A Chef’s Take on Wine and Bugs

Ken Navarro, creator of Rule of Yum, did not hesitate when he received the strange offer. “Want to come to a wine & cheese pairing? Well, minus the cheese. With bugs instead.”

Where most would have been hesitant to challenge their pallets, Navarro is no stranger to experimenting with flavor and taste.  He is the creator of Rule of Yum, a YouTube series dedicated to exploring fun recipes. With both his recipes and his personal fashion, Navarro has a proclivity towards the exotic. This particular Friday afternoon, Navarro was joined by LA Pastry Cheff Jae Hee Lee and bizarre food specialist Matt Bell at V Wine Room for a wine tasting unlike any other.

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Image: Ken Navarro’s chef creations.

I had spent the larger part of the day setting up the elegant bar for my first big bug event. Michael Consbruck (Mikey), owner of V Wine Room, was one of the few bars that didn’t hang up on me when I called asking to serve insects in his establishment. He made me repeat myself several times, not quite believing that I actually meant “bug-bugs,” but was clearly curious enough to let me come in.

I crossed my fingers, hoping Mikey would be open to letting me host the tasting there, as V Wine Room was the perfect setting – the interior is a revival of the original historic library in West Hollywood. All of the wines carried by V are unique to local boutique winemakers and the space has a very elegant feel. It’s not where you would expect to find bugs on the menu… or is it? After hearing about the health benefits, the environmental impact, and just plain “coolness” of edible bugs, Mikey was down. And the tasting was on.

The first pour was a Sauvignon Blanc paired with dehydrated scorpions (not poisonous – don’t worry!). Scorpions are like land lobsters – fishy – and the acidic Sauv paired perfectly. Mikey was clearly nervous, as his hand was shaking while pouring the wine. “I jumped out of a plane last week and I would rather do that again than try this,” he shared. But after the first bite he wanted more.

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Navarro and others await the first pour at V Wine Room

Next we sampled silk worm pupae, which Navarro described as tasting like walnuts. Spicy superworms were next, followed by crickets. “These have a sweet umami taste to them,” he noted. We moved on to darker wines, pairing some chocolates made with insects with a Zinfandel blend.

Navarro was no stranger to the insects. He took the scorpion like a champ, and I could tell the wheels in his culinary mastermind were spinning with each new ingredient that was presented to him.

While there’s a growing awareness around the health and environmental benefits of eating bugs, we cannot overlook their potential as gourmet ingredients. Bugs have delicate and diverse flavor profiles that top chefs are only beginning to explore. Events like these showcase how insects can be enjoyed as gourmet ingredients, much like fine cheeses. It’s a chance to show the diversity in flavors: a scorpion is basically a land lobster and pairs very well with a more acidic Sauvignon Blanc, while silk worms can have an earthy umami flavor and pair nicely with a full bodied Zinfandel.

But let’s get back to the man of the hour: Ken Navarro. I followed up with him after the event to hear a bit more about his own background and origins as a chef. See below for a peek into this delightful man’s life:

1.     How did you get started cooking? Who was your early inspiration?

“I started cooking around 15 years old, but I always had fascination for food and cooking. I remember being 6 years old and asking my yaya (babysitter) what happens if you pan-fry oranges. She told me that’s weird but we still did it anyway–and it actually came out good.
I think just like most chefs my age, my biggest culinary heroes were Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller. Keller inspired me to be more masterful, and to always strive for finesse. Adria on the other hand inspired me to keep my childish curiosity, and think of the integrity of the ingredients not the constructs we’ve attached to them as a society. A carrot can be the star of the dish, not just a supporting character, and pork can become dessert if you want it to. Together they’ve molded my philosophy on food.”

2.     When did you start Ruleofyum? What was the biggest challenge you faced?

“I started RuleOfYum around the end of 2011, and the biggest challenge I’ve faced was editing and shooting the videos. I’m still learning how to do it. Before, my boyfriend Nic would do all of it for me, but because of my mild control issues, I took the reigns myself.”

3.     You mentioned you’ve eaten insects before – when and why?

“Well, growing up in the Philippines and having family in rural provinces I was definitely exposed to many things, especially culinarily. Kamaru or field crickets is a very common diet staple in Pampanga in the Philippines, while some parts eat June beetles and other critters.  When I was 8, I remember playing at my friend’s house and his uncles were drinking and eating kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) but instead of fish, they used these giant white worms. I’m pretty sure they were horn worms but then again this was ages ago. They offered it to me and my friend–I guess trying to scare us–but I took one and ate it, partly because I was curious, but mostly because I didn’t want them to win.”

4.     Can you describe the flavor profiles of some of the insects you tried at the wine tasting event? Which was your favorite?

“Hmmm. Let’s see:

  • The scorpion was smokey, woody. It reminds me of crispy salmon skin.
  • The seasoned silk worms were nutty, almost like a walnut.
  • The mealworms were amazing! They were tangy, almost reminiscent of a lime. Grind it up with some salt and place it on an elote with parmesan, and Kewpie mayo? You’ll be set!
  • The crickets were an umami bomb! I don’t think I can describe it any better.”

5.     Many say that insects are an untapped culinary resource – would you agree? How do you think we can get more chefs using insects?

“Definitely! Not to mention it’s better for the environment and nutritious! I think showing more chefs and having insects integrated in culinary schools would definitely loosen the taboo, and in the long run develop more techniques and use for them.”
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Ken Navarro creates delicious & protein packed meals with crickets from Entomo Farms

6.     I know you’ve started making some dishes with crickets recently. How do you decide what to create with crickets?

“Well, the fact that crickets are jam-packed with protein made it so much easier since I’m trying work on my fitness. I like the smokey/umami flavor they add especially to pasta dishes. I also used them on a pizza and salads for texture, and of course protein.” [you can check out his Instagram here]

7.     What has been the response from your fan base when you showcase edible insects?

“Still a large part of them are like ‘no.’ But the more I post about them the more people get curious and want to try.”

Navarro created an excellent video of his experience tasting some of my favorite insects – check it out below! Many thanks to V Wine Room for letting us experiment at their fine establishment. In exciting news, we have another event coming up that will be open to the public. V Wine Room & Bugible are pairing up again for LA’s first public wine & bug tasting! Check out the event details here: https://bugible.com/events/.

Many thanks to Entomo Farms for providing Navarro and me with endless delicious crickets!!

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