklyn Bugs was Yoon’s first big break.
On the third day of the festival, he received a call from the New York Times to conduct a Facebook live video on cooking with insects.
“It was like a call from the mothership. It’s kind of like, you know, my local newspaper calls me, and my local newspaper is the New York Times. That’s just incredible. Seven years of working as a private chef, I never got any interest from the New York Times. And so I was like, ‘Wow!’ That was the Ding! moment in my head. And NPR did a feature for the children’s programming I did during the festival. Gizmodo wrote about it. All the local news channels were there, and so it was just really rewarding to put that kind of work out there.”
Before the end of the year, he received a call from the Smithsonian Channel. They were looking for chefs to participate in their web series, Bug Bites, a show that highlights different entomophagy chefs from all across the country, including David George Gordon.
With Yoon’s career as an insect chef only just starting to take off, he decided to take a risk, “I decided I was not going to heavily market myself for the holiday season for Yummy Eats, which is where I can make a quarter of my salary during the holiday season…I essentially only took requests for holiday parties from my old clients. And I decided not to market [Yummy Eats] very much. I just said I’m going to put my eggs in the basket with Brooklyn Bugs.”
The money comes second. He is an entrepreneur, and a producer, but most importantly an ambassador serving the world at large.
“I’m happy to take these [financial] risks and sacrifices in life because of the idea that we are disrupting the system, and helping Americans redefine their understanding of food and their relationship with food.”
Entomophagy, however, doesn’t mean grabbing up insects willy nilly whenever you see them. Sustainable and responsible sourcing is also key.
“I adamantly condemn that practice because of the issue with pesticides and not knowing the source of where your food source comes from. No matter how romantic the idea may be, if you do eat insects that you see in your backyard and catch something, and you’re like, ‘Oh I don’t use pesticides,’ well you’re neighbor might. It’s just about being responsible of where you get your food.
Do you want to just go anywhere?
Who knows how the GMO products have been utilized, or how it is. It’s very important that you know the source of your food and responsibility of it.
My sponsors and I, we work very much in maintaining the authenticity of the food. If we’re getting food in the Congo, we try to buy from villagers. With the business, we try to develop relationships so that we support local industries. ”
It also means not simply eating a bowl of mealworms or crickets like chips or a snack. It’s about the normalization of edible insects into American culture. It’s about establishing insects as food, and not just a trend or a novelty. For Yoon, it’s more than just “a hipster food trend.”
“I think the real big important topic is changing American’s perceptions; the idea of insects of pests, and something that you want to kill in the house. It’s about changing the perception from pest to something that’s farmed and harvested for human consumption.
Right now, when you think about bugs, it’s either a novelty, like Fear Factor. We really commit our time to engaging the community, and engaging as many people as possible to try [edible insects], and to see and share their experience with these foods to help people start understanding and normalizing this practice.
When people ask me what my role is, I never just say, ‘I’m a bug chef.’ I am, but my identity in this role is very much as an ambassador and as an advocate because no one chef- I don’t care if Julia Child comes out of the graves and starts cooking bugs- will change the mind of all Americans. No one event will change the minds of all Americans. It’s really going to be a process of normalization where we need a ton of chefs involved: posting pictures, serving the food, making it available.
We need a ton of scientists to continue their research; help us have a deeper understanding of what the benefits are, what’s the actual empirical data of edible insects. We need children to get interested and involved for them to start eating edible insects. We need the media to start covering it and really start to share stories. We need people to remove the sensationalism and to help people understand why it is that people like me are doing what we’re doing. We need policymakers that can dissolve regulations so that big industry will start putting money into funding and research that will help with the normalization process.”
For people who have never tried edible insects, and who are very adamant against trying them, Yoon goes about the normalization process very carefully.
He doesn’t serve up bowly of raw mealworms or crickets. Instead, he incorporates them into regular dishes, like crudité with scorpions and wasps, shrimp with ants, or chocolate mousse with bugs.
Edible insects are more than just little snacks. When deciding what insect to pair with a particular dish, he treats insects like a new ingredient.
“I try to research how heat affects it, how different cooking applications might affect the flavor profiles. I try to understand and unlock the mysteries of these insects and try to understand what’s the best way to have it taste right. I really try to find ways to introduce them [to edible insects], and appreciate what the bug is, and to really appreciate what the flavor is. I want them to understand and say, ‘Oh chef I understand why you put the cricket into the gougere.’ Or ‘I really like how that cricket is in with the kimchi, how it adds a certain note.’”
If Yoon’s ultimate goal is the normalization of edible insects, the delicious and appetizing dishes he creates are simply his means to an end!
“I try to just make awesome food, crave-worthy food, delicious food, and incorporate insects into it. So any time I get a new client that asks me to make something different, I always make more, and I try adding bugs to it for my own R&D.”The research and experimentation Yoon conducts is the focal point of his mission.
There’s a lot of unknowns surrounding edible insects, and every bug he experiments with gets added to his “Flavor Bible” of edible insects. Currently, he’s working with San Diego State University, along with a panel of chefs in New York City, to document the flavor profiles of edible insects. The research will go back to the University, where they’ll study the elements of each bug as well as the ingredients that the chefs say it tastes most similar to. This document, this Flavor Bible, will reveal answers into the edible insect world.
“Right now when people ask, ‘So what does this taste like?’ And everyone’s like, ‘Oh cricket? It tastes nutty.’ Well, how many nuts are in this world? A hundred thousand. I mean a peanut tastes so different than a pistachio nut, and a walnut. They don’t even taste remotely similar. So what we’re going to do is really create empirical data with tasting notes, and essentially a Bible that will help people to understand how they could integrate bugs into their diet. It’s going to be a really great and invaluable tool, not only for the industry but for people interested in working with insects as well.”
Knowing that mealworms could be chopped up in order to form a breading for fish, or that ants could be used in a similar fashion to lemons and limes because of their formic acid, are two examples of what this Flavor Bible would accomplish: insects as ingredients, as tools, as commonplace tools in the kitchen as well as the world.
Yoon lives in the here and now. Despite his background as a businessman and entrepreneur, he no longer tries to project his career trajectory weeks, months, years, or a decade in advance.
“I can’t just accept things for what they are, and I can’t be like, ‘This is what I gotta do, and there’s no other option.’ I really just wanted to continue the work that I’m doing. I just want to see [edible insects] be a normalized, integrated part of our food culture and system because it is sustainable, and it will be an important step for us. So we’d be more responsible as human beings and really just try to understand how we can be better. Be good and not leave the place in ruin for future generations.”
This year’s Brooklyn Bugs festival will take place November 14th to November 16th at the Brooklyn Kitchen (100 Frost Street, Brooklyn, NY).
The festival will feature special guest chefs demonstrations of mastery over ento-cuisine.
There will also be an insect cocktail party and “Bugsgiving” banquet. A dinner featuring David George Gordon & Joseph Yoon, reimagining typical Thanksgiving dishes with edible insects. An exclusive “Late Night Bugout” that will feature episode screenings from the Smithsonian Channel’s Bug Bites, a live recording of the Ento Nation podcast, extra cooking demos, and more “buggery.”
For general information and ticket pricing, visit the site here.
For the spoiled NYC reader, Joseph has generously offered a 20% discount on tickets with the code “Spoiled20” until November 5th.