Culinary Creatives / Lindsey and RJ Marvin
RJ and Lindsey Marvin, owners of Barrel + Brine
Photo by kc kratt
RJ and Lindsey Marvin, owners of Barrel + Brine
RJ: 37 (Leo); Lindsey: 31 (Pisces)
Years in the biz: RJ: all of them Lindsey: since B+B opened
Former employers: RJ: Blue Monk, Mike A @Hotel Lafayette, Elm Street Bakery, and others
He’s a chef most recognized from stints at Blue Monk and Elm Street Bakery. She’s a fan of Insane Clown Posse, a science nerd, and a professional makeup artist. Together, RJ and Lindsey Marvin have been paving the way for Buffalo’s newfound love affair with fermented foods. Since opening Barrel + Brine in 2015, the pair have earned a rep for creating high-quality pickles, kombucha, and other fermented foods like kimchi and miso. You can find their stuff at their shop on Carolina Street, the Elmwood Village Farmers Market, or one of a dozen retail locations.
How about your formal education, affiliations, or stagiaires?
Lindsey: Fredonia State, ceramics
RJ: I staged at The Publican once, for a week. It was fucking horrible. One quick stage at McCrady’s. I spent time in Sean Brock’s fermentation lab, and then I lost my notebook with all the recipes. I emailed him for copies but he hasn’t replied—probably because I talked too much during service.
RJ, how old were you when you first worked in a kitchen?
I was seventeen. Kitchen jobs were the only thing that worked around being in a punk band.
Lindsey, have you ever restaurant-ed before?
Lindsey: During college, I worked the bar and waited tables at a few Dunkirk hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants. It was usually awful and I always left smelling like fish fry and Koch’s Golden Anniversary beer. Most recently, I worked with Jill Forster and chef Will Peterson at Lait Cru Brasserie/Nickel City Cheese. That was a completely different experience. Will and the kitchen staff were respectful, fun, and professional; that totally changed my perception of the restaurant industry.
Where are you guys from originally?
RJ: We’re both from Dunkirk. It’s like a colder version of the town in Breaking Bad, but with fewer restaurant options. I used to smoke a lot of Marlboros at Perkins.
Why pickles and fermented foods?
RJ: Preservation is in our DNA. It’s how humanity survived for thousands of years. Then in the fifties, we all decided it was easier to buy TV dinners and watch Jack Benny.
Lindsey: Fermenting kombucha stems from my obsession with making and drinking tea. My Irish grandmother, Mary, made the best tea. It was perfectly steeped, served in beautiful china, and enjoyed during dessert. When I brew tea for kombucha, I try to replicate her efforts.
RJ, how is this gig different than being a cook or chef at a restaurant?
RJ: In a restaurant, your main goal is to make something that will be eaten at its freshest. Ideally, you’re getting ingredients in the morning and putting them on a plate that night. It’s a fleeting moment. Restaurants are fast-paced. Now I’m making miso that won’t be done for another eighteen months.
Being in both the retail and wholesale business is a challenge for many artisan food producers. What have you learned that you’d tell someone else thinking about doing the same?
Lindsey: Learn to say no. Not every event, every store, or every market is the right fit. Stay true to what you value, collaborate with cool people, and don’t be a sell-out.
RJ: The retail really helps us maintain relationships with our customers. We don’t want to be a faceless thing.
How have your original plans or expectations changed since you opened?
RJ: When we first opened, I made forty-eight jars of pickles and thought that was a lot. Now we make eight hundred pounds a month. The original idea was for me to just make sauerkraut, but I remember waking up to a note from Lindsey that said, “You better start making some fucking pickles.”
Collaboration seems to be something B+B seeks. Can you tell me why and how that is?
RJ: Projects keep us sane. Before we even opened our doors, we were meeting with BreadHive and talking about how we can work together. We all jive well and like hanging out together. We’ve been approached by other places for collaborations and we were either too small to accommodate or our personalities didn’t mesh. If you’ve never played Metroid or gotten drunk on Mad Dog 20/20 while jamming to some early nineties skate punk, then I don’t know what to tell ya.
Which of the B+B line up is most unique?
RJ: The Bloody Mary Mix. I think we’re the only place in town making our own mix for retail. Neither of us really dig the Bloody Mary thing, so when we were at a party, someone made us a couple and Lina dumped a bunch of our brine in it. That was it. The next week we were making it and eating hella Tums.
Which of the B+B offerings is most representative of your culinary point of view?
RJ: Kombucha. We’ve seen enough people suffer through bottles of kombucha for the benefits. That doesn’t make sense to us. Our main focus is to make a delicious product first.
