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The Taste Makers

It's 93 degrees on the warehouse streets of Linden, N.J., and hotter still inside the processing kitchen over a 250-gallon steam kettle, as 45 pounds of pearly diced organic onions from Cascadian Farm in Washington state are tumbled into bubbling butter a foot deep. Then comes fresh celery, and King Arthur flour, huge strainers of it, sprinkled to avoid clumps. As the mix gradually thickens into a roux, the smell that wafts up is warm as a hug. Next, organic carrots, bright green peas and great buckets of stock, made earlier from 160 pounds of boned and skinned Bell & Evans free-range chickens. With all the stirring and sweating, it's like a scaled-up home kitchen--and when milk and thyme and salt and pepper, then the poached chicken are added, this vat will yield the hand-scooped filling for 250 large or 800 small Twin Hens chicken pot pies. The "Hens," Linda Twining and Kathy Herring, two rather glam moms in their 40s, have their fingers in every pot. Literally.

It's only a few miles, but worlds away from their first kitchen in a Princeton firehouse. Twining and Herring met seven years ago, when Linda arrived at their kids' pre-school with an over-the-top cake that so effectively communicated her yearning for a life in food that Kathy, who'd cooked for neighbors out of her New York apartment, read the signs, and soon the two were on their way to comfort food in a pie tin.

Taking its business by baby steps, Twin Hens has joined the fast-growing American movement of artisanal food makers, people who've discovered that rescuing food production from the jaws of soulless manufacture means re-establishing a deeply satisfying human connection with what we eat. Today, in every state, there are people whose passion for recapturing true flavor gives their lives fresh meaning, filled with tradition and authenticity. They make retail products that gladden our plates and our palates. In the best sauces and sausages, vinegars and marmalades, the hand of the maker comes through. It's finesse you can taste, and it always begins with the best ingredients, the purest pork, the highest-grade chocolate. Tentacles of this movement drill deep, into sustainable agriculture, supporting the livelihoods of the kinds of small farmers and producers for whom sane practices and quality matter. It's a precarious life, entrepreneurial in all the scariest, self-financed ways. Turning passion into a business has a way of sucking away its pleasure. Ingredients are alive, and thus, tetchy. Perishable. A fine strawberry field is devastated by a freak storm and there goes the jam.

Yet, in 2005, more Americans than ever have turned to producing quality food as a way of life. Let's define our terms a bit. Most manufacturers, Big Food, would argue they produce good, safe food at affordable prices--they feed America. And they do. But when production lines heat the flavor out of ingredients; when plants buy loads of chemically altered, inferior raw materials to cut costs; when they oversalt and oversugar to pack in cheap taste; when they lay on additives and preservatives to increase shelf life (remember trans fats?); when they process the very life out of food in the name of convenience and affordability, yes, they feed us, but they do not nurture us.

Artisanal businesses still bear the hand and the heart of their originator. They are small by definition, dedicated to high quality and high flavor. For this, they usually have to charge more. They work harder and work always, they make their work a way of life, almost a religion. The first batch of salad dressing that a slightly manic Paul Newman stirred up in his basement in 1980 was an artisanal product; so is American foie gras and duck, raised in upstate New York since 1985 for the indomitable Frenchwoman Ariane Daguin's still potent company, D'Artagnan. Twenty years ago you couldn't find an unprocessed loaf of bread to save your life. Now, hearth-backed breads are sold everywhere. Remember that processed orange stuff that was American cheese? Today hundreds of superb local practitioners make American cheese of great refinement.

Ron Tanner, editor of Specialty Food Magazine, describes the growth: "Our customers used to be people in their 50s, buying so-called gourmet food for special occasions. Now we're seeing more younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who are just used to better food and will pay higher prices." In the last two years, the growth in specialty foods has been a spectacular 18 percent; it's now a $25 billion industry. But the producers aren't rich: 80 percent of the members of the NASFT, the trade association, have annual sales less than $1 million. Renting a booth at one of its tri-annual Fancy Food Shows costs $3,100, but being there means catching the eye of specialty stores like Williams-Sonoma, or supermarkets with specialty-food sections and, of course, the gorilla in the room, Whole Foods. In its 165 stores, Whole Foods not only stocks some of the world's best specialty foods, but recently began a robust Authentic Food Artisan program. Here, dozens of products are discovered, then labeled with a special sticker that touts small brands, like Timeless Seeds of Montana's Black Beluga Lentils.

Every bottle, every jar, every package holds a story. It's often a family story, a memory, a search for roots that motivates people to profoundly change their lives in the name of food. It may be his showbiz history that makes Howard Lev's eyes strategically tear up when he talks about his Romanian-Jewish mother's recipe for preserved peppers. "These are not pickled peppers," he insists. As a tribute to his mother, Lev began preserving peppers and submitting them to producers along with the film scripts he'd write. Inevitably it was the peppers that got the rave reviews. When Lev discovered that Washington's Yakima Valley can grow just the right Hungarian hot wax peppers, he moved to Seattle and started Mama Lil's, a line of lush, silky peppers in beautifully spiced olive oil. This week is his window to harvest some 250 tons of peppers, and he's terrified of a crop-killing freeze.

Paul Bertolli, a renowned chef, has pre-sided over the restaurant Oliveto, in Oakland, Calif., since 1993. Now he seems to be channeling his Italian grandfather, a sausage maker, as he prepares to launch a new company, Fra' Mani ("from the hands"), retailing superb, handmade cured American meats--salumi--the likes of which this country has never seen. Instead of going the glitzy, TV celeb-chef route, Bertolli has spent patches of time these last 10 years learning how to cure meat properly, searching out sausage makers in centuries---old Italian stone barns, and taking Iowa State's extension courses in meat science: "I had to learn about fermentation, and additives, and what happens to muscles when you slaughter a pig," he explains. "If you go to any sausage plant in this country, they're not using good raw materials. They'll get 40-pound blocks of frozen commodity pork from confinement operations on factory farms," he says, scowling. If he's obsessed with the process, he's equally mad for the pigs, grown with exquisite care on Niman Ranch farms in Sioux City, Iowa. "These are happy pigs," he says with a smile. "Raised with no antibiotics or hormones." Come spring, we'll be able to buy about a dozen Fra' Mani products, dry-cured salamis, fresh pork sausages and mortadella, that sublime version of baloney.

In 1964, Richard Wong's grandfather moved his family from Shanghai to Toledo, Ohio, into a Midwest that didn't understand Asians. Richard, then 6, felt harassed. "I used to think, 'I come from a culture that is deeper and richer and older than yours, and you don't understand anything about it'." Wong needed to prove something. He became an architect with a big San Francisco firm. "I started going out with women and none of them cooked like my mother. So I went into the kitchen with her and my grandmother. I cooked to recapture the flavors of my childhood, of Shanghai. I've grown up American, but I'm Chinese inside. I bought this big pot and started making dinners for my friends. And I'd have some of my sesame soy sauce left over, so I'd put it in jars and give it to them. They'd come back and say, 'Richard, we can't cook those three-hour recipes you do. We use the sauces on stuff we grill and bake.' I was horrified at first. But I tried it and I thought, 'This is like Shanghai: worldly, cross-cultural'." And that's how Chinablue, Wong's line of impeccable Asian sauces, was born.

In a spotless Berkeley, Calif., warehouse, June Taylor leads a passionate, fruit-driven life, making exquisite preserves such as Meyer-lemon and blood-orange marmalades, strawberry and lavender conserve, spiced pear fruit butter, as she moves toward perfectibility based on another rich model from the past. She named her business after a 1903 British book, "The Still Room," the place in a country house where the fruits and vegetables from the gardens come to be canned and preserved. Taylor's Still-Room is just across town from Chez Panisse, where her preserves are served. "I grew up in the U.K. in the '50s and, as a home-economics student, made everything from scratch. Nothing was wasted. I continue to do it that way." Everything is by hand, from cutting fruit to filling jars. On the stove is a 16-quart pot of clementines. Out of that will come eight or 10 half pints of jam. "We can take all day to cook off 200 jars." Her preserves have only about 20 percent sugar; the sparkling fruit flavor comes through because Taylor makes her own pectin, the setting agent that often turns store-bought jam gummy.

Of course you don't need a degree from Harvard Business School (though it couldn't hurt) to know that falling in love with food is one thing, marketing it quite another (sidebar). The idea of the lone cook in her home kitchen turning out pots of gold is the first illusion to go.

Maya Kaimal tried stirring up her sauces--based on family recipes from South India, tamarind curry, tikka masala, coconut curry and vindaloo--on her upstate New York stove with infant twin girls curling around her legs, but they're now prepped and packed by hand by a small manufacturer in the Catskills. Kaimal makes them caramelize the onions, which means cooking down about 500 onions for six hours. "Our sauces are very labor-intensive. Keeping them affordable is a constant struggle. One of my happiest moments was peering into a 65-gallon kettle of my sauce. You can swim in it! It's hard to imagine what scaling up feels like. It's a huge thrill. People come up to me at shows and say I'm an inspiration to them. I think, 'Please. If you only knew the heartache. And the bank balance'."

Making it is one thing, taking it to market quite another. Before he launched Chinablue, Richard Wong decided he needed to know how to sell, so he went to work at Knoll, a top furniture maker, for two years, then he said: "I need to know how to close a deal," so he became a real-estate agent. He spent the following four years living off his savings, perfecting his sauces, designing the brand and the bottles, which have the presence of small buildings. "Just getting the Web name took 20 months and $22,000 I didn't have. I knew I couldn't go into business without it." In 1999, when all the pieces were in place, Wong took his sauces to Williams-Sonoma, Crate&Barrel and Sur la Table. Three sales.

The Internet has been very, very good for artisanal producers, and the only out-let for those too small to wholesale. Sure, you could go to local farmers markets, as June Taylor still does every Saturday at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza, talking to customers, because "we're in an upward struggle in the world. We need to support the community." Here, volume's beside the point. All the action's at junetaylorjams.com.

Then there's what Todd Woloson, a former environmental lawyer and venture capitalist from Boulder, Colo., calls "karma marketing." He and partner Greg Stroh (yes, of those Strohs) began Izze sodas in 2002 as "a fun project" to raise money for Global Education Fund, a nonprofit that starts libraries in orphanages in Latin America. "We asked ourselves, 'How simple can we make a drink?' We mix orange juice and San Pellegrino at home, so that was the model--pure fruit juice and sparkling water." Hope quickly became a plan when the first cases landed on shelves and consumers "got it." Izze, named after Todd's daughter, Isabelle, 6, produces sparkling juices like blackberry, blueberry and pomegranate, hit the heart of savvy consumers: style and charity. Their business grew 450 percent in each of its first two years. With growth came direct social commitment. Izze funds day-care centers and libraries in communities where Izze's fruit growers and pickers live: San Joaquin Valley and Augusta, Maine. "I love the food business; it becomes part of you. I am smitten." This love, like all great passions, rewards all of us with sweet satisfaction.

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