About me

vayu ung

I grew up in the kitchen. There are many photos of me running around with kitchen knives and standing by the stove at age two (whether this was due to lack of parental attention or an intention to cultivate my passion for food, I do not know).

I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, as the son of a Cuban-Norwegian father and a a mother who’s parents were part of the Indian diaspora in Kenya. With most of the family scattered across the world, the kitchen became a window to my rich cultural heritage. Eating my mother’s food meant taking a bite of who I was and where I came from. Even though my first own meal was overly salty, disgusting, and remains a childhood trauma, cooking quickly became a creative outlet for my younger self.

While I discovered many tools for creating unexpected flavors and sensations, none was more powerful than the science I learned in school. A molecular understanding of cooking improved flavor profiles, stabilized solutions, and maximized deliciousness. However, kitchen science was more than an ingredient for better food; it was a bridge to the principles informing our understanding of the universe. Cooking and science were beautifully interconnected, working together to catalyze learning about food, about nature, and about myself. I first used science to transform food ingredients, but I gradually transformed my own life in the process.

Cooking and science have remained my twin passions ever since. My diverse experiences in scientific research, restaurants, and education, brought me to Harvard University, where I earned my PhD in Biochemistry in 2020. My dissertation work explored how gut microbes modify molecules that we ingest, including food.

I am currently a Miller Fellow at University of California Berkeley where I am combining my expertise in microbiology, chemistry, and cooking, to harness filamentous fungi for production of sustainable, delicious, and nutritious foods.  My main faculty host is Jay Keasling at the Joint Bioengineering Institute. I am also affiliated with Michi Taga in Plant and Microbial Biology and Britt Koskella in Integrative Biology. Find a brief video describing my current research here. As part of my fellowship, I collaborate with researchers at the Center for Biosustainability at DTU and the the R&D team at the two-michelin star restaurant Alchemist in Copenhagen, where I have spent time working. I have also spent time as a visiting scholar at interdisciplinary food and agriculture center Stone Barns working in partnership with 2-Michelin-star restaurant Blue Hill exploring how microorganisms facilitate food production from the seed to the plate, and back to the land.