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An eerie magic imbues the land of Oaxaca, with ancient languages and shamanic rituals carved into the mountains, riddles residing in the wizened agave, memory ground into the masa cooking over the comal. And for Ivan Vasquez, this once was home.

Traveling through this alluring Mexican region with restaurateur Vasquez, owner of Madre! Oaxacan Restaurant and Mezcaleria in Torrance and Palms, California, is like peeling back layers of titles and assumptions, flicking on one light switch after another and revealing a man deeply affected by his past. But one whose passion for his heritage and family became the vehicle for his success. This is a tale of love, fateful choices, and family secrets.

Squinting into the darkness, the two-lane road snaking ahead of us appears only in the soft flood of our headlights. The going is slow and deliberate. We’re zig-zagging through a forest, making the stooped heads of those sleeping in the van loll side to side. Every few miles the light grazes the angular outline of a cross planted on the shoulder, decorated with flowers. Although we can’t see through the black trees and the empty night, a few feet to our right lies a steep, unprotected incline.

Vasquez sits in the front passenger seat next to Tommy, his cousin and our driver for the trip. They point into the darkness, murmuring about the familiar landscape. Tommy turns the headlights off and for a brief, terrifying moment we careen through the shadows on an uncertain path. They’re reminiscing about a pilgrimage they both undertook as children, a journey that changed the course of Vasquez’s life.

It was in these mountains of Oaxaca that a teenage Vasquez made the decision to come to the United States. Vasquez tells me of Juquila, the Virgin of Oaxaca, and the pilgrimage through the Sierra Madre del Sur to the town of Santa Catarina Juquila to pray at her shrine. Thousands attempt the perilous route each year by bicycle or by foot. And at thirteen, Vasquez made his first trek.

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Ivan Vasquez

Starting at three a.m., Vasquez embarked on the twenty-two hour bike ride. “Everything was okay during the day,” he recounts. “It was intense, but I was ready for it. Until the night came.” His experienced uncle and cousins pulled far ahead of him, leaving him alone in the cold December darkness with nothing but a flashlight. He began questioning the purpose of the trip, inflating the danger in his mind, imagining wild animals pouncing at him out of the trees. He believed he wouldn’t survive, but somehow kept pumping the pedals. Finding that strength to continue and finally arriving at his destination gave Vasquez new confidence. “That’s when I met myself,” he says. “That’s when I discovered I’m ready for something else.” 

Vasquez’s life was unraveling around him. His father drank himself out of a job and he would go missing for days while on benders living on the street. His mother could barely keep their family together, and verged on losing the house. Driven by the need to support his family, Vasquez crossed the border at the age of sixteen. After his epiphany on the road to Juquila he was prepared to weather the hardships ahead. “That was a message,” he explains. “It showed me that I shouldn’t be afraid. That gave me the strength to keep going.” What he didn’t realize was he wouldn’t see his beloved home country or his family for another ten years.

Vasquez does not disguise his emotions. Voice wavering, he explains the difficulty of leaving his family behind to an uncertain fate. The first holiday away from his mother proved the hardest. “I remember my first Christmas,” he says. “I was just looking at the sky at night time eating a cheese bread from Ralphs and [drinking] Coca-Cola. That was everything that I had. I remember that I didn’t even call my family because it was going to break my heart.”

Vasquez worked tirelessly to send money home. He put himself through school, he learned English, he got working papers. He paid off his family’s debts, he saved their house. He climbed the ranks in the restaurant industry to become regional manager of a Baja Fresh. Ten long years had passed when he finally received his green card. Vasquez jumped on a plane within the week. On his return to Oaxaca his mother presented him with a heaping plate of homemade food.

The region of Oaxaca spreads across a wide section of southeastern Mexico covering a staggering variety of terrain, from arid grasslands and foggy forests to rugged coast. Tantalizing food is everywhere, and Vasquez a worthy ambassador. His contagious curiosity makes every culinary experience feel like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He’s clearly making up for lost time.

From bustling mercados to street vendors and roadside stands we sampled our way across a spectrum of flavor. At Mercado Merced we tasted pulque, the sweet and gently fermented agave drink, smelling slightly like overripe pineapple, and the color and texture of whey. From a vendor learning to sell alongside her ancient grandmother, we devoured a mole amarillo empanada, a saucy chicken and sliced onion revelation folded into a fried, oily tortilla. We simultaneously circulated a bag of fresh green garbanzo beans, roasted in their papery shell. On top of the chilly, cloud forest mountains that connect Oaxaca City to the beach we perused a fruit stand, plucking out and sampling sour oranges and wild red bananas. From the locals hawking their homemade and freshly-caught offerings on the beach we flagged down iguana tamales, live sea snails, and craggy, purple, seaweed-caked oysters. A spontaneous pit-stop at a steaming group of tables under a tent revealed charcoal-heated pots full of juicy barbacoa and a giant jug of chilacayote squash agua fresca with cinnamon and piloncillo. “Every time I come [to Oaxaca] I discover something new,” says Vasquez. 

Vasquez is generous, trusting and quick to latch on to the next adventure—especially when in involves his stomach. That’s how we found ourselves at Playa Maguey in Huatulco, surrounded by strangers and faced with an ever-growing pile of dishes. What started as a chance encounter with the restaurant owner the night before at a coffee truck led us to her hidden beachside eatery, its fire-fueled clay oven cooking platters of fresh, exotic fish and broiling octopus-and-shrimp-stuffed pineapples slathered with manchego cheese.

Tasting our first offering—a smooth black bean paste spiced with garlic, hoja santa and chile de árbol—Vasquez identifies similarities to a dish of his mother’s creation. Starting in 2017, the entire concept of his restaurants has revolved around recreating the Oaxacan food of his childhood, and Vasquez’s mother supplies ninety percent of the recipes for the food served at Madre. After Vasquez decided to open his own business, his mother threw her support behind him, helping to perfect flavors and correct ingredients anytime something wasn’t quite right. Vasquez would fly down to Oaxaca to research and practice cooking techniques by her side. The name of the restaurant (translating to mother) reflects her pivotal role. 

A musician settles down in a chair next to us, strumming on his guitar and singing in the Zapotec native language, songs about alcoholics and spurned lovers. Playing in the turquoise waves, immersed in the music, Vasquez regains some of the youthful energy he left behind after leaving Mexico at such a tender age. Drunk off his own happiness, he drops to his knees, and kisses the damp ground. “I love my country,” he announces, beaming.

The road is lined with tortillerias, fruit stands heavy with hanging bunches of bananas, and signs advertising the phone numbers of mariachi bands. Vasquez is bringing us to meet his restaurant’s namesake. Vasquez points out his soccer field, his elementary school, and the large barred door where his mother used to meet him to drop off lunch. She would ride the bus all the way to the school to deliver elaborate meals of tortas with queso de puerco (pigs head), tacos de barbacoa and orange juice, then ride the bus back home to prepare lunch for his father. 

Once parked, we meander through the multi-story house Vasquez is newly building for his family, nearing the end of construction. He shows us many spacious rooms, white and gleaming with all the trappings of modernity. He mentions custom tile, central air conditioning, and a rooftop mezcal bar. He skips touring the aging front property in which he, his parents and siblings previously lived—a complete contrast to our palatial surroundings. “All five of us used to sleep together,” he says. “Two beds. When it used to rain there were leaks.” Though painful and lonely at first, finding success in the States afforded his family a better life. We reach the rooftop—now one of the tallest in the neighborhood—and Vasquez looks out over the valley, a view he never experienced from the one-story house growing up. “My family was very poor,” he says. “A lot of sons don’t have the opportunity to provide for their mother, and I have that pleasure, that accomplishment. She deserves it.” 

