While LSU alum Kaitlynn Fenley was pursuing her degree in microbiology from LSU, she fell in love with microbes. "There are more microbes on this planet than there are stars in the sky, and the good microbes far outweigh the bad," Fenley says. But while Fenley was falling in love with microbes, she also fell in love with growing her own food (using microbes!) and with Scott Chachere, also an LSU alum who pursued a degree in digital advertising.
After graduating from LSU, Kaitlynn and Scott, both Louisiana natives, teamed up to bring together microbes, fermentation and healthy foods, first with a lifestyle blog called Microbial Universe and then with their fermented foods business Cultured Guru. The team runs their business out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and their products can be found in local stores and restaurants including Magpie Cafe, Calandro's Supermarket on Government and Red Stick Spice Co. Cultured Guru uses fresh and organic ingredients (and microbes!) to traditionally ferment foods.
After seeing Cultured Guru's mouth-watering Instagram feed, we wanted to learn more about the science of fermented foods and how Kaitlynn and Scott become Cultured Gurus.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Kaitlynn and Scott: We share an underlying passion to lead a life of fulfillment and our degrees from LSU have been imperative to satisfying that passion. For Cultured Guru, we combined accurate information with a recognizable brand that is relatable and approachable. We are both passionate about the work we do and towards each other. We are a team, first and foremost. Our business is run by us, its owners, and with the help of our family and our friends we have been able to achieve so much already. As far as what we do for fun... we ferment foods and take pictures of it.
"What we do for fun...
We ferment foods and take pictures of it!"
College of Science: We understand that you started a food business based on your knowledge of microbiology. How fascinating! Can you tell us more about your business and its mission?
Kaitlynn and Scott: The majority of life on Earth is microbial. Over time, however, humans have taken a serious toll on the probiotic bacteria that actually protect us from disease and promote health. To thrive and maintain optimal health, we need beneficial microorganisms on us, inside of us and all around us. The necessity and purpose of microbes in our world often get overlooked, but we are here to change that.
Our mission is to share our sustainable, probiotic, nourishing foods with the world while educating people about the relevance and necessity of microbes in our daily lives. A healthy microbiome, or the ecological community of microorganisms living in the human gut, is vital for proper nutrient absorption, mental wellness, immune function and digestive health. One way to maintain a healthy population of good microbes in your body is to regularly eat wild fermented foods. They contain species-rich probiotic populations, are packed with essential vitamins, and you can pair them with just about any meal!
College of Science: Can you tell us the origin story of your business, and how microbiology contributed to "getting this all started"?
Kaitlynn and Scott: After graduating from LSU, we desired an outlet for our passions, and so Microbial Universe was formed. It was a lifestyle blog dedicated to embracing, exploring and appreciating microbes in everything they do. Scott captured beautiful photos showing the world that microorganisms can be appreciated in our macro world, while microbiologist Kaitlynn wrote blog posts as a resource to give credit to the "good" microbes. Inspired by travels, food, nature and day-to-day life, we provided information about the irrevocably marvelous microscopic world around us.
Sharing recipes that incorporated so many fermented foods meant eating many probiotic rich, wholesome meals. A daily intake of fermented veggies resulted in tremendous health benefits and tons on fun food experiences for us. So we expanded our mission. We now strive to share probiotic, nourishing foods with the world, while educating people about the relevance and necessity of microbes in daily life.
College of Science: How do you use microbiology now?
Kaitlynn: I mostly use microbiology to problem solve and invent neat ways to make amazing fermented foods. The thing I love about making our products is that I check everything we do under the microscope. Microbiology has come so far, and now there are great things like genome sequencing, but it is very expensive. So I use techniques and procedures that I learned while working towards my degree to identify microbes.
I’m very appreciative of the microbial world we live in, I’m able to go out in the world and understand how microbes play a part somehow in everything I do. It’s like I’m always seeing everything through a filter of my passion, and I love sharing that point of view with people. Scott is able to capture such beautiful images showing how microbes influence our macro world, while I explain how mostly everything has something to do with microbes.
College of Science: Can you tell us more about the science behind your fermented foods?
Kaitlynn: Our fermentation technique draws from traditional, wild fermentation methods. However, unlike most fermentation information out there on the internet, our process is grounded in the science of microbiology. I developed our method. Vegetable fermentation is not an untouchable, mysterious, magic occurrence. It is a process ruled by microbial living parameters and metabolism. Only when done properly are fermented foods safe, beneficial and perfectly delicious.
When we talk about fermenting vegetables, we are specifically referring to a microbial process called lactic acid fermentation. This particular fermentation occurs when very specific salt concentrations are added to vegetables so that certain bacteria end up thriving and producing lactic acid, the pleasantly sour substance that actually preserves the vegetables. The microbes that help us produce our delicious products come from the vegetables and the earth in which they were grown.
For the best probiotic microbes to flourish and produce lactic acid, we harness the delicate process of bacterial succession. Bacterial succession starts when we add salt to our fresh vegetables. First, the growth and metabolism of one group of bacterial species increases, for example Gram-negative rod shaped species like Enterobacter cloacae and Erwinia herbicola, permanently altering the environment and depleting it of oxygen. This leads to the death of that species and takeover of a different type of bacteria. As one type of bacteria dies off, the next type takes over until the ferment reaches a point with selective living conditions for various species of Lactobacillus (which are the probiotic, lactic acid producing bacteria). Lactobacillus species are salt-tolerant, acid-tolerant, homolactic fermenters.
Basically we are using the metabolism and byproducts of specific groups of microbes to create an environment that is anaerobic, acidic and salty. This leads to just Lactobacillus species of bacteria being present in our foods.
When using microbes to produce fermented foods, bacterial succession takes time and occurs in three stages that take three to four weeks. I check our ferments under the microscope at every stage of the fermentation process using staining techniques and microscopy to ensure safety and natural probiotic quality. This also allows me to provide timelines of fermentation for people who read our blog and ferment at home.
**(Shout out to Dr. Karen Sullivan for being the coolest LSU professor and teaching me about lactic acid fermentation and how to monitor fermented vegetables using microscopy. None of this would be possible without what I learned from her.)
College of Science: What do you most want people to know about microbes?
Kaitlynn: That they aren’t bad, they’re necessary.
College of Science: What do you think has been most important to your current endeavors/success? What advice do you have for LSU students looking to make careers as microbiologists?
Kaitlynn and Scott: Perseverance and fearlessness.
Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. We cannot stress this enough. Try new things; do not be afraid to change your mind. You will not find what your calling in life is until you are already doing it.
College of Science: Anything else you'd like to add about your business, microbiology, or your passions/interests?
Kaitlynn and Scott: As a company and public figures, we are removing the fear of good bacteria in our community through education and by teaching people about the microbiology of fermented foods. Sharing our nutritious probiotic products with the world gives us the opportunity to provide educational information about friendly microbes, the microbiome and gut health. Helping others to see the world from a microbe-centered perspective, providing more and more people with a means to finally see microbes as allies and a natural beautiful part of the world, that’s what motivates us.
College of Science: What's your approach to communicating about your business and the science behind it online?
Kaitlynn and Scott: We live in an extremely social and visual time. It is no longer adequate to hide behind blocks of text on the Internet. People want to support local companies that are dedicated to a cause for improving their community.
That being said, content is still king. You can have the prettiest photos and video in the world, but if there is no substance behind it, it will quickly blend into the background.
This is where Cultured Guru really shines. By combining my knowledge of microbiology along with Scott’s impressive photography, we have been able to capture an audience that is open-minded in learning about their microbiomes, because we are presenting it to them in a way that they can take right into their own home in an understandable and digestible way.
Learn more about the LSU microbiology program here!