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Can edible insects save the planet? This chef makes a compelling case

Joseph Yoon will present a bug-centric dinner at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Dishes made with edible insects like ants, crickets, by Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs.
Dishes made with edible insects like ants, crickets, by Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs. [ Courtesy of Joseph Yoon ]
Published Nov. 8, 2019|Updated Nov. 11, 2019

Joseph Yoon wants to normalize eating bugs.

As executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, he’s a self-proclaimed “edible insect ambassador,” dedicated to promoting the eating of insects as a sustainable food source and more eco-friendly protein.

Yoon is bringing a BugsGiving dinner to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg on Nov. 15, a 10-course meal in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit, “'The Grasshopper and the Ant’ and Other Stories as Told by Jennifer Angus.”

RELATED: Insects become art at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

If you’re not quite sure about a multicourse tasting menu featuring insects, well, you have not spent 30 minutes on the phone with Yoon, a passionate advocate for overcoming culinary squeamishness.

“It’s merely a matter of changing the perception,” he said. “Think about lemons, or onions, and the first person who thought to bite into a lemon or raw onion. And now they’re both so important in cooking. We’re still at the stage of just biting into a lemon or onion with bugs. We’re trying to figure out how to make it palatable.”

Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs.
Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs. [ Courtesy of Joseph Yoon ]

In addition to being nutritious, edible insects require a fraction of the resources to grow compared to other sources of protein, Yoon said, meaning they may be potentially a more sustainable way to feed the world’s growing population.

There are insects being harvested specifically for human consumption, in the way that red meat and pork currently are. And many insects like to be contained closely in small quarters, so the amount of land needed to harvest them is far less substantial.

“A big part of what we try to do is focus on the deliciousness of it and how fun it can be,” Yoon said. “If we were too dogmatic and said, ‘Let’s save the world by eating bugs,’ people might be turned away.”

At the dinner, Yoon hopes to create an appreciation for the many ways insects can be used, from comfort food to haute cuisine. Throughout the 10 dishes, “insects will be cooked into a dish, featured as the main ingredient or applied in a variety of other ways.”

Yoon said there’s no “silver bullet" in terms of a gateway bug that would ease everyone into insect cuisine. For home cooks, various flours or powders made with bugs like crickets are probably a good starting point.

“We incorporate the bugs in a bunch of different ways,” he said. “Grind it, bake with it. Sometimes we get very bold and daring and put it on top, where it’s visible. There’s really no limit to how you can incorporate it.”

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Dishes made with edible insects like ants, crickets, by Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs.
Dishes made with edible insects like ants, crickets, by Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs. [ Courtesy of Joseph Yoon ]

Yoon said that, of the more than 5 million species of insects, we currently know of about 2,000 people can eat. That’s a lot, but it’s still a small percentage.

Other parts of the world are way ahead of Americans when it comes to eating insects. Beetles are one of the top edible insects, in their larva form. They’re very unctuous and high in protein, Yoon said. Crickets, somewhat of a gateway bug in America, contain all nine essential amino acids. Mealworms, ants and wasps are also eaten often in other countries.

“We’re not telling people to stop eating meat entirely, but if you were to substitute that meat with other bug protein even just once a week, it’d have a huge impact,” Yoon said.

If you go

BugsGiving: A Dining Experience With Chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs

6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org. $60, $50 for museum members. Cash bar after first cocktail.

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