On cue, Vasquez’s mother, Lucila, walks up to the terrace wearing a loose red dress and carrying a large bowl of pollo enchilado resplendent in avocado leaves. She greets us warmly, brushing her soft butterscotch cheek against each of ours in turn. The electric scents of cinnamon and chili cling to her like static. It’s obvious we are about to be treated to the very best of Madre from the creator herself. 

The table is so laden with options, I’m at a loss for where to start. Mercifully, someone lines up tall ceramic mugs of horchata, the Oaxacan version that includes cubes of melon and a drizzle of nieve de tuna (cactus fruit sorbet), and that seems a proper beginning. From there I dive into sopa de guias, a soup of corn, squash blossom, squash vine and masa. Then Vasquez’s personal favorite, the spicy, tangy patitas en vinagre—pickled pigs feet with jalapeños, onions, oregano and apple cider vinegar. Olive and almond-studded mole estofado, tar black and densely flavored mole negro, tostadas with avocado purée, sausages and headcheese, and bocadillos de papa (potato and cheese pancakes) follow.

But there’s more.

Homemade salsas, dried crickets to sprinkle as we wish, and bowls of radishes decorate the tablecloth. On the grill rests a clay pot of frijoles de olla, soon joined by a wide, crispy tlayuda and a large, thin steak. Vasquez’s father smiles over the scene, now four years sober. The atmosphere is celebratory as family and friends arrive to help us feast. Mezcal makes the rounds. Vazquez’s mother drinks a shot and chases it with horchata.

For dessert there’s a slightly smoky rice pudding waiting to be topped with peas cooked in piloncillo. Also dark orange, glowing, syrupy, jocote y miel—quarter-sized regional plum-like fruit cooked in brown sugar and cinnamon—a specialty Vasquez’s mother sells (and sells out of) during Dia de los Muertos.

“My life is represented on these plates,” says Vasquez, admiring the breadth of our meal. An ode to his past, nearly everything spread across the table before us bears a faithful adaptation at his own restaurants. Beyond maintaining a successful business, he feels a personal duty to preserve his Oaxacan heritage through the menu at Madre. “I want to provide every dish that my mom used to serve. Not only for my mom, but for other Oaxacan families. The culture is going to get lost—the tradition, the flavors. I don’t want those recipes forgotten.” In addition to recreating familiar recipes, Vasquez imports difficult-to-find ingredients and traditional clay ceramics and..

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JULY 16, 2019 / YEMEN

Why Coffee’s Past Is Yemen’s Future

A new generation seeks to reclaim Yemen’s legacy as the birthplace of coffee and restore its reputation as a leading global producer.

From the  Coffee Issue

What immediately comes to mind when hearing the word Yemen? Ask that of the general public in the years since 2015 and the most common answers are not inviting. “War,” “famine” and even “cholera” all likely top the list.

Widespread starvation, lack of access to medical care, and the impediment of foreign aid have left the country struggling to survive the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. That is not a hyperbole; over seventy-five percent of Yemen’s population, roughly twenty-four million people, are labeled as “at risk.” Of them, 14.3 million people are in acute need. Due to violence, three million people have been forced to flee their homes. 

Yemen is trapped in a war within itself. It’s in a civil war, yes—in simplified terms, between the exiled Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi-run government in the south and opposing rebel Houthi fighters in the north—but the country is also fighting a different battle, this one unseen. It’s a tension between the immediate experience of what is and the inherent possibility of what could be, and the outcome could prove a watershed for an entire industry and places like it.

“What’s heartbreaking for anyone who has lived in Yemen, [for anyone who has] spent time and worked there, is that this magical, wonderful country has this image in the rest of the world as being a very nasty and inhospitable place,” says Peter Salisbury, Consulting Senior Analyst at International Crisis Group. “The best possible scenario for Yemen is the rest of the world shifting how they think about the country.”

How does a country like Yemen change its public perception—a war-filtered narrative that some say has disproportionately overshadowed its true identity—without distracting from its present, very urgent reality?

Surprisingly, the answer hinges on a coffee bean. The first cup of coffee was poured in Yemen. Until the mid-seventeenth century, “coffee” could have been what first sprang to mind when mentioning the country. (More specifically, the word mokha, but we’ll get to that later.) Although the plant was originally discovered in Ethiopia, Sufi monks in the Yemeni city of Mokha are credited with first cultivating and drinking the beans in the mid-fifteenth century. When Dutch traders started trading with Yemen in 1616, coffee was introduced to Europe via Mokha’s port. Shortly thereafter, coffee—or qahwah in Arabic—flowed to the rest of the world.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder & CEO of Port of Mokha, photo by Antonio Diaz

“Figuring out my family’s connection to coffee, everything aligned,” says Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder and CEO of the Oakland and Yemen-based coffee company Port of Mokha. “I had finally found something—more of a calling than a career.”

Alkhanshali, whose unlikely journey from doorman to entrepreneur is documented in author Dave Eggers’ New York Times-bestseller, The Monk of Mokha, was as oblivious as anyone to coffee’s true origins, despite being raised in a Yemeni household in San Francisco. It wasn’t until he encountered a statue of a Yemeni man drinking coffee in the courtyard of the Hills Brothers Coffee Company that his homeland clicked into focus. Diving deeper into coffee, as well as his own personal history, Alkhanshali discovered that where his family lived in Yemen—a province called Ibb—had been cultivating coffee for over five hundred years.

“Growing up as a Yemeni immigrant, it was hard for me to explain to people who I am,” he says, describing the challenge of being both American and Yemeni without any positive media representation. “There is one Friends episode where Chandler has to run away from [his girlfriend] Janice,” he continues. “He tells Joey that he is pretending to move to Yemen. Joey looks over and says, ‘Ohh good one. And Yemen… that actually sounds like a real country!’”

Discovering the statue in 2013 was a turning point for Alkhanshali. He started going to Blue Bottle coffee cuppings, conversing with baristas, and was eventually introduced to Willem Boot, the founder of Boot Coffee and renowned roaster, cupper and coffee farmer. Through Boot, Alkhanshali was immersed within the coffee world, learning all he could while developing the goal to resurrect Yemen’s coffee-driven past.

Alkhanshali traveled to Yemen twice in 2014. The first time staying with a cousin in the capital city, Sana’a, where he serendipitously encountered booths of coffee farmers at an agricultural fair. He spent that summer quietly touring any region he could gain access to.

Photo by Antonio Diaz

“I went to thirty-two regions across Yemen—anywhere that I heard had coffee,” Alkhanshali remembers. Some regions were completely devoid; the crop had either disappeared, or coffee farms had transitioned to growing khat, a plant with chewable leaves that release a compound similar to amphetamines. The drug had escalated in popularity, allowing it to be sold for a higher profit than coffee despite its drain on Yemen’s water resources.

In regions where coffee was still grown, Alkhanshali was welcomed in a manner befitting the Yemeni culture. “If I had to choose one word to describe Yemeni people, it’s generosity,” he says. “People would line up [for] a lottery system to see who gets to host you because everybody wants to host you.”

Alkhanshali returned to Yemen at the end of 2014 to work with these remote farmers to better develop harvesting techniques and drying practices to ensure their coffee could reach specialty-grade quality. Having recently passed his Q exam (and becoming the first Arab Q grader, a role similar to a coffee sommelier, in its history) he knew how important this was.  

