Q&A: Insect chef David George Gordon
Bugs have been in the news lately in a big way—as a food source that's nutritious, environmentally friendly, cheap, and abundant. But will entomophagy invade the culinary world in the same way that salted caramels, artisanal salts, bacon you-name-it, and "cronuts" have? "Bug Chef" David George Gordon has been working for the past 15 years to transform bugs from a Fear Factor dare to a Top Chef dish. (And with Top Chef's 11th season filming in New Orleans, we may soon see that grasshopper étouffé isn't that big of a leap from the crawfish version.) Gordon first published a bug cookbook in 1998, and the updated Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Revised: 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin will be released by Ten Speed Press this July. Sierra got a sneak peek at his Pear Salad With Chiangbai Ants, Sheesh! Kabobs, and White Chocolate and Wax Worm Cookies. I spoke with him, appropriately enough, as he was leaving a Seattle pet store, where he had purchased crickets for his pet tarantula.
At your cooking demonstrations, I imagine there have been some priceless looks on people's faces when they try bugs for the first time. Any memorable reactions?
I get three different kinds of people: People who say, "No way am I going to try this. I'm just here to watch." Then there are the "I'll try anything once. Here goes!" type of people. And then there are people who, I get the impression, got up super early in the morning and drove all day to be at my demonstration and are like, "How soon are you going to get set up?" Food is one of those things that people love to argue about and have very strong feelings about—like, "That's not how you make chili" or "That's not the best barbecue. Where I come from . . ." So, sometimes people say, "You're not going to eat that!" And I have to say, "No, you are. I'm going to cook it." And some are offended by the idea that I'm actually serving grasshoppers or crickets or what have you.
Have you noticed more chefs showing up at your events?
Yeah, there is more interest in getting a toehold into that whole arena. And I do talk to chefs fairly often, but I also talk to lot of world travelers who say things like, "We were in China, and, man, you wouldn't believe what we ate." If you go to Thailand, there are big carts heaped high with fried insects. I think the interest in that has grown a lot and it has become a tourist thing—like eating the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle.
When did you first eat a bug?
Quite some time ago, probably in the early 1990s, when I went to an insect fair in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle. They were serving Chex Mix with crickets, so I thought, "Well, why not? Let's give it a try!" It was great.
Have you always been an adventurous eater?
I was raised to be an adventurous eater by my folks. I always ask kids when I'm doing my programs, "How many of you are adventurous and how many of you are picky?" It comes out to about 50-50 no matter where I am, which kind of cracks me up. I think a lot of that has to do with what you were exposed to when you were being raised.
What prompted you to update your cookbook?
It's been in print for 15 years, and particularly over the past 6 or 7 years with the interest [in entomaphagy] of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there's a lot more to report in terms of the feasibility, and there are a lot more studies that show the environmental aspects of eating bugs—and that wasn't in the original book. Also, given that it was first published in 1998, it had sort of a wackier "you're going to eat what?" look. Whereas now, there are a lot more sophisticated people out there coming to recognize the value of this food.
When the U.N.'s 200-page report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security—which mentions your book—was released this May, did you have an "I-told-you-so" feeling?
Actually, I've been following that organization's efforts since 2008, when they held a conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I knew this report was forthcoming, and every now and then, I've seen reports from the Dutch guys [Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis] on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by raising grasshoppers instead of cattle and things like that. So, I do feel like I was 15 years ahead of the curve, which is unusual for me. What I find interesting are the issues about food security in the face of population growth and also climate change. Climate change is going to favor pests, and it's not going to favor some of our standard agricultural items.
In other bugs-in-the-news news, the Nordic Food Lab recently received a grant to research insect gastronomy and was hosting a fascinating-sounding event called Pestival in England. The lab's website says it has "assembled experts in entomology, gastronomy, psychology, and sustainable food systems." I think the psychologists will have the most difficult job here.
That's really true, because we live in a culture that's very into bug bashing. I hate to say it, but even the article in Sierra has some underlying prejudices in it. Other countries don't feel that way about insects in general. In Japan, for example, kids have pet beetles, and when the beetle dies, they bury it outside and have a funeral ceremony. In the United States, if you tried to bring a beetle into the house, your parents would freak—let alone host a funeral for it. So we're the weirdos in that, despite the fact that if all the insect populations were to collapse, the whole planet would pretty much be shut down, we tend to think of insects as germy and gross and disgusting. So there's an uphill battle in terms of teaching people that, in general, that's not the case, let alone that insects also taste good.
What's a good starting dish for a reluctant bug-eater?
The easiest one is crickets. For one thing, there are a couple of different species you can buy in a pet store, so year-round they're available. They're raised commercially to be eaten by pets, so they have to observe certain health and sanitary standards, so they're perfectly healthy to eat. But they're also quite delicious. You can do all sorts of different things—bake them, sauté them, boil them, remove the legs or keep the legs on. In different parts of the country, you can even catch them.
The other thing, which I tell people about all the time, are wax worms, which you can buy in a pet store or in a bait and tackle shop. They're not actually worms but the caterpillar of a moth that lays its eggs on the frames that honeycombs are built on. The caterpillars hatch out and eat the wax and honey from the beehive. Here's some creature that's been eating honey and wax for its whole life—what's not to like? When they're baked, they taste like pistachios.
There's a very strong link between what we see and what we eat, and there's a little dialogue that goes on between your stomach and your brain. Your stomach is going, "Are you sure?" And your brain is going, "Give it a try!" My joke is that your stomach always votes last—it has veto power.
What do you think needs to happen for bugs to lose their stigma and become a go-to menu item?
One really good way to get people interested in bugs that I've noticed during my cooking demonstrations is concealing the insect somehow. For example, tempura-battered mealworms look just like Cheetos. I think when it actually comes down to it, people will probably be eating what's listed in the ingredients as "animal protein," and it will be [insects] ground up and mixed in with nature burger or something like that. I'm actually appalled that people have no problem eating "pink slime" from McDonald's but the idea of eating ground-up bugs [elicits a] "no way!"
Do you have a favorite non-bug restaurant or chef?
I really love this restaurant up in British Columbia called Vij's. It's a high-end Indian restaurant owned by husband-and-wife team Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala, and I worked with them to add a bug dish to their menu [cricket parathas]. They just opened a restaurant in Seattle called Shanik, and I'm having lunch with one of the chefs and we're going to talk about their introducing another bug dish.