in 1978 Gary Abramowitz launched Wok 'n Roll, a vegetarian friendly food truck, into the expansive arsenal that is Rutgers University's fast-service dining options. A few years later he found himself moving on from the truck + into the realm of tofu production at Allentown, PA's Fresh Tofu Inc., where he's been cranking out various soy-based products ever since. We chatted with the 'Zen-Tofu-Master' while touring his facility, not only to learn first-hand how tofu is manufactured, but to see the old-school techniques that have been harnessed + re-imagined for modern day tofu-making.
hg: tell us a little about yourself + your tofu background. How did Fresh Tofu get its start?
gary: I started cooking professionally in 1978. I ran a Vegetarian lunch truck at Douglas College in New Brunswick. I did that for about three years then sold the business because I wanted to grow my talents. I got a job at a vegetarian restaurant in 1981, where I served as the manager + chef for three years. One day this guy named Jeff Connorton stopped by and dropped off a bucket of tofu from his tofu business in Easton, PA. We started using the tofu in the restaurant and Jeff + I quickly became friends. I made specials every day with tofu so we always talked and always said we should collaborate. In 1984, the restaurant was sold, so I bought into Fresh Tofu as a 50/50 partner. At that time, it was just he and I, and all we did was make bulk tofu. It was in operation a year before I joined, but it was a lot of hard + strenuous work. He decided to leave about three years later + I bought him out in 1988. Since I was a chef, I was inspired to start making other things so we started to make + sell other products with the tofu; we began to expand and here we are.
hg: detail a bit of the tofu making process. What is the hardest part of this process?
gary: we start with whole organic soybeans directly sourced from farmers in New York state. We've had direct relationships with the farmers since I started 33 years ago. It’s nice because I know the farms; I know the guys + we were all doing this organically before anybody cared about being organic.
"It was something we did because we believed in it."
We start from the whole soybeans; we soak them in large soaking vats overnight for about 16 hours where they actually quadruple in size. Then we draw them out of the vats and feed them into a bean grinder which grinds up the beans with water, making what they call a "slurry." That slurry is pumped into a cooker injected with steam, instantly heating beyond boiling. This is continuously passing through the loop and comes out the other end into a double chamber centrifuge, and what goes through the screen is soy milk—that's what we’re after. What falls forward is the pulp from the beans. It’s remixed with water and goes to the second chamber. It spins again reclaiming some more of the soymilk and what falls off is a dryer version of the pulp called 'okara'—the byproduct of making tofu. That goes into barrels, and we give it to organic dairy farmer.
The soy milk goes into a holding tank. We have a carousel curding machine, and that automated curding machine draws a certain amount of soy milk and puts in another amount of coagulant. We use natural nigari sourced from Japan, which is still the purest form you can get. It’s seawater—less the salt—so chemically it’s magnesium chloride, but it has all of the elements + nutrients from the sea water. The carousel curder pulls milk, some of the coagulant and then agitators begin so you start getting curds and whey. In the carousel curder there are 12 barrels, each with an agitator and in each stage it gets a little agitation. As it goes, you’ll see more + more separation of the curds + whey. At the end, we suck off some of the whey, and we pour the remaining curd into a forming box lined with cheese cloth, close up the box, and throw it on a press. The press will squirt out more of the whey. That takes about 25 minutes to go around the press table, and when it comes out you have a big chunk of tofu. We take the block out of the tray, cut it into one pound pieces, and the dump it into a chilled water bath. When it comes out it’s still very hot + very soft, so putting it in this chilled water allows it to be handled. Then we either place it into vacuum bags for bulk, into retail packages, or into pails with water depending on the use.
We do a firm style Japanese tofu. Some people like super firm tofu, but we try to make a tofu that is flavorful and has a good all around use. When you eat our tofu it still has a flavor to it, as opposed to being very watery + bland or hard + gritty.
hg: have there been any changes in the soy industry since you started in 1984?
gary: I think that technology has allowed these large companies, where there’s probably two people on the floor making a zillion pounds of tofu to put everything through a machine. I do not know if that that existed when I first started, but there were mechanized systems from Japan that I choose not to use.
"Our thing was doing it the 'Zen-Tofu-Master' way…"
…which is literally cooking the slurry in big open vats, stirring and coagulating by hand + scooping the curd by hand into forming trays. Of course it was very labor intensive, but that’s how we did it for a long time. We couldn’t expand our business doing it that way for long. What ended up happening is one step at a time, we started automating.
The first automation was the cooker. Next was the carousel courder, and last was the carousel press. We kind of designed things as close as possible what we used to do it by hand. Most systems have a propeller that come down into the milk and gets it going super-fast + the coagulant gets dumped real fast. Ours is the whole 'Zen-Tofu-Master' thing: slow + steady. You don't want it to go super-fast, you want it to go slow so the curds press nicely + retain flavor.
hg: where do you think the soy industry is headed over the next five or ten years? How has it changed since you started?
gary: starting out it was a real uphill climb. Even though (at the time) there was no such thing as organic certification, we were organic right from the beginning. Then, the industry as a whole started growing. Companies saw this organic thing might be a way to make money. When that happened, people started jumping onboard. It wasn’t just vegetarians that were eating tofu, it was becoming more validated. Of course, Whole Foods was huge in bringing it to the people. That’s where the industry has gone over the last 30 years. I think it has become a staple in a lot of peoples diets + households that aren’t necessarily vegetarians.
Where it is going to go from here? I envision continued growth as tofu becomes more engrained into our diets.
hg: some companies forego being certified organic—why did Fresh Tofu company decide to do so?
gary: from the beginning that was the way we believed in.
"It was a way to do my part in making the world a better place."
One way was offering a product that was healthy + the other was doing it in a way that was sustainable and not destroying the environment in the process. So it was kind of the philosophy of the company right from the beginning and the other philosophy was, “fresher is better.” To situate ourselves in Easton, Pennsylvania, where we first started. Within a hundred-mile radius there is New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and other parts of Pennsylvania—it’s the largest marketplace in the country. We were able to, and we still do to a large extent get our product into the stores within a day or two. The Common Market will give us an order on Tuesday, the product will be made Wednesday, and they will get the product on Thursday.
hg: why is it important for your products to be GMO + preservative free?
gary: you can’t be organic and have GMOs. For 40+ years I have eaten naturally, so synthetic preservatives and chemical preservatives were not on my radar.
hg: Fresh Tofu is the home of the tofu turkey! What’s the inspiration behind it?
gary: the inspiration for tofu turkey, actually came from my experiences as a vegetarian on Thanksgiving. You ate mashed potatoes + turnips and called it a day. What I had the ability to do was create a 14 pound block of tofu, carve it in the silhouette of a turkey, marinate + bake it—sliced up with a nice gravy, I had a main course for my Thanksgiving. We still make them fresh, not frozen, so we only target a local market on the holidays.
hg: what originally drew you to tofu?
gary: well I was a vegetarian chef and it was an awesome protein to cook with. It is very versatile for adapting to recipes.
hg: tofu is so versatile—what’s your absolute favorite thing to do with tofu in the kitchen?
gary: there are a few ways I cook it at home. One way is I make a spinach and tofu burger that we really enjoy. But the way I do it most is grilled, we will do different marinates on it and just grill it, I really like it that way.