Inaugural Brooklyn Bugs Festival Looks Into the Future

Brooklyn is on the cutting edge of many culinary advances these days. But one of the most promising developments in the past few years — edible insects — hadn’t found a foothold there. Yet.

Enter Chef Joseph Yoon and Brooklyn Bugs.

After discovering entomophagy — the human practice of eating insects — earlier in the year, he set about putting on a 3-day festival of all things edible insect. (You can read my pre-event interview with Joseph here.)

The vision for the festival was one of inclusiveness and diversity of experience. Part dining experience, part lecture, part hands-on, part market — something for everyone, regardless of age or previous exposure to the topic. And Joseph and his partners pulled it together.

As I arranged the baskets of Brooklyn Bugs buttons and straightened piles of fliers for the documentary “Bugs,” the attendees — a mix of speakers, workers in the industry, and interested people — queued outside the door of Kinfolk 94. Within an hour, Yoon gave an announcement and invitation. “[Eating insects] is widely considered to be the future of food. You can learn more about it and be a part of the future with us.” The festival had begun.

The first day of Brooklyn Bugs focused more heavily on speakers and eating.

Fifteen speakers shared their insights twenty minutes at a time. Established entomophagy experts like Lou Sorkin, Dave Gracer, and David George Gordon shared a more historical and longitudinal perspective. Industry experts like Gabe Mott, Lee Cadesky, and Ryan Goldin explained more about the business case and how to balance research and development. Meanwhile Joseph Skipper and Juan Manuel Gutierez shared the more public facing aspects of running an edible insect business. Aly Moore shared her experiences with marketing. Fany Gerson educated attendees on the insect culture of Meso-America, while a panel of Jenny Buccos, Robyn Sharpiro, and Robert Nathan Allen talked about education and their experiences with edible insects around the world. Paul Miller and Miru Kim rounded out the talks with artists’ perspectives, making a case for edible insects from an environmental perspective and a visual one respectively.

For as many speakers presenting and as much knowledge shared, the day ran easily, aided by several breaks to have a more direct exposure to the topic at hand.

That is to say, everyone ate well.

Cricket Daikon Scallion Cakes and Vegetable Patty with Cricket Powder

Seek Food provided a sneak preview of their new cricket-enhanced granola with yogurt and strawberries as a mid-morning snack. Nhà Minh catered a Vietnamese-inspired lunch with crickets and grasshoppers provided by some of the sponsors. Dinner, provided by Dinner Echo, featured a range of sides centered around a lasagna using cricket bolognese sauce from One Hop Kitchen.

The meals were delicious in their own right. But they served as a conversation starter for everyone to get to know each other more, to learn what brought each of us out to Brooklyn Bugs. I was able to follow up with several of the speakers and ask deeper questions about their presentations. I met future founders of start-ups who were getting feedback on their ideas and meeting possible future partners. And I talked with people who are excited for this to be part of the future of food and were here to learn more.

I left with a full brain and an even more full stomach. (It’s hard to say no to an extra serving when it is both healthy and delicious.)

The second day had a different feel and a different intent, a more hands-on and interactive experience. Attendees at t.b.d. Brooklyn were welcomed to participate at their own pace and as in-depth as they wanted.

Place your bets! Place your bets! Watching the hissing cockroach races at the Entomophatron.

David George Gordon was answering all questions while serving up locusts over copies of his Eat-A-Bug Cookbook (now in its second edition). Across the way, guests could step back in time with the Entomophatron, a 50s diner-style booth with a range of insect experiences. For the very squeamish, gummy worms were the entry point. For the more fearless (who were often the children), edible ants and a cockroach petting zoo awaited.

Vendors were on site to discuss, sample, and sell their products. Alongside other options, people had a chance to try the range of cricket flavors from Aketta, snacks from Seek, and an insect protein sausage from One Hop Kitchen that isn’t yet on the market.

Children crafted antenna headbands at the Little Herds booth and could see a variety of critters presented by Dave Gracer.

While the children were at play, adults could pop into the attached bar for a michelada with a twist — the spicy salt rim was made from Merci Mercado’s agave worm salt. It was a refreshing way to enjoy the insect-filled afternoon.

As the sun went down, everyone headed to the culinary highlight of Brooklyn Bugs: The Bug Banquet. Hosted by Gordon with food prepared by Yoon’s catering company Dinner Echo, the Bug Banquet lived up to its promise as a fine dining experience. Three hours of conversation, delicious bites, and education swirled together at the Brooklyn Kitchen.

As each course was presented, the banter at the tables quieted down. Everyone listened intently as Gordon spun a story around each insect. The use of gusano worms to demonstrate the quality of a bottle of mezcal. The importance of cooking scorpions (which denatures their toxin and makes it safe). He even noted the world’s most famous insect eater — John the Baptist, who lived off a diet of locusts. He was assisted in his explanations by a couple other presenters he invited up. And with most courses, Chef Yoon explained of the origin of the insect and why he presented them with the ingredients that he did.

Japanese Hornet atop Lobster Medallion with Green Goddess

The two gentlemen seated across from me were a father and teenage son who had not attended the rest of the festival. When the braised beef short ribs with silkworm pupae came out, the elder man smiled. The father, of Korean descent, had grown up eating silkworm pupae. His son seemed eager at the chance to share that experience with his father. He also seemed eager to send pictures of each meal to his friends. I couldn’t blame him for that. They say that you eat first with your eyes. And that night, we all ate very, very well.

The third day of the festival was a more casual affair, consisting of an extended brunch at Guadalupe Inn. A non-ticketed event, guests ordered off the special insect brunch menu, including insect drink options. The crowd was a mix of those who had been around all weekend and fresh faces who were excited at the prospect of finding insect fare in a local restaurant.

Scrambled eggs with gusano worms and cactus at Guadalupe Inn

As everyone mingled and switched seats, they shared stories and hopes for the future. More production. More availability. Embracing of edible insects by the general public. More efficient production. More chefs experimenting with the new ingredients.

The air of optimism present at Guadalupe Inn was present for the whole festival. It wasn’t the long-shot optimism of a pipe dream. It was the confident optimism of the early adopters and entrepreneurs who were going to go out and make it happen. The question wasn’t if. The question was when. And as we all left the three day Brooklyn Bugs festival, the energy and optimism answered with “soon.”