Zeal Restaurant: The Place to Get Cultured

By Radha Marcum
OC Senior Editor

It’s a bright and cold winter morning in Boulder, Colorado, but inside Zeal it’s toasty and buzzing like a hive as I sit down with Leslie White, executive chef, and Wayde Jester, founder of the restaurant. We sip mugs of “kickstarter” coffee, Zeal’s newest cold-weather pick-me-up—a version of Tibetan butter tea traditionally made with fermented yak butter. Theirs combines coffee, organic butter from pasture-grazed cows, and virgin coconut oil. It’s pure, frothy deliciousness.

I order the Bibimb’fast Bowl—two fried eggs atop a bed of rice and freshly sautéed greens, with spicy kimchi and sriracha sauce on the side. And before I even begin to ask questions on our topic this morning—fermented foods on Zeal’s menu—Jester has launched into a story about his specialty at home: pancakes from a sourdough starter that he’s kept fermenting for several years.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Provence or New York or Boulder,” Jester says. “When you combine a little flour and water and let it sit, you get a sourdough starter.” Bakers have capitalized on the magic of Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis—a beneficial bacterium that feeds on sugars in the wheat—for centuries, Jester explains.

Fermentation is a traditional method of preserving and heightening the nutritional benefits of a variety of foods. Without it, some of the world’s most unique flavors and foods—from miso soup in Japan to skyr (a kind of yogurt) in Iceland—wouldn’t exist. What’s more, recent science confirms what our ancestors may have observed: the beneficial bacteria (or probiotics) in fermented foods promote digestive health and immunity. Because 95 percent of our bodies’ serotonin (feel-good hormone) is contained in the gastrointestinal tract, researchers speculate that probiotics’ contribution to gut health may play a role in our emotional well-being.

Zeal (tag line “Food for Enthusiasts”) opened in 2013 with the aim to create a flavor-inspired healthy dining experience for active Boulderites, with next to no processed grains, plenty of plant-based proteins and pasture-raised meats, plus abundant farm-fresh produce. Chef Leslie White confirms that the restaurant ferments 5 to 10 gallons of kombucha (tea) per week, 50 pounds of napa cabbage for kimchi (a recipe from Korea) per week, and 50 pounds of cabbage for sauerkraut each month. The restaurant’s kombucha is fermented from what’s called a “mother” or SCOBY—a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that ferments the tea.

“We wanted to include fermentation as a component on the menu, going back to more traditional methods of making food more digestible,” says Jester. “We’re also trying to address the problem of food allergies and sensitivities that result from the sterilization of modern foods.” A lack of healthy gut bacteria can leave us vulnerable to such issues, he points out.

“Because in our society we kill bacteria in every form, we’ve ignored a vital component of health—our gut health,” Jester continues. “The human being is actually a superorganism. Only 10 percent of the DNA we contain is uniquely ours. The rest is from microorganisms we host.” We feed these organisms and, in turn, they support our health, he explains. Our understanding of how this symbiotic partnership functions to make us healthier is the frontier of microbiology and health research, Jester says. “I wanted to have a restaurant that was tapped into that edge of health.”

With bursts of tart, spicy kimchi and bright chili sauce, the Bibimb’fast Bowl hits the spot on this cold day. I’m satiated long before the fork hits the bottom of the bowl, but I keep nibbling delicious bites of the hearty greens. With little room for more, I know I’ll be back soon to satisfy my curiosity about the other cultured flavors at Zeal.

Visit Zeal in Boulder at 1710 Pearl Street, and go to zealfood.com to learn more.

Try your hand at fermenting foods with the recipes .