Lindsey: The Steampunk kombucha. It’s a really cool collaboration we did with Leonard Oakes Steampunk Cider, so it’s two funky fermented things that combine and make an unapologetically dank kombucha. I like to aggressively flavor kombucha, and this is next level.
RJ, who does a pickle guy idolize?
RJ: People who are willing to do things differently. I’ve always been drawn to the freaks and the weirdos. In culinary terms, René Redzepi, obviously. Arielle Johnson. Queens of the Stone Age keep us going. Every Time I Die has a work ethic and a DIY mindset that any business could benefit from noticing.
In recent years, the idea that our immune systems, gut health, and mental well-being are attached to the consumption of fermented foods has been getting a lot of airtime. What do you make of that?
Lindsey: I think people are getting more proactive when it comes to health and wellness. There is a lot of great research linking gut health, probiotics, and fermented food to benefits for the body. We aren’t doctors, but encourage people to educate themselves and do what works for their body. We always try to approach our products from a culinary perspective, focusing on flavor, balance, and quality; they just happen to be good for you, too! There’s nothing worse than watching someone suffer through a health food because they think it can’t be both healthy and delicious.
People don’t realize that fermentation is science and can go wrong in the hands of an amateur. What do people need to do to experiment with this idea in a safe way? Is there something they should read, know, or otherwise learn?
Lindsey: Homebrewing kombucha should be taken as seriously as making wine or beer. The most important thing homebrewers need to do it invest in proper sanitization solutions and pH testing tools. It’s really important to have a clean work space and conduct SCOBY [symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast] upkeep. If you’re a person that forgets to feed the goldfish or water the house plants, making Kombucha may not be the hobby for you. SCOBY are living critters that need to be fed fresh sugary tea to live and create healthy kombucha.
RJ: If people are really into it, there is a plethora of information online. Sandor Katz’s Art of Fermentation will point you in the right direction as far as the science and starting recipes. Use good produce, use good salt, and use common sense.
SCOBY creep me out, the same way sea creatures from the deepest darkest part of the ocean do. Tell me why they shouldn’t?
Lindsey: Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder with SCOBY cultures. They look like a jellyfish had a baby with a Frisbee. I love pulling the sixty pound mothers [SCOBY] out of the barrel and watching people’s faces when they realize it’s a living, growing, blob. I name mine and am really attached to them—which is super weird, I know. Our cultures at Barrel + Brine are around ten years old, and are unique because they are exposed to the yeasts and bacteria floating around the pickle shop. They are like their own little universe, and no two are alike. I had to start giving some of them to a local soap maker because I couldn’t just toss them.
RJ, we’ve talked about how not all pickles are created equal. How can a consumer tell the difference? What are the health differences for the eater?
RJ: I think consumers just need to be more aware of what ingredients are actually in the product. Like, are these pickles yellow? Is it turmeric or is it Yellow #5? Is it fermented naturally or is it vinegar based? Is it raw or is it processed? There are a lot of ways to sneak some shit by you, so you just need to take the time to know what’s going on. If the producer doesn’t want to answer or you can’t find the answer, walk away.
Lindsey, same goes for kombucha. How do consumers know when they are drinking real kombucha and when they are drinking faux kombucha? What are the health differences for the drinker?
Lindsey: There are a few red flags to look for when dealing with faux kombucha. As its popularity grows, large corporations will try to make money off it without using quality ingredients or proper fermentation practices. Avoid large grocery store knock-off brands or otherwise mass-produced kombucha. Faux kombucha companies will pasteurize. Pasteurizing fermented products kills all of the beneficial bacteria, so you may as well be drinking soda. Secondly, just as the quality of grapes a winemaker uses impacts the quality of the wine, the quality of tea a brewer uses affects the quality of the kombucha. If the bottle doesn’t look or taste like tea, it probably isn’t. Thirdly, if the ingredients contain citric acid, artificial flavors, artificial colors, concentrates, or anything you can’t pronounce—put it down, it’s trash. Lastly, kombucha is alive. Wild yeast, incorrect pH levels, and exposure to heat can kill the probiotics or make you sick. Only buy kombucha from places you trust to ferment and flavor it responsibly.
The most exciting thing about Buffalo’s food scene is:
RJ: Honestly, the people. A few years ago, the scene wouldn’t have survived in its current state. People here are so willing to try new things and support new ideas.
Is there anything else you want people to know about your shop or approach?
RJ: Life’s a garden. Dig it.
Christa Glennie Seychew may not be able to relax in the vicinity of a SCOBY, but flips over B+B’s pickled peanuts.