Port of Mokha coffee packaging | Courtesy of Port of Mokha

“If I can’t help farmers improve the quality of their coffee, then I can’t sell their coffee at these higher price points,” Alkhanshali explains. “At the end of the day, people who buy these coffees are not buying it for the story.”

Quality coffee more accurately reflects the pressure placed on the coffee laborer—a fact often disassociated from the coffee consumer. Quality coffee has to transcend simply tasting good. On average, there are ten steps from a coffee seed to its final brewed cup, each one requiring a human to perform hours of physical labor. From planting trees to hand-picking cherries—selectively, as each coffee cherry ripens at a different pace—to sorting, drying, processing and milling, the current global commodity price (C-price) of coffee honors that work for less than one U.S. dollar per pound. Only specialty-grade coffee (generally agreed to have a Q score above eighty) can command a wage able to dignify the person who earned it.

“A coffee tree gives you about one pound a year, which is enough for about twenty-five cups,” Alkhanshali continues (in C-price terms, there’s your $1). “It’s unbelievable the amount of labor and expertise it takes. Any brew or roast is a journey that crosses borders, physical hardships, and centuries of cultivation to make its way to you.”

Sourcing coffee from Yemen may finally make that point. The day before Alkhanshali was to leave Sana’a with his first samples of beans, Saudi airstrikes bombed the airport. It was March 24, 2015—the beginning of the civil war. By the time Alkhanshali made it back to San Francisco, he had been kidnapped, smuggled and detained all the while maintaining possession of seven bags of luggage filled with twenty-one coffee samples. It’s this miraculous feat that later became a large portion of Eggers’ book.

Two of those samples earned Q scores of over ninety, proving that with increased picking education and quality protocols, Alkhanshali could harness some of the rarest, and best, coffee in the world. By 2016, he had established Port of Mokha to scale those samples with solo lot farmers into specialty coffee production in three regions of Yemen. After harvesting, processing and milling, he now ships once a year to forty-two different roasters in the U.S. and Asia, as well as sells directly online. As of writing, one five-ounce bag of coffee costs $28.

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Yemeni architecture, taken in the Al-Hayma region | Photo by Ameen Alghaberi, courtesy of Sabcomeed
Photo courtesy of Sabcomeed

Despite geopolitical setbacks and the challenges of a crop reliant on Mother Nature, Alkhanshali’s goal to equip Yemen’s farmers endures. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility to make the coffee. In Yemen, there is no economic infrastructure now. [For these] farmers, this is it,” he says. “It’s challenging when you give people hope, especially people who are going through very difficult times. They trust you to allow hope to enter their hearts. I need to make sure I fulfill my promise.”

Of equal importance is his need to stress that Port of Mokha is not a charity. While the social impact on Alkhanshali’s farmers is direct and often immediate, offering microloans to finance village projects and requiring collective boards to be comprised of at least fifty-percent women, the greater business vision extends to sharing the truth of Yemen’s cultural and historical significance with the rest of the world.

He is not alone. Abdulrahman Saeed, CEO and co-founder of United Arab Emirates-based Sabcomeed, is convinced the quality of Yemeni agriculture is key to the country’s future.

 “My political agenda is simply coffee,” Saeed says, whose roots prompted him to start working with Yemeni farmers almost three years ago. “This is my identity. Coming from Yemen, I have to do something. It’s the most effective way to bring back socioeconomic stability. Since Yemen has eighty to ninety percent of the population employed by agriculture by default, the best way to tackle the problem is coffee.”

Sabcomeed absorbs the risk of all the farmers they work with, from the smallest farmer who produces only 2.2 pounds of coffee per year to the biggest, producing four hundred pounds per year. Everyone is pooled into a collective where each farmer is paid per cherry. Doing so creates incentive to continue picking only the best, ripe cherries, as well as provide opportunity to train farmers on how to increase the quality of their production. As with Port of Mokha, at Sabcomeed, maintaining specialty coffee standards is crucial.

“It is our job to improve their coffee,” Saeed says, noting his effort to work with farmers irrespective of their skill level. “Whether it’s talking to an agricultural expert, working with us to improve soil conditions, organic composting, or anything like that. We do it all. It’s about creating a change—something that can be seen and can be shared.”

Tristan Comb, an American based in Boston who is co-founder and CMO of Sabcomeed, agrees. “What we’re trying to do is provide value to people who work in these remote areas and the ability to access trade and international markets; we don’t want everyone to give up on their roots,” he says. “[Farming] is something [Yemenis] have been doing for thousands of years, and doing it amazingly well.” 

In addition to supplying Yemeni specialty-grade coffee to roasters in Europe—Sabcomeed’s biggest market currently—and soon in the U.S., Saeed also has another goal: mokha. He wants to reclaim the Arabic name.

“We started the project to actively pursue reclaiming the word ‘mokha’ as part of Yemen,” he explains, undaunted by the scope of such ambition or the corporations he is up against. “This will take five to ten years—maybe fifteen—but it will all be worth it. The main concept is denomination of origin [similar to using the term ‘champagne’ which must be made in the region of Champagne]—what makes a certain product belong to a certain culture, identity or region.”

One of Sabcomeed’s producers with his grandson sorting ripe cherries | Photo by Ali Alsunaidar, courtesy of Sabcomeed
Group photo of Sabcomeed’s producers, team and family members | Photo by Ali Alsunaidar, courtesy of Sabcomeed

According to Saeed, “mokha” spelled with the correct Arabic “kh” instead of a “c” or “ch” should reflect the Yemeni origin point, increasing global awareness of the country’s cultural importance. After spending months researching and validating public perception around the word mokha, along with a detailed legal process documenting other denomination of origin cases, he’s hoping that by utilizing the UAE’s leadership and diplomatic connections, proper use of mokha will create demand for Yemeni beans in drinks that bear the name.

“Everyone agrees—even Starbucks—‘mocha’ comes from the port of Mokha,” Saeed continues. “The debate comes when we have ten different spellings of the word. If you look at an instant coffee—Nestlé—you will see mocha or mocha-flavored and then on the back you’ll see Brazilian coffee. How is that fair? Similarly, if ‘white mocha’ wasn’t used and profited from for years, [Starbucks] would have to call it ‘white chocolate coffee drink.’ But which sounds better?”

A mature coffee tree in the Anis region, part of the Dhamar Governorate | Photo by Ali Alsunaidar, courtesy of Sabcomeed


“You’re introducing on a conceptual level the idea that Yemen can produce amazing things,” says Salisbury. After working in Yemen for nearly a decade as well as living there cumulatively for two-and-a-half years, Salisbury emphasizes it won’t be just one thing—such as specialty coffee—that solves the complexities of Yemen’s situation. But that doesn’t diminish how essential it is either.

“What’s incredible is there are these local-level initiatives of the kind that Mokhar has been running, that not only provide livelihoods but are also commercially viable,” he continues.

Both Port of Mokha and Sabcomeed are resurrecting a Yemen of yesteryear that most don’t realize exists. Once known as the “Happy Land”—Arabia Felix in Latin—the world’s rarest coffee could be considered a starting point, an opening act for a country also capable of producing phenomenal honey, olives, raisins, almonds and myrrh. These are luxury goods reflecting a sacred, precious nectar. These are also items not discovered haphazardly, but sought—a form of gold once they are found.

So the question remains, will coffee be the fulcrum that shifts the country?

In the words of Ali Ibn Umar al-Shadhili, the original monk of Mokha who brewed that very first cup, “Oh coffee, oh, people of love! You helped me dispel sleep. You helped me with the God’s help to worship Him while people slept. Do not blame me for drinking it; it is the drink of the honored ones.”

The post Why Coffee’s Past Is Yemen’s Future appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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July 12, 2019 — New York City

The Many Lives of Zarela Martinez

Culinary legend Zarela Martinez introduced finely tuned, highly researched regional Mexican cuisine to a national stage, and has continued to blaze trails for more than three decades.

Words By Stef Ferrari
Photography by Noah Fecks

In New York City, Zarela Martinez tells me a story about a guitar she once purchased from a trader in Mexico. She was scouting locations for her PBS show in Veracruz, when she spotted a young man with the requinto (guitar) on his back. “I knew I had to have it,” she remembers. She didn’t have the money on her at the time, but convinced him to hold it until she returned to shoot.

Today, the guitar—carved in the shape of a woman’s body—sits on a bookcase beside photos of her ancestors, folk art from various Latin American regions, and worn and well-used cookbooks from culinary greats of multiple eras. Her home is an immersive scrapbook—an installation of artifacts curated from a lifetime of travel and curiosity. The apartment is practically a museum—I almost feel as if I should pay admission. But that is not to say that it lacks warmth. To the contrary, in her space I feel instantly at home; it seems to embody that whole mi casa, su casa mentality for which her Mexican culture is known. 

It’s fitting, as Martinez has always been a consummate entertainer. The type of entertainment depends on what you fancy, though—most notably a celebrated chef, she’s also been a television host, a writer and a singer who released an album titled “Sad Songs from a Happy Heart” in 2017. She’s created a line of products for the home, taught classes, and delivered presentations to massive corporations. Martinez is a modern-day, bicultural renaissance woman whose interests in art and self-expression know no bounds. 

But it is entertaining at home—hosting people—that has always been at the core of her personality, and a part of her inherited legacy. “Mother loved to entertain,” she recalls. “It was a way of life for her.” Martinez remembers family and friends who would come for extended stays or short visits at her family’s ranch when she was growing up. “People would often drop by for breakfast, lunch and dinner in our city home and sit for hours after the meal haciendo sobremesa (the interlude after a meal when people sit and chat for hours).”

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Martinez has embodied the idea of hospitality long before that became a general term to describe an industry, a career path, or even a college major for that matter. Her brand of hospitality comes not from an MBA program, but from an upbringing steeped in tradition and genuine human connection, as well as a lifetime in the pursuit of knowledge.

It is a circuitous route that landed Martinez here on New York City’s East Side. In fact, her life story feels like could easily be the plot of a major Hollywood film. Her book, Food From My Heart (which could also easily double as a definitive text on Mexican history, not to mention a riveting, vivid memoir), details a family tree that begins with her ancestors’ pivotal involvement in the Mexican Revolution, and follows her through an international, intercultural and interpersonal journey—one that just so happens to have changed the landscape of American cooking, and the way Mexican food and culture would forever be perceived.

Even if you haven’t heard her name, you have almost certainly had a meal that Martinez had a hand in making possible. It is thanks to her work, her relentless drive and passion, that modern Mexican food found a foothold in the American culinary world. 

Her lasting impression and influence on the modern food world could be credited in part to a persevering and unswerving pursuit of knowledge from an early age. Martinez was born in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and spent much of her upbringing in private and boarding schools, then attended finishing school and ITESO (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente) in Guadalajara. She traces many of her accomplishments back to the diverse education she had growing up. “The things I learned in finishing school would be paramount later when I was developing my line of Mexican-inspired products for the home. My mass communications training would help me write and promote my books, conceive my television series, write the scripts and help with the editing,” she tells me. “And to this day, I have always done my own public relations with great success.”

Her father, she says, was “a true bohemio,” and perhaps the tree from which her apple did not fall far. He was “a lover of all things artistic and literary, a man of many interests and hobbies. He painted, wrote haiku, raised exotic birds, built board games, dug for buried treasure, listened to opera, read voraciously, and spent hours poring through his huge Webster’s dictionary and set of Encyclopedia Britannica just for the pleasure of learning something new,” Martinez says. “He spoke English with a thick accent but his vocabulary was remarkable.”

And her mother set the tone for Martinez’s culinary path. She tells me, “My mother was a terrific cook and I had learned to prepare not only traditional Sonoran and Chihuahua food but a little international fare as well—this was Mexican food with a continental flare.”

Martinez moved to El Paso, Texas in 1973, where she started experimenting with food professionally, independently catering to supplement her income. As was theme in her life, education continued to be at the center of her philosophy though, and her preferred way to learn was to seek information at the source. Martinez began traveling regularly, to Europe, and especially through Mexican regions, cataloguing specialties and gathering context for the food she was learning to create. She collected recipes and pieces of art, took photos and forged relationships.

Zarela Martinez

Her mother journeyed with her often, and was also inclined toward the epicurean. Martinez remembers her mother “could duplicate any flavor she tasted,” and loved to eat. During one of their U.S. research trips to New Orleans, Martinez made a friend that would change her life. Paul Prudhomme, owner of the legendary restaurant K-Paul’s, was approached by a young Martinez after she and her mother enjoyed a meal together. He was flattered and offered her a deal. “You teach me Mexican food, and I’ll show you everything I know about Creole.” After a week together, he’d made good on his promise, but it was only after she returned to El Paso that his influence profoundly shifted her path.

Prudhomme had been asked to cook for the exclusive culinary society, Maîtres Cuisiniers de France. The dinner would be held at Tavern on the Green in New York, where a showcase was being organized to introduce the organization to regional American food. The chef called Martinez to ask if she would join him, to cook and represent Mexican American cuisine.

So Martinez traveled north to an event that set the tone for her future. The New York food media was out in force and had the opportunity to taste her food, which was nothing like anything they’d seen before. (In her book, Martinez recalls a Fodor’s Guide from the era that “commented that Mexican food available in the United States bore the same uncomfortable resemblance to real Mexican cooking as a howling monkey has to man.”) Craig Claiborne, the famed New York Times critic, published a piece called “Memorable Dishes from a Master Mexican Chef” in 1982, a time during which the cuisine of her heritage—and of women in general—was rarely given such a spotlight. Of the event, he wrote, “We also wanted to have Mexican-style food from Texas. When we canvassed our contacts for the best cook of the region, we were told that person was, hands down, Zarela Martinez-Gabilondo.” The event became a sort of culinary coming out party that helped launch her career and sparked an interest in the city for this new kind of Mexican food. “[Food writer] Suzanne Hamlin described my food as ‘almost like discovering colors,’” Martinez recalls. No question about it, she’d made her mark.

After that, Martinez recognized the unique value of her expertise. The problem was that even though it wasn’t the diverse breadth of regional specialties she was so diligently preparing, El Paso had plenty of Mexican food. She set her sights on a much loftier stage; the real opportunity was to introduce an entirely new population to the food of her country. She believed New York could be that platform, and she’d now had a very successful test run in the market. She’d also recently experienced personal heartbreak—the ending of her marriage—so in 1983, Martinez packed her catering van with her two twin sons and $10,000, and hit the road, ready for her next chapter.

A single parent, a woman, an immigrant; considering the cultural landscape in the early 1980s, any one of these qualifiers could have presented crippling adversity. But Martinez converted those potential challenges to rocket fuel. When her former husband insinuated she wouldn’t make it in New York City, she told him, “I’ll sell burritos in Central Park if I have to.” 

Fortunately for the future of the food-loving public, she didn’t have to. But when she arrived in the city, Martinez didn’t have a restaurant or platform on which to share her cuisine, so she opened her home instead. “I used every little bit of extra money I made catering to throw parties at my apartment,” she says. “I was experimenting with different dishes and developing my style and wanted to expose as many people as I could to my food to get their opinion. If they asked me what they could bring, I would tell them to bring me someone who could help my career.” Martinez hosted gatherings regularly, serving an ever-growing circle of influential figures. In addition to restaurateurs like Joe Baum, actor Ben Gazzara, couturière Pauline Trigère, and art patron Beth Rudin DeWoody also showed up for Martinez’s famous margaritas, her red snapper hash and manchamanteles (which she refers to as a “table-stainer”). Guests were rapt by these regional interpretations, the likes of which had never been seen in the New York food scene.

All her hospitality paid off. Within two years, she was hired as chef at the chic new Café Marimba. It was a major leap forward personally, and also as a representative for her culture and for women in food. But for Martinez, a grander path had been forecast by her mother at birth: “I used to complain bitterly and often to my mother about my name: ‘Why did you have to name me Zarela?’” she remembers questioning. “‘Why couldn’t it be something normal, like Gabriela, Letizia or Ana?’ And my mother always answered, ‘Because it will look good in lights, honey.’” With that prophecy in mind, Martinez opened her eponymous restaurant in 1987. 

For the next twenty-four years at Zarela, Martinez made it her life’s mission to cook for and entertain New Yorkers (and a not insubstantial amount of travelers who made the pilgrimage to taste her celebrated food). She introduced hyper-specific new dishes and codified classics. Her margaritas were legend and the atmosphere was always a party—an extension of the ones she’d once thrown in her home. “I repeatedly watched her stroll radiantly through the dining room,” New York Times critic Frank Bruni later mused.

Her menu had familiar fajitas and flautas, but there was also lamb barbacoa and pan-fried liver with pickled jalapeno juice. There were those manchamanteles de pato—roasted duck with tomato red chile sauce, dried apricots, prunes, raisins and pineapple. There was pollo con naranja: chicken braised in orange liqueur with habanero chile, fresh orange, lime juice and mint. There were dishes of chilaquiles long before their image became ubiquitous in the Insta-verse.

And Martinez not only revolutionized the country’s food scene by way of her New York City stage, she introduced a culture. She recalls her mother’s “number one motto: Always say something nice to everyone you deal with, because they may be having a bad day or you might be the first Mexican they meet.” It was something she took to heart, and the city responded by showing up to her restaurant for more than two decades.

Her trailblazing example motivated her own family as well. Her son Aarón Sánchez even followed in her footsteps, becoming a chef, restaurateur and television star in his own right, and frequently crediting his mother with his inspiration. 

Her expertise was in large part her ability to communicate across cultures—something that, at the time of her career’s inception, was a rarity. She relentlessly created both within the kitchen and without. She wrote cookbooks and took on speaking engagements, consulted for companies like Nestlé and Unilever and even Taco Bell, who turned to a small group of chefs, including Martinez and Stephan Pyles, for product development (the result of which was the now-famous gordita). She saw yet another opportunity to stimulate an appetite for Mexican cuisine on a major scale. “Taco Bell has had a great role in developing a Mexican flavor palate for millions,” she reflects on her experience with the company. “That in turn lead to the popularization of more traditional tacos and other Mexican foods, particularly sauces.” 

In 2004, the unstoppable Martinez was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But rather than cite it as a reason to slow down, Martinez tells me it’s presented her with its own unique form of inspiration. “It’s called compulsive creativity,” she explains. “Solutions to problems and ideas for projects come to me fully formed. My mother would say that the Holy Spirit had visited me.”

In 2011, she closed her legendary restaurant. But despite challenges to her health, Martinez cooks and creates daily in the kitchen, and her enduring appetite to learn and research continues to take her on journeys. When I meet with her a third time, she is preparing to travel to Oaxaca. She still feels a responsibility to ensure her culture is properly represented, and is developing a new concept which she calls DeLitefully Mexican. The philosophy of the project is that more pleasure is derived from food with the “vivid flavors” she feels are inherent to true Mexican cuisine, hoping to dispel suggestions that all Mexican food is “heavy.”

In 2013, the James Beard Foundation inducted Martinez into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, and so consequential were her writings and recipes that Harvard’s Schlesinger Library acquired a collection. But Martinez’s influence and legacy cannot be overstated; her representation of her culture and cuisine paved the way for the chefs who carry the torch for Mexican food today, no matter gender, city, or nationality. As a Mexican-American, as a mother, as a woman, as a restaurateur and business person, and as a chef, she has been a trailblazer, an ambassador for her..

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From the  Coffee Issue

The marine fog hadn’t yet lifted and driving through the foothills felt more like one of those mornings where California could secretly be the setting for Jurassic Park. The pursuit was for something equally as mystical: locally-grown coffee beans in Goleta, California, less than two hours away from Los Angeles.

Whether or not that sounds incredulous to you will largely be determined by how much you know about coffee. I mean no disrespect here. Myself? Before this trip I knew fairly little, only having the general sense that subtropical regions like Guatemala, Colombia and Kenya were the origins I saw most often printed on chubby little bags.

But I did know something else: California can grow almost anything. 

“There are moments in people’s lives where you come across an experience that shoots your perspective,” says Jay Ruskey, CEO and founder of Frinj Coffee and its flagship farm, Good Land Organics. “I think Frinj has been doing that a lot to people, even in the coffee industry.”

Having followed our directions to arrive at a wooden barn with a rust-colored roof, my companions and I were excited to get a peek at what was happening inside. We heard it as soon as we opened the door—the rumble, plop, plop, plop, of coffee cherries being sorted into buckets. A harvest had just come in the night before.

Ruskey didn’t set out to grow coffee. This isn’t a hyper-Millennial, let’s-disrupt-for-the-sake-of-disruption trend grab. Ruskey is, and always has been, a farmer. It was his background in growing rare and exotic fruits—starting with cherimoyas, then expanding to caviar limes, passionfruit, dragon fruit and avocado—that piqued his interest when given a coffee plant by farm advisor Dr. Mark Gaskell in 2002. 

“I planted them with my avocado trees not thinking it would be worth anything, but [I was] entertained by the thought of growing something unusual and rare,” he explains. “I get asked all the time why hasn’t coffee been done [in California] before, and it’s because there hasn’t been a market [for] it.”

Ruskey’s decision to plant “and see what happens” with that coffee plant led to years of research and development (and yielding coffee cherries) that coincided with the emergence of the specialty coffee market.

“Seven years ago, I hired Lindsey [Mesta, co-founder and CMO of Frinj] as one of the interns doing coffee in California,” Ruskey says, noting that with an extensive background in working on a Hawaiian coffee farm, it was Mesta who introduced him to the quality coffee concept, cuppers and idea of roasting. Together, Ruskey and Mesta began building a network of interested people who were experienced in the coffee industry.

Almost fifteen years later, Ruskey formed Frinj Coffee in 2017 after recognizing that coffee is the next niche crop that California farmers need—avocado farmers especially.

“Avocado production for small and medium-sized farms is becoming uneconomical because of imports,” he says, commenting on the reality of a global commodity market that has squeezed farmers into single-digit margins. Today, avocados everywhere look relatively the same. “How do these farmers diversify their crops, where they can be more careful with their water and resources, but make more money per acre?”

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Suzanne Denisse, Post Harvest Specialist & Production Roaster

For coastal California, the answer is specialty crops; i.e coffee. Drawing on his experience planting coffee trees among his avocados, Ruskey explains both plants enjoy the same water and soil sites. Although both are susceptible to frost and heat, wherever an avocado can grow successfully, coffee can too. When he started to experience the effects of California’s drought, this knowledge made it easier for him to get other farmers on board. By 2016, he had twenty avocado farmers in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Diego experimenting with growing coffee. 

“[Coffee] has fit the profile of economics for the farmer, availability and long-term market trend that can support farms,” Ruskey says. “Because when you plant a coffee plant, it takes three or four years to get to production. You need to make sure it’s just not a one-hit wonder. You want to have a ten- to twenty-year window to get a return.”

Ruskey’s explaining all of this while serving us our first taste of his Caturra rojo variety, which is currently sold out online for $75 for five ounces. After the ritualistic ceremony of weighing coffee and waiting for the pour-over “bloom,” the plop-plops are replaced with loud slurps, the characteristic sound of aerating coffee while you taste it. As it cools down, the coffee’s flavor becomes more pronounced. It’s smooth and more acidic than a Brazilian (as I overhear the more advanced tasters discuss), but fruitier too. I even get hints of something vegetal.  

Next, we taste his second variety, the Laurina, which is also sold out online at $95 for five ounces. A naturally half-caffeinated plant, Ruskey says this is “a more mindful coffee” with which you can sit and savor flavor rather than chase the caffeine. It’s slightly sweeter at first, then rich, with subtle toasted notes that remind me of campfire marshmallows. Good for afternoons, he says, the Laurina also pairs nicely with food. And as if on cue, he pulls out a box of pastries from a local Goleta bakery.

While this setting—a group of people ranging from coffee expert to daily dabbler coming together to drink Californian coffee—is a proud moment for Ruskey, it’s not the full extent of all that he aims to do through Frinj.

Jay Ruskey, CEO & Founder of Frinj Coffee

“If you look at the global theory of coffee production, [coffee is a] rather imperialistic crop,” he continues. “It’s grown in places where you can take advantage of resources and bring them back to more modern societies where they can enjoy cheap coffee.”

That’s not the case in California, where the practical ability to grow coffee can also be met by resources to innovate and evolve a global industry. This is something Ruskey feels a responsibility to do.

After the drought, he was able to sequence coffee’s genome with professors at the University of California, Davis. After his years of growing plants, he’d been able to visually determine that certain plants thrive better than others. Now, using the sequenced genome, he is able to use genetics to predict which plants will make the best parents, something that used to require ten thousand plants and a timespan of twenty-one years to accomplish. It’s with this information that Frinj also coaches and consults with its partner farms, in addition to providing them with plants and processing their beans.

“There are traits we like to look for reinforced by the DNA, and also to better predict if we cross two varieties by hand pollination, we’ll have a more predictable outcome” he describes. “It’s like being able to play cards and know what’s in the deck. That’s how we use the genetic work.”

Similar to how the wine industry uses different pinot noir clones to ensure that every vine and grape will perform in the same way, Ruskey believes that’s where the coffee industry is headed. He wants Frinj to lead the way, not just referring to it as a coffee company but as an “agricultural technology company” that’s able to support breeding programs and diversify a very narrow genetic pool, by crop standards.

“We have these complex elements homing in on the coffee world,” he goes on, citing climate changes and mutating pests, like coffee leaf rust, causing five-generation farmers to question if they can continue working with the same few plant varieties. “A lot of the science demand is coming to us.”

But of utmost importance throughout Frinj’s research and its education (it recently partnered with the Coffee Quality Institute to help develop international coffee standards and qualify tasters, as well as partnered with UCD to offer a coffee production class, which is currently the most popular on campus) is that the company remains farmer-first. Always. In order to make the best coffee in the world, the farmer needs to be supported to grow it.

“The majority of our investors are farmers,” Ruskey emphasizes, dispelling the stereotype that as California coffee, he’s only producing for the affluent. “I’m always [asking], ‘What’s the best for the farmer?’ We have a special pay process for the farmer, great plant materials for the farmer…Ultimately, the goal is to get the best return to the farmers so farmers in California have a viable crop.”

Fundamentally, the coffee story is a crop story, something so far removed from many of today’s consumers. Admittedly, it’s a lot harder to get a sense for a green, leafy, cherry-producing tree when your morning coffee comes from a can next to the cookie aisle. That’s the blessing of California, known land of evergreen produce and sun. However, with its privilege comes its burden, and to recondition the consumer through “California-grown coffee” is no quick task.

“In California we now have the ability to change the way we introduce coffee, an approach that goes right to the consumer,” says Ruskey. “When a person actually sees how much darn work it is to make a cup of coffee, they are going to go, ‘Holy cow.’ At least twenty human hands have touched your coffee by the time it gets to your mouth. There is no other crop like that.”

One of his goals in the next two to three years is to begin operating Frinj like a winery, a place where people can taste and experience the farmers, their farms, and their region of coffee. With forty-two farms with plants in the ground right now, and at least a dozen more farms planting in the coming months, Ruskey is hopeful that in the same way subcultures have sprouted up surrounding Californian craft beer, for example, for coffee it’s only a matter of time.

“Our goal now is to focus on developing the California coffee growing industry into a sustainable, fruitful network of growers producing some of the highest quality coffee in the world,” Mesta says. She adds that the company’s long-term goals, for now, are open, but include looking for more ways to impact the greater coffee industry, expanding into new “frinj” regions or into traditional tropical coffee growing regions, if the opportunity arises.

Before leaving the farm, Ruskey takes us out to see the coffee plants in real time. It’s a wild path lined with trees of finger limes, passionfruit and baby avocados. Suddenly, there they are. In between patches of orange poppies and with a view of the Pacific in the distance, bushy bunches of red and green cherries peek out from the core of the trees.

Invited to, I pick a red one from the rare Gesha variety and pop it into my mouth. Its tart sweetness mellows as I chew the skins and spit the slimy seeds into my hands, never to look at a coffee bean the same way again.


Frinj Coffee’s 2019 harvests will be ready as early as August, and can be purchased online at frinjcoffee.com or through select retailers, which will be announced later this summer.

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When you walk through the front door at Free to Feed in Melbourne’s inner-north suburb of Northcote, you feel instantly at ease. The non-profit social enterprise, which champions refugees, new migrants, and people seeking asylum through cooking classes and food initiatives, is lined with native greenery and warm timber shelves, all stacked with an assortment of ceramics, glassware and well-used cutlery. Chopping boards and serving platters are splayed across a central table. The sound of clinking pots spills through the kitchen door at the back of the room, along with the scent of cardamom, saffron and freshly chopped herbs.

Loretta Bolotin, founder and CEO of Free to Feed, swings through the kitchen door carrying a box of veggies and a pile of spice containers. “You’re here!” Her wide smile mirrors the welcoming atmosphere that the space exudes. That makes sense—after all, this is Bolotin’s baby. Bolotin is first and foremost a mother of two young boys, Koan and Sol, but the importance of family and belonging is at the core of Free to Feed.

Loretta Bolotin, CEO and Co-founder of Free to Feed

Bolotin starts arranging eggplants and tomatoes on the table. “Shahnaz is prepping for her next class,” she says, spooning dried mint, rose petals and pistachios into shallow bowls. “I’m just helping her get things set up.” Shahnaz is one of fourteen teachers who hosts cooking classes at Free to Feed. The organization also employs nearly thirty cooks. I ask Bolotin where the staff comes from. “Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand,” she says. “we have a lot of representation.” 

“Today’s class will learn to make Khoresh Bademjan, a traditional Persian stew with eggplant and tomatoes,” she explains. The range of available classes offers something for everyone. You’ll use vibrant spice and heat in Sri Lankan cooking, or learn to prepare biryani, vine leaves, and other hearty, traditional dishes from Iraq—the hot cuisine of the moment, according to Bolotin. 

In addition to cooking classes, Free to Feed offers workshops, catering services, immersive food experiences, bespoke events, and a range of house-made pantry items, all run and developed by the refugees, people seeking asylum, and new migrants employed by the organization. 

Free to Feed also has a professional development program to help refugees looking to gain employment or start a business in Australia bring their vision to life. Since launching in 2015, these initiatives have provided over twelve thousand hours of paid training and issued over $300 thousand in wages. “We don’t just want to help people feel part of the community,” Bolotin tells me. “We want to help them with the challenges they often face in accessing employment.” 

As we speak, it is clear how deeply Bolotin cares for those on her team, and how passionate she is about supporting them. “Everyone has such a beautiful, unique and often harrowing story,” she says. “To be a part of a community and then be suddenly uprooted and land in a totally foreign place can cause a stifling sense of isolation. Our aim is to give new arrivals the chance to connect with others, to showcase themselves, their food, and their stories in a way that instils empathy and interest from others.” 

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Bolotin has always been drawn to helping others. “My father came to Australia from Italy by boat. I grew up in a migrant family in a multiculturally rich part of Melbourne,” she says. “Exposure to feelings of alienation and the need for support is part of the fabric of my story.”

Before Free to Feed, Bolotin worked in the humanitarian sector for nearly a decade, gaining a greater sense of the barriers faced by people settling in a new homeland. While distributing aid to refugees in East Africa, she met her now-husband (and co-founder of Free to Feed), Daniel. “My partner also comes from a refugee background. His family came to Australia from Uzbekistan in the ‘70s on a humanitarian visa, and managed to build a beautiful, wholesome life and successful business here,” she says. “They have been such a source of inspiration, showing us the potential of what people are capable of.” 

Inspired by both her family and the people she’d met through humanitarian work, Bolotin sought out and landed what she thought was her dream job working in women’s rights and gender justice at The Hague in the Netherlands, home of the U.N.’s international judicial courts. A new mother to baby Koan, she quickly realised the harsh reality of the role, which demanded exhausting, inflexible hours—ironic given the nature of the work. “I essentially found myself in an unrewarding desk job, detached from everything that really mattered to me—from being there for my family and for those who needed help in finding a sense of belonging,” she says. 

Bolotin dropped the job. She sat down with Daniel and thought creatively about how to make people feel included, connected and represented all in a sustainable and balanced way. Food became an obvious answer, and the melting pot of Melbourne where they both grew up felt like “the right spiritual home to lay the foundations of Free to Feed.” 

“We all eat, right?” She pokes at Daniel, who’s just come out from the kitchen with the remaining ingredients for Shahnaz’s class. “Universally, people come together to break bread. Each culture has their own rituals and traditions that revolve around the table. This is the place where we can really connect. This a place where people’s distinct skills, which are often rooted in their own histories, can be shared through meals and beautiful memories of cooking in their countries of origin during peaceful times.”

Bolotin is onto something there. Using food as a medium doesn’t just work because it’s delicious; it also serves as a way to discuss people’s experiences, and a way to help the community see the value that migrants and refugees contribute to society—economically, culturally, socially. 

“Food isn’t everything, but it’s a gateway,” says Bolotin, who is hopeful about the conversations her team is sparking. Rather than donating to a traditional charity, Free to Feed provides an avenue for the public to actively participate in something important, as well as for new migrants to develop a meaningful network, which is essential in establishing a sense of identity in an unknown place.

“This work makes me endlessly in awe of how resilient we are as humans—of how much we want to survive and thrive,” she says. “People can go through the most horrendous, unspeakable trauma and still come out the other side and want to be better.” 

Recently, Free to Feed’s efforts have been particularly focused on how they can engage women with limited English language skills. “For example, we have one woman working with us. She is fifty-seven years old and this is her first job ever. She comes from a culture where she was married very young and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue work. Now, she hasn’t just started over here, she’s completely reinvented herself,” says Bolotin. “She’s eager to learn and share everything she’s been practicing in her kitchen her whole life while raising a family.” This is just one of many stories that keeps Bolotin and her team motivated. 

Bolotin hopes to continue growing the social enterprise in a way that can sustainably support more and more people, both customers and employees. She tells me, “We want to be a leader in the culinary space so that taking a class, ordering catering for your workplace, or purchasing spices for your own home cooking is a really easy decision to make, and one that can actually change someone’s life.”

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July 2, 2019

Coffee, Milk and the Conversation of Conscious Consumerism

Coffee Pros Weigh in on the Alt Milk Industry

Words By Carly DeFilippo
Photography by Katrina Frederick

From the  Coffee Issue

“Sorry, we’re out of oat milk.” If you live in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Seattle or any other city with a bustling coffee culture, chances are you’ve witnessed the rise—and sudden fall—in oat milk supply. But if you ask Mike Messersmith, General Manager at Oatly, he’ll tell you, “This isn’t an Oatly story. There was a rising consumer demand and awareness for new and different plant-based options. We just hit the market at the right time.” 

According to Messersmith, the recent boom in plant-based milks—in which Oatly rode the crest of the wave—came down to two factors. First and foremost, the hypergrowth of the specialty coffee and tea market, which shows no sign of slowing. Per Messersmith, “Everyone is becoming more comfortable with and aware of specialty coffee. People now have the confidence to walk into a shop and order a cortado, but they may not have known what that was fifteen years ago.”

Second, there’s the boom in the plant-based space, with consumers becoming more educated and questioning the status quo. “With the rising awareness of climate change, people are feeling helpless and overwhelmed,” Messersmith notes. “There’s a lack of faith that governments will solve the crisis, and in that anxiety, people are looking for ways to personally shift their behavior.” For twenty-five years—although not always under the name Oatly—the goal of the Swedish brand has been to help consumers make a step in that direction, without compromising the dairy-based habits of their morning cereal or coffee.

When Oatly entered the U.S. market in 2016, the momentum behind specialty coffee was already full-speed ahead, but plant-based eating was just starting to gain traction. Just ask former Intelligentsia team members and the founders of Los Angeles’ G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger (GGET), Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski. “The plant-based trend really started seven to eight years ago,” Babinski asserts. “At that point, soy milk was around as a staple, but there weren’t enough people consuming it—or even trying it—to get that business to really take off.” 

Back in their Intelligentsia days, Glanville grimly recalls the poor quality of soy used by most coffee shops: “Soy milk was the thing everyone knew was terrible—it was usually sweetened and came in those tetrapaks—but there was a sense of ‘throw the vegans a bone.’” His feelings about plant-based milks only began to shift when a fellow employee brought in a deli container of homemade almond milk from a neighboring restaurant. “It was just as creamy as whole milk, so I tried using it to make cappuccinos. What sold me was that it was a small-batch, quality product that felt as intentional as the coffee we were serving our customers.”

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Today, at G&B and GGET in Los Angeles, customers of both pro-dairy and non-dairy persuasions line up to try the coffee bar’s iconic almond-macadamia milk. If that sounds laborious to make, it is. “We wanted to improve on the one-dimensional quality of most plant-based milks, but we initially avoided macadamia because it was too expensive,” Babinski explains. “Ultimately, the macadamia adds a fattiness and creaminess that a good cappuccino should have—even in smaller quantities—so we went with a ⅔ almond, ⅓ macadamia recipe.” Of course, none of that recipe testing would matter if the Go Get Em Tiger team wasn’t willing to wake up at four a.m. each day to process sixty pounds of nuts through a Vitamix.

“We like doing things other people are unwilling to do,” Glanville underscores. “We take pride in it, and we’ve found, to this day, that not a lot of other coffee shops make their own nut milks.” The pair also have a housemade oat milk, in a nod to more recent trends, although they prefer the nutritional density of nuts as a milk replacement. “The creamier oat products on the market tend to include rapeseed (aka canola) oil to boost viscosity,” Babinski explains. “That just doesn’t sound that appetizing to me.”

With that being said, Babinski understands its popularity: “Soy milk worked better with darker roasted coffee. As people are roasting lighter and lighter, soy became untenable because it separates in more acidic coffees. Oat milk, as far as flavor and texture, is more complementary to lighter roasts—which is meaningful.” The pair also acknowledge that many industrialized nut milks are taxing on the environment, noting their own choice for sustainable almond sourcing is Blue Diamond, a coop of small producers. Glanville explains, “We’re cultivating food on this land, and there is always a point [with a given ingredient] where it becomes irresponsible—where you’re pulling more out of the soil than there is to give.”

For consumers seeking a clear-cut answer on which plant-based milk is the most sustainable, chances are you’ll run into some significant dead ends. According to a 2019 article from FoodPrint, “variables like greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, land use, chemical runoff and soil degradation all have to be considered for each stage of production—from growing the raw ingredient to processing and transportation.” Even for the same product, those factors can vary widely from brand to brand, adding yet another layer of complexity. The organization also notes that if you consider nutritional density in the equation rather than sustainability alone, the title of “best” alternative would likely go to different products.

Part of that complexity is also the question of your local environment. “For a crop to be considered sustainable, it needs to grow without excessive watering, pesticides and herbicides,” Messersmith explains. “On a micro level, almost anything can be sustainable and fine. But at scale, there are certain types of ingredients or food systems that have unintended effects.” In Oatly’s country of origin, Sweden, almonds are difficult to cultivate, whereas oats grow in abundance. Beyond being a low-intensity cover crop that can easily coexist with other agricultural products, oats also have the added benefit of being very neutral for consumers with food allergies.

Yet while oats may grow sustainably in abundance, mastering the processing of the product is less simple. “We only do oats,” Messersmith attests. “Part of what I believe has made Oatly stand out [from other oat milks] is that companies using multiple inputs often have a one-size-fits-all approach. Our manufacturing process was specifically developed to mirror how the human body would digest an oat flake, including how to maintain the nutritional content of the product.”

Whether oats, almonds, hemp, coconut, soy, rice, flax or any number of dairy alternatives, what remains clear is the role played by the coffee community in advancing the plant-based milk trend. “Specialty coffee is all about optimizing the end product—from sourcing, to roasting, to preparation. It’s such a waste to let down all that other work in the last minute of production—which is why we partnered with cafés across the Nordic region and Copenhagen to create Oatly’s barista blend,” Messersmith explains. When rolling out that product in the U.S., Oatly extended that strategy further, initially—and exclusively—placing the custom blend at the finest coffee shops across the country.

Even beyond the question of milk, Messersmith has found the specialty coffee community has a genuine interest in sustainability. “The coffee industry is very much threatened by climate change. Fifty or sixty years from now, it’s not unlikely that certain beans will be impossible to grow or harvest,” he says. He believes precarity makes coffee professionals unusually invested in exploring a plant-based future. Combined with the daily role coffeeshops often play in consumers’ lives, cafés may be uniquely positioned to provoke future-forward thinking, one cup at a time.

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In a city where the median household income is $96,265 and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,821 a month—three times the national average—San Francisco isn’t a place where it might seem possible for farmers or most anyone to live. While the Bay Area is an agricultural hotbed, the majority of California’s farmers live and work in the Central Valley, the most fertile part of the state. But Emilie Winfield, the crop manager for Michael and Lindsay Tusk—owners of restaurants Quince, Cotogna and Verjus—calls the Outer Richmond district of San Francisco home. The residential neighborhood on the edge of the city where the wide streets slope toward the Pacific Ocean, is a part of town where she can afford to live, as a farmer, for now. 

Winfield’s days are typically spent at Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, where the fog coats the coast. Fresh Run is one of the earliest certified organic farms on the West Coast and is operated by Peter Martinelli, a third-generation farmer. The Tusks source directly from him instead of adhering to the typical model of buying from multiple producers through an intermediary distributor. Winfield is technically an employee of the Tusks, and her job is primarily to support the partnership between the restaurants and the farm. “When I’m at the farm, I’m an ambassador for the restaurants, making sure their needs are being met and we’re growing what they want us to grow. And when I’m at the restaurants—where I’m an ambassador for the farm—I can tell the staff what we’re growing and explain things,” she says.

Emilie Winfield

One of the benefits to living in San Francisco is Winfield can be at both the farm and the restaurants in the same day. As the liaison between Fresh Run and the Tusks, one of her responsibilities is to deliver produce to all three restaurants on harvest days, driving the thirty miles back to San Francisco from Bolinas. It’s on one of those days when I meet her at Verjus, the Tusks’ latest restaurant, housed on the ground floor of a tan building on a tree-lined street in Jackson Square, teetering on the edge of North Beach and the Financial District. 

It’s happy hour when I arrive, already packed with the well-heeled nine-to-five crowd who have wandered over from the tall steel buildings that crowd the city’s skyline. I snake my way from the front door to the bar. The bartender’s expression changes from a look of greeting to one of reverence at the mention of Winfield’s name. I’m led to the other side of the restaurant where the kitchen opens into a room populated with tables and high-top counters. Chef Michael Tusk is in the kitchen wearing a black and white striped apron. “You’re here to see Emilie?” he asks. “She’s one of my favorite people.”

As if on cue, she appears. She’s dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, but looks at ease in the restaurant. We sit along the wall, and a server brings her a glass of wine. Over the course of our conversation I learn she’s from Sacramento and attended UC Santa Cruz where she studied plant science. She tells me how she learned to farm working on the university’s thirty-acre organic plot, growing green beans, sunchokes and collards, spurred by her interest in sustainability and issues related to climate change. “Agriculture presents a huge challenge, but also a really big opportunity,” she says. “We can work directly with the land as a way to address climate change, create community and green jobs, and be creative.”

From there, she worked briefly in a plant biology lab before moving to New York where she lived for a few years. She worked at Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm devoted to urban agriculture, and taught ecology classes. Winfield then moved back to the Bay Area and continued developing her resume. First, she started a farm for Oak and Rye, a restaurant in Los Gatos, and then pivoted to Love Apple Farm, as the garden manager, supplying Chef David Kinch. She cultivated a network of other farmers, including Annabelle Lenderink, who introduