An interview with Heather Wong, owner of Allspicery.
A&E: When did you become interested in the world of spice?
HW: I’ve always been interested in food; eating it and cooking it. My husband and I have traveled all over the world which I think is very tied to what we like to eat.
A&E: Can you talk about your food travels and what spices and foods you’ve enjoyed?
HW: In my previous life, before kids, my husband and I used to travel. Before we moved here my husband and I actually did an around the world trip that was three months long. I took a leave of absence from work and he extended his start date for a new job and all the stars aligned and we just booked our tickets and went. It was just the trip of a lifetime and we’ll never get to do it again I’m sure, at least not until we’re retired. We flew east from Boston went to Italy, South Africa, Zambia, Bangladesh, a lot of Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. I would say that my travels in North Africa were the most eye opening.
A&E: In what ways?
HW: The way in which they use a combination of sweet and savory spices so often and they cook so much with dried fruits- which is not something I grew up with. So, it was kind of a new way of cooking to me and it was so refreshing in so many ways. It opened my eyes to what else might be out there. It just made me curious to know more about how other people in different cultures cook their foods. We traveled to Istanbul, they’re known for their spice bizarre next to the Grand Bizarre. We saw vendor after vendor dedicated to selling only spices and teas.
They displayed them so beautifully- every color of the rainbow. I thought what a great thing for a culture to have, to revere spices so much that they would center a whole market around that.
So, when we moved to Sacramento I was looking for something, not quite like that but a place where you could get every spice imaginable and there wasn’t anything like that here. So that’s when I really started to think, “well someone should do it.” But it wasn’t until somewhat later that I realized maybe it should be me.
A&E: So your travels motivated you to open a store?
HW: I was newly pregnant and looking for the next thing in my life. Before starting a family, I had a job that required a lot of travel and I wasn’t in Sacramento a whole lot. I was looking for a job that would transition me from one that took me away from where we lived to doing something here that was tied to my neighbors, my community, and to what people really needed. I knew there wasn’t a spice shop here in town. It’s not a new concept. I had lived in other cities that had spice shops and it was a huge benefit to me, as a novice who cooked at home trying to make dishes from around the world with obscure ingredients. Special ingredients are hard to find sometimes so I knew there was a need for something like that here. There happened to be a small business competition that was coming up and so on a whim I put together a business proposal and lo and behold here I am.
A&E: You have a wonderfully intimate shop with incredible spices and herbs. How do you know what people are gravitating toward?
HW: There was a lot of trial and error the first year we were in business because, from the get go, you really don’t know what people are going to want or need. So in the beginning I just ordered a pound of everything we had in the shop thinking that we would deplete the pound over the course of the year and if it didn’t go very well we would just discontinue it over time and try for something else. For the most part everything sells pretty regularly in the shop especially the staples like oregano, basil, pepper and salt. Some of the more hard to find niche products like galangal, another ingredient not many people know about, has not sold as quickly as I had hoped.
It’s still hit or miss sometimes but it’s also seasonal. In the fall we fly through sage but the rest of the year we really don’t sell a lot of sage and so that’s been a learning process as well.
But to your point, how do we know how much to source when we happen to find ourselves with a surplus? Take parsley for example. Sometimes we will play around with it and try to come up with new blends that will incorporate that ingredient and put it to better use in a way that will resonate more with more customers.
A&E: Is there an herb or a spice that is difficult to come by or that you would like to bring to the store but it’s just not available?
HW: Yes, several things. Vanilla is the first thing that comes to mind. Not that it’s hard to find but it’s hard to find at a good price these days, as I’m sure many bakers will attest to. There are a lot of global supply and demand factors that play into that. Right now the best option for us is to carry bourbon vanilla beans because they are not only the most recognizable but also they’re the best price that we can find right now among all of our vendors.
There are several chili peppers I would love to start carrying, Piment d’ Espelette is one that comes to mind. It’s a French pepper that is similar to Aleppo pepper but it’s more subtle, a little bit sweeter, and that’s something that we could easily get in stock but it’s such a niche market that it’s hard for me to determine whether it would be worth it to keep on the shelves. I don’t want it to go to waste if we source a pound or two of it. We try to make sure we have the right balance of things to meet the demands of our customers.
A&E: I love the urfa biber.
HW: I do too. What did you use it with?
A&E: When I bake I use it with some chocolate desserts.
HW: Oh fun! I think chilis in general are very much misunderstood. We have a whole section dedicated to them. When people think chili, they think heat. But chilis bring so much flavor to a dish and a lot of people may miss out on the dimension they can bring to a meal. So, I feel like there is potential for education there.
A&E: I do find chili to be intimidating. I get concerned about the heat factor because some people can’t do intense heat. But on the other hand, it makes a dish-
HW: Richer and deeper and fruitier sometimes.
A&E: Yes! Is there a chili that brings that wonderful heat but is not going to make someone’s eyes water?
HW: The Nor a Dulce chili, has no heat. They call it the paprika chili in some parts of the world. We used it as a test flavor. We ground it up and it tasted like a smokier paprika. So for that purpose we sorted our chili wall accordingly just so people can be clear that there are certain chilis you can add and not get blown away by its scorching hot heat.
Chiles are tricky because chemically they react differently and it also depends on how you cook them too. But, yes, I wish people would be more adventurous with them.
A&E: How long can a spice or salt or herb sit on the shelf?
HW: It depends on what it is. Our salts will generally last the longest period of time. It’s very shelf stable so we say one to several years but you want it to be stored properly in an airtight container with no moisture. Obviously, you don’t want a cross contamination of smells and aromas getting in so, for example, you wouldn’t put a bag of salt next to a bag of cinnamon or garlic.
We found that whole spices tend to last a lot longer than ground up spices because once you grind something up it tends to release all of its goodness that’s inside to the elements. If it is a ground up spice we say usually six to eight months. We usually rely on the sniff test. If you open something up and you can’t smell it, it’s probably not that great for use.
A&E: Is there a spice that has sold more than usual?
HW: I feel like cardamom is having a bit of a moment. We have a lot of people come in and request ground cardamom for their coffee. They’re throwing it in with their coffee grounds. Some customers are incorporating it into their baking as well. Also, people seem to be very health conscious these days and so we have customers who are trying to incorporate turmeric and healthy roots into their diets.
A&E: I think your store offers wonderful product for gift giving, especially for those who have everything. You’ve put together those nicely themed spice kits.
HW: They’ve been flying off the shelf- which is great. We try to showcase several spices that are being given new life but not many people know about. Our kit called Bollywood has Indian spices in the set, and our Asian Invasion has Asian spices in the kit, we have a Bakers set too.
A&E: As a business owner are you connecting with the other business owners and restaurants in the area? Are restaurants utilizing your product?
HW: Yes. Restaurants are finding out about us. A lot of bartenders will come in looking for different elements to add to their mixology techniques. Nearby hotels have started to approach us for corporate gifts and people who are putting together various events are buying as well. We have done a few wedding favor orders too. So, I feel like everyone is starting to hear about us all at once. We’re excited about it.
A&E: Are you connecting with other people in different food businesses? Do you find Sacramento to be a growing thriving foodie city?
HW: Yes, very much so. When I was going through the process of starting the business I reached out to various people around town. Jason Pole at Preservation was super helpful. Everyone seems very forthcoming with their knowledge and expertise. It’s been invaluable talking to people like him. Andy Paul at Andy’s Apothecary was also a great mentor in that process and a great friend now.
A&E: You showcase some of his product as well.
HW: Yes we do. We’ve been lucky to partner with some really great businesses around town. V Miller Meats is another one, they carry our spices in their shop. We’ve collaborated on an espresso spice rub that has been incredibly popular as well as with Chocolate Fish, whose coffee beans go into that blend. Spurley Beverages does sodas, syrups, and shrubs for cocktails so we’ve partnered with them on root beer kits and ginger ale kits. It’s been great.
A&E: It sounds like a nice community.
HW: It is. One of the best parts of my job is finding out who my neighbors are, who the other food makers are around town. People are so enthusiastic about all of the opportunity for experimentation with the food scene here in Sacramento. I feel like there is room for everyone. Everyone has this whacky idea that no one else is doing and they just go for it because we’re still in that stage as a city. People are open to trying new stuff.
A&E: Do you utilize the local farms in the area?
HW: Some of our product does come locally. We source our parsley and our lemon peels from California. The thing about spices is that it has always been a global trade so not everything is local or from California. That said, I know there are a lot of lavender farmers nearby, but it also comes down to whether or not the lavender is food grade, how it’s treated, and whether or not it’s pesticide free.
A&E: When you’re looking at spices and thinking about purchasing from different parts of the world is it possible to track the supply chain?
HW: This is challenging because we’re not working with the farmers directly we’re working through US based distributors. But we just started reaching out to one spice importer in particular who does single origin only products.
A&E: Can you explain single origin?
HW: The importer takes the time to meet with individual farmers. They make sure that all of their cardamom for example, is coming from one plantation and that it is all the same variety and it’s not getting comingled with cardamom from different countries or even different cities. It’s easier to control quality in that way. They make sure they go to the source and try the spices. They make sure it’s good quality and sustainable so they can produce enough to meet the demand of the company. They are socially conscious and very much into food justice. I think as more people express interest as to where their food comes from it will become more important to consumers and hopefully it will translate to the vendors who will be forced to be more transparent with that kind of information.
A&E: Is there anything you would like the Sacramento area to know about Allspicery?
HW: I feel like people are becoming very familiar with us. We are so appreciative of the support we have gotten from the community. I am continually amazed and humbled at how out of the way people will go to come shop at our store. It’s been very overwhelming and rewarding to see people continue to come through our doors intentionally, not by accident. I would encourage everyone to keep spreading the word and let us know what we can do better.
Heather Wong is the owner of Allspicery, located at 1125 11th Street in downtown Sacramento. She was the 2015 winner of the Calling All Dreamers business competition. You can also find the Allspicery at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday at 20th and L.
Allspicery Website: http://www.allspicery.com/
November: An interview with Chef Adrian Day-Murchison
Adrian Day-Murchison is Kitchen Production Chef for the Product Development Team at Renaissance Food Group. Her team creates and modifies recipe specifications for their client’s current needs. They develop and create new items throughout the year but also assist and direct in the production of the launching of the items in their plants across the country. Day-Murchison also taught culinary and pastry courses at the Cordon Bleu for a decade. A&E recently sat down with Adrian to discuss teaching and the bakery world.
A&E: Hi Adrian, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for being here.
ADM: Nice to meet you.
A&E: How did you become interested in culinary school?
ADM: The high school I attended offered food and nutrition classes. So, I took those classes each year. When I got to my senior year I was a TA and that gave me more of a background sense of curriculum and development. One day a representative from Johnson and Wales University came and did a whole presentation about their culinary school. They talked about what they had to offer and after they finished I knew this was my ticket, this is what I was going to do. Their main campus is in Rhode Island. I started out there and the first semester was good. After that, they opened up a campus in Denver so I transferred to the Denver campus. Once I finished I received an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts and then from there I got into baking. I am mostly a baker now but occasionally did culinary. So, I know both sides and it’s nice to know both because it lends itself to each other and that’s what a lot of cooks don’t understand.
A&E: When I was in high school we had a year of Home Economics and then it dropped off the curriculum. Are they offering a lot of culinary classes in high school now?
ADM: A lot of high schools are beginning to understand the vocational aspect of culinary arts and so you’re starting to see more culinary programs because of it. The food nutrition classes I took in high school were based off of home economics which was good for me because I wanted to understand the basics. As part of the class I got the chance to create a recipe book from our recipes that we created and did in class. I saw my work in the class as a full circle of what I learned but also from my mistakes too. From my recipe book I could look at why I did this or that and knew why it did or didn’t work well.
A&E: In the end you had to create your own portfolio?
ADM: Yes, just a recipe book
A&E: But still for high school that’s a lot and a big thing to do.
ADM: Well my attention was drawn to learning from my instructor, Mrs. Mondo. To this day I value everything she taught me because once I became a TA in her class I got a chance to learn so much more from her. I was there to learn. When I went to school the food and nutrition classes were a young idea and it’s very different today. Now you can get college credits in some of these vocational culinary programs. You also can get into organizations such as the American Culinary Federation and get credit for those classes too. So, the programs are becoming much bigger compared to what I was doing in high school.
A&E: Your teacher in high school mentored you. Did you carry that mentorship on when you taught at the Cordon Bleu?
ADM: Yes I did.
A&E: You taught 10 years at the Cordon Bleu here in Sacramento?
ADM: Yes and I loved that job and everything I did there.
A&E: When you were teaching what types of students were taking the classes? What were the skill levels?
ADM: I started all of my classes, whether the student was beginning or advanced, like we were all on the same page. Ultimately, they were all in school to learn. If you came in with an ego then you were putting on blinders to your education and if that’s the case then why come? So, I saw a mix of students coming in at different levels, a real mix of personalities. As a teacher I needed to get them on the same page and I had to find what worked and find a common goal that brought us all together.
But as an instructor in the baking and pastry section I didn’t see big egos. The one thing I saw in the baking and pastry classes were a lot of the students that had the common goal of wanting to work in or own a bakery. I would say to those students, “That’s fantastic and I’m really happy for you but you have to learn the grunt work and get into what it is to run a bakery.” The first thing they often didn’t realize were the early hours, bakery hours. I would tell them they would be starting possibly at two or three in the morning. They didn’t think about that because they didn’t see that. With the culinary side I sometimes had those egotistical students that came in and said, “I already have experience working at such and such restaurant.” So, I’d ask, “Okay, well what kind of habits did you build when you worked there?” When I saw how they worked in a teaching kitchen I’d say, “Okay I understand that you have experience but what you’re showing me here are horrible habits.” Just because they had experience in the industry didn’t mean it was good experience. So, I would say to them, “Why don’t you take the time and hone in on perfecting the craft and perfecting competency and building good habits so that way when you go back out in the industry at a new restaurant you have a better sense of what you can do and it’s a positive rather than a negative.” Some line cooks come in and they do the work and leave. They didn’t want to take the time to learn or be open minded and some also didn’t take the time to create good habits. They become complacent and that’s something that I noticed with students that had previous experience. When they came to culinary classes they came to get the paper but they weren’t always there to get the experience.
A&E: So though they worked in the industry they developed sloppy habits?
ADM: Exactly. Something as basic as how to mop a floor for instance (laughs). There were times when I had to stop clean up and say “Let’s go over how to properly mop the floor.” You’d be really surprised. Some students thought about it but most said, “I do this all the time. What’s wrong with the way I’m doing this?” I’d say, “Let me show you a way where you can get it done quicker but also get the most cleanliness out of what you’re trying to do.” Something as simple as sweeping, you’d be surprised how people would take it for granted. Suddenly they understood why we swept or mopped a certain way. For example, some students would start sweeping before they’d wipe down the tables. I’d tell them, “You’re working backwards you swept up what’s on the floor but now you’re wiping off what’s on the table onto the floor so you are going to have to sweep again. So, let’s from start from top and work to the bottom.” Some students really understood that and some students just wanted to run the clock out and be gone. That was unfortunate to see.
A&E: What were the ages and gender? Were there more male than female? Older students versus younger students?
ADM: The youngest student I had was seventeen and the oldest I taught was seventy-five. For the most part the classes ranged from high school to career changers. We typically had a good balance of both. The last class I taught was a lot of young women under twenty. They were open minded about learning and that was a good way for me to end my teaching at the Cordon Bleu. That class truly appreciated everything about their education. However, generally when it came to ratio of gender it was mostly male. A good percentage of female students were in the baking and pastry program. When I attended culinary school it was mostly male.
A&E: When you were in culinary school and in predominately male classes did you have to deal with sexism?
ADM: I still do to this day. I mean that isn’t going to disappear.
A&E: It’s prevalent in the business?
ADM: Here’s a good example of something that occurred during an actual job interview I had. After culinary school I moved back to California. I was looking for a restaurant job. The manager that interviewed me looked at my resume and he asked me questions and everything seemed to be going fine and then he said, “I think we’re going to offer you this job. I like to offer this job to females because they clean really well.” And that’s when I said, “You know I don’t think this job is for me.” I don’t stand for that type of thing. If that was how we were starting off in the interview I felt I knew what the actual work environment was going to be and I was not going to subject myself to that. It’s not that I feel I’m above anything but if I feel that it is going to have an impact on my work then, yeh, I’m not going to spend my time and energy at place like that. I shared this example with many female students because I get asked this question a lot. Female students ask “Chef, how do you work in an industry that is predominately male?” I tell them first you must have a thick skin. If you have thin skin they will tear you down and that isn’t just the men it’s anyone. They will tear you down. You better know what you’re doing because that’s the first thing they will start at is your gender and how it is defining your work. That’s why I took my education so seriously. If there is anything new in the industry then I want to learn it. It will make me that much better and it gives me more ammo to use in the kitchen. I always share this with female chefs and cooks. I want to give them an understanding that that attitude is not going to disappear.
A&E: It sounds like you enjoyed teaching. The Cordon Bleu, that’s a nice gig.
ADM: It was a nice gig. The thing is I knew when I was younger I was going to do some sort of teaching. When I was younger I tutored my brother but I would act like we were in a classroom. We had a mirror on our closet and I had dry erase markers so I would use that as my board. So, I knew somewhere down the line that I was going to use teaching and teach something. I enjoy sharing knowledge and that’s what you need to do as a teacher. It’s funny, I got the job at the Cordon Bleu because of my husband, who I met in culinary school, he’s a chef too. He saw the job come up and said, “I think you’d be really good at this. I’m going to apply for it but I think you should too.” So, we both applied and went through the interview process. I got the job. He didn’t get it. It was our running joke.
A&E: What do you like about teaching?
ADM: I love sharing my knowledge, I want to give that to others. I started teaching when I was twenty-five. I was young but I was able to hone in on what I knew and make it ten times better through repetition, competency, and professional development. You know when I was a young cook I had a hot head. I had the attitude “I don’t want to hear what you’re saying.” I learned to be open to criticism and it made me humble.
A&E: Was that over time or was there a defining moment when you “got it?”
ADM: Over time. When I was in culinary school, on externship, that was my defining moment. There was an event where we were setting up a shrimp cocktail display. The chef that ran that kitchen was a hothead. He was totally fine getting in your face about things whether it was right or wrong. He had that old school mentality like the screaming and yelling of European chefs. It didn’t scare me. But I was setting up this display and there was a certain way for the shrimp tails to face. I didn’t pay attention to that one little detail and he got in my face, used colorful language, and said, “Do it all over again!” That’s all it took. That’s when I truly understood that I had to pay attention to what the chef was telling me to do. If I didn’t do that there’d be problems. The “Yes Chef!” mentality, means “yes Chef I got it.” That yelling gave me a moment to understand that I’d better learn to take criticism in the kitchen. Until your name is on the work you’d better be open to taking criticism. I had to learn how to do the job and do it correctly and I understood constructive criticism even if it was delivered in colorful language (laughs). You do it because the chef tells you to.
A&E: Did you ever see a different side of his personality?
ADM: After the shrimp incident I became more open to criticism and also listening to my chef. It humbled me. When you start to listen to what your chef is telling you to do then they are more willing to instruct you. Because when you shut them off they aren’t going to give you the time of day. So, once I started to pay attention and listen he was more giving and instructional. He noticed I was having issues with Hollandaise sauce and so I bit the bullet and asked him, “Can you show me the way to do this better because I don’t know what I’m doing wrong?” And he took two hours after the shift and we sat down and made hollandaise. He showed me all his tricks and gave me tips and we did all the different derivatives and this is something I won’t forget, we made all of these sauces and he fried up a bunch of French fries and we just sat there and tried the hollandaise with the fries. Because of that I love Hollandaise and French fries (laughs). If you put in the work and show the chef that you have the passion then they’re going to open up to you a lot more. Chefs have feelings and have things they need to do so if you’re not willing to be a part of that or do it in the way they’re asking well you’re not going to get everything out of your chef.
A&E: So speaking of sauce. Why should every baker learn to make a Vanilla Anglaise sauce?
ADM: An anglaise sauce is a custard sauce that typically is vanilla flavored but it can be made in other flavors as well. I personally like to infuse flavors into the milk or cream to translate the flavor better in the end with product such as steeping chai tea to create a chai crème anglaise. Anglaise typically used as a dessert sauce in plating desserts or as an accompaniment sauce to items such as bread pudding or soufflé and a base for the fillings or ice cream. It’s such a versatile sauce that many bakers should learn how to make it. Besides this, what makes this a stepping stone in the learning of pastry is the fact that its science driven. You need the right balance of heat and agitation as well as an understanding of ingredient functions of an egg to be quite successful with the technique. If you go too fast or have your heat up too high you will have sweetened scrambled eggs in no time! You want a viscous, creamy, and smooth sauce.
A&E: What makes vanilla so versatile in baking and can you ever use too much vanilla in a dessert?
ADM: Vanilla is so versatile in baking because it adds a flavor that complements and works well with others. It adds a warmth aspect like cinnamon does that rounds out a flavor profile of an item. Depending on the type of vanilla that you get, such as Madagascar, it also can lend a fruity or floral component. However, you can use too much vanilla. When you do, you lose its function and it becomes overpowering and bitter, especially if you use it in extract form.
A&E: Do you prefer vanilla extract over vanilla paste?
ADM: I prefer vanilla paste but since I keep my pods after using them I also use these to make either vanilla sugar (Add pods to a jar of granulated sugar and allow to steep for 2 weeks before using) or my own vanilla extract (Add pods to any clear alcohol and let sit for a few weeks before using). Chefs do not like waste and learn early to utilize their ingredients to the fullest extent. Because of the major shortage of vanilla due to crop issues, prices of vanilla have skyrocketed and this has made pastry chefs make the hard decision of not being able to use vanilla in their baking. However, this has made chefs face the music in proper utilization of their beans and think of new ways of using them or not, and how it affects the outcome.
A&E: I love vanilla and using the beans but sometimes I have difficulty getting the beans out of the vanilla pod. What’s the best technique and is there a type of knife that is best to use?
ADM: The best way to get vanilla beans out of the pods is this. Use a paring knife because it’s small and sturdy for the job. Then split the vanilla bean, lengthwise, in half to expose the beans and use the back, or the spine, of your knife, lay it down on the pod half, apply pressure to scrape away from you. While doing this, hold one end of the pod while you are scraping out the seeds. You should have a pile of seeds on the knife spine that you can add to your liquid to infuse your recipe.
A&E: What’s your favorite pastry or dessert with vanilla?
ADM: My favorite dessert with vanilla is very basic. It’s ice cream.
A&E: Why ice cream?
ADM: I like that vanilla adds a fruitiness but also enhances the cream aspect of ice cream. Also, it looks beautiful when vanilla is used in bean form with the seeds dancing throughout the ice cream in its presentation. I also love fruit that has been scented with vanilla beans, like a cobbler or crostata filling or macerated fruit with vanilla sugar. Simple yet it adds a touch that makes it sing.
A&E: It seems to me that the pastry chef is not as revered as the chef. There is an artistry in pastry. Why isn’t it as esteemed in the industry?
ADM: People come to the restaurant for the food, the main show. Unfortunately, dessert is the last thing people think about and so that’s the big reason why we don’t see pastry chefs held to the same standard as the culinary chef, unless you’re opening a restaurant that focuses mostly on desserts. Unfortunately, people aren’t there for the desserts as much. The position of pastry chef is starting to go away in a lot of restaurants because a lot start-ups don’t have the budgets. They want an executive chef or they hire pastry cooks that can take up that pastry department. To have a pastry chef takes more money. Hotels have pastry chefs, especially for banquets, they are held to a high caliber but pastry chefs are slowly going away. Dessert isn’t as popular and it’s a hard sell.
A&E: This is disheartening because I love dessert. I understand. It’s like I see customers fine dining and the meal is so good and then the server brings out the dessert menu and there are maybe five people sitting at the table and everyone says let’s just split one dessert.
ADM: Yes but when I’m with a group of friends or when I go out I ask for the dessert menu first because I want to see what I have to look forward to for later in the meal. So, I will typically ask for the dessert menu to get an idea of what their dessert menu is and from there I can get a sense of where they are going and why they picked those ingredients because of what is being served in the main menu. This gives me more of a full circle of what the restaurant is doing. I look at both menus not just the main menu. I tell my friends, “Hey save some room because some of these desserts look pretty awesome.” That’s how I get my friends to be more experimental and to try dessert. If I don’t do that my friends won’t have dessert. I set it up as full circle experience.
Photo: Vanilla Anglaise
Photo: Chef Adrian Day-Murchison
Photo: Raiatea Sechage Photographer: Remi Jouan
Food Philosophy October
A&E: Margaret it’s so good to see you. It’s been a while.
MW: I know, I’m glad to see you too. I’m so happy we’re doing this.
A&E: Wow a lot has changed for you! Tell me about W. Margaron. How did you come up with the name and what interested you in starting a business?
MW: The W stands for Waterhouse and Margaron is a play on the macaron and my name. I wanted to do a business for a long time. Starting a successful business isn’t easy and it has really come down to personal resilience. It comes down to persistence and belief.
A&E: So why the macaron?
MW: I felt confident that I could do macarons at the level of execution I wanted and that I could make them interesting. I like the challenge of the macaron because it’s an open palette and you can do anything with them. You can introduce almost any flavor to them if you find a way to capture the flavor. I like a challenge and it’s more fun to do something that stands out.
A&E: You can find macarons just about anywhere and they’re in most bakeries.
MW: Plenty of people are making macarons but I think, just by chance, the evolution of what I’ve been baking is a macaron more rustic and doesn’t fit into that expectation like when you walk into a French bakery. They’re all perfect in different colors and shades. Mine aren’t like that. Mine stand outside of that and I like that.
A&E: When did you realize you were onto something with the different flavors?
MW: I did a competition at the Confucius Institute at UC Davis. I did a Thai flavored macaron. It had a chile peanut sauce that was sweet and savory. I entered because I wanted to win and first place was $1000. So, I had to get this recipe to where I knew it was a winner. It took me four times to get the recipe right. I won and put the prize money toward my business.
A&E: You’re doing you, creating your own and not following a recipe.
MW: I tend to get an idea and think “that would be really good.” Then I begin to work it backwards and think about how do I get to that. Sometimes it’s really obvious and sometimes harder like with floral or herbal. I try to incorporate those but depending on how you incorporate they’re either stable or they release their flavor. There’s no guarantee that I will achieve those balanced flavors.
A&E: Have you thought about different tea flavors for your Margarons?
MW: I want to do Matcha. I’m an herbal tea person. I make my own mixture of herbs. I’ve never been a fan of caffeine in teas like Earl Gray tea or English Breakfast tea. I just haven’t had a relationship with those teas to where I feel inspired. But I feel like I want to try because a lot of people like those flavors.
A&E: So do you use all organic?
MW: I don’t use all organic. I try to come from a holistic sustainability point of view. You’re either using resources to ship them in or I get something that feels right because I know the producers and know they’re doing a good job. When working with a community that I know, well, there is trust and respect. I’m making choices from the place that makes the most sense to me. I’m sourcing high quality but not all have organic certification. Getting organic certification, well, a lot of farmers, especially smaller farmers, don’t do it because of the actual requirements that have to be met. There’s a lot of hoop jumping and fees to pay and it’s not worth it to them. You have a lot of producers who are making a high quality product but not having an organic certification for a number of reasons. The other thing is there’s a lot of farming that has gone beyond just organic. I know plenty of people who are farming with much more in mind than just their organic certification. Their products may not be organic but their products are coming out of a system that is way more on board with the health and well-being of their land.
A&E: People hear organic and assume the farmer is looking at everything and they’re not necessarily.
MW: Yes and the consumer pays a higher price for it.
A & E: What isn’t organic in the Margarons?
MW: Sugar goes into Margarons and I don’t use organic sugar just because I haven’t yet figured out how to source it at wholesale rates. I’ve actually thought about fair trade sugar more than organic because, I’m not sure, but it might be a more relevant way to source sustainably. The remainder of my ingredients are organic. I do use organic eggs and butter.
A&E: Do you go to local farms for those?
MW: I get organic butter from the store and eggs from the Davis Farmers Market. The nuts I get directly from the producers, like Fiddyment Farms. Nuts are difficult. Organic almonds are easy to get. They’re grown in such high quantity around here but crops like pistachio and pecan are harder. It makes more sense to get local high quality. I can tell just by tasting them and also interacting with the producers. It’s similar to the European traditional sentiment. A lot grown in Europe is better quality.
A&E: Tell me about your time in France and how that informed your food journey.
MW: Well I was always interested in food. My Dad’s profession is in wine making and that profession took him all over the world and into different cultures that valued wine and because of wine they valued food too. I mean those things go hand in hand. That influenced the culture a bit in our family and it helped expose me to a lot of food early on. I realized it’s more than just eating. It’s the quality of what you’re eating and where it comes from. Anyway someone in the family recommended the WWOOF* program. I thought, “Oh yeh, oh sure I can do farm labor.” (Laughs). I mean I had no experience with it before and I thought “why not I can choose farms where families speak French” and that’s what I did.
A&E: What did you learn?
MW: So much. I went to different smaller farms and things just started to happen. I suddenly went out into the woods and wanted to learn about the different wildflowers. I wanted to learn about farming and learn to butcher animals.
A& E: You helped butcher animals? Wasn’t that difficult?
MW: No. I mean I was really interested because I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle. Her family lived for a year on only what they grew, with the exception of, I think, coffee and salt. And in that book she talked about slaughtering animals and how the holistic approach helped her appreciate these animals. She took good care of them, they made good food. So she appreciated their lives and ate them. It wasn’t too overthought. It definitely gave me a sense of security in which to approach this and I mean I appreciated the animals in a respectful way.
A&E: You’ve lived a lot in your young life! Now you have your business, WMargaron, and a sweet little toddler, Daniel. How do you juggle building a business and being a single mother?
MW: I wanted to be self- employed for years. There were other things I could have pursued but I think it needs to be that combination of things. It has to be something that you’re interested in doing enough, that nourishes you, and you believe in yourself. I think I finally got to that place after having him (pointing to Daniel) and realizing that I just didn’t want to go back into all of that, those boxes you check off. As a mother, especially being single, I prioritized quality of life over getting a BA and making myself employable. (Margaret completed two years at McGill University). Either I work somewhere and spend all of the money putting him in childcare or I stay at home and work on my business. Thankfully I have a support system with my parents. If it weren’t for them I couldn’t do what I am doing.
A&E: How long does the process of making Margarons take?
MW: A couple of days. Part of what I do is age the egg whites, I crack eggs and let them age, sometimes I’ll make the filling a day ahead. I try to break the time process up as it’s more efficient.
A&E: What lessons have you learned in baking Margarons?
MW: There’s definitely trouble shooting, especially in baking. They’re definitely influenced by humidity and oven temperature. Sometimes things just go wrong. I’ve had baking failures.
A&E: Yes I think all good bakers with different skill levels have had failures but they learn from them. Can I try this Margaron?
MW: Sure (she hands me a chocolate dipped hazelnut Margaron).
A&E: This is delicious. Oh wow it’s quite good. What I love about this Margaron is that you can see everything. It isn’t this perfect little dot of a macaron.
MW: At first I was self-conscious. Visually they’re not refined. I just got to the place where I thought some of the best things I’ve appreciated is because they’re different, novel, and not trying to fit the mold. The visual appearance comes out of the fact that I am doing things differently with baking itself.
A&E: When I first saw them I thought they were unusual. The way they open up reminded me of ocean shells. You see everything in the Margaron. I love that and that’s what I think is so beautiful about what you are doing.
MW: I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just embracing the difference. It is easy to go to the mental space of “they’re not what’s out there.” Then I realize “no they’re not” and that’s a good thing. They’ll stand apart and be different. It’s a good thing for me because I’m not interested in doing what’s already been done. I like their whimsical and informal appearance but many of my customers have told me that the Margarons still look formal to them.
A&E: I think they’re beautiful. Margaret we’ve known each other for a while but haven’t seen each other for some time. I’ve always respected your journey. And now what you’re doing, starting a business, it’s a risk yes?
MW: I think it depends on what you’re risking. The journey starts from within. I have ideas of what I want for myself and the business but I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m just generally going to trust that it will all work out. Worry doesn’t serve me, it’s just wasted mental energy, it doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t lift me up or give me any energy. To do the Margaron feels like enough, I want to do this one product and do it well. I like keeping it simple, it’s a good business model.
Margaret Waterhouse is a baking and business entrepreneur, her business, W. Margaron, is based in Davis, CA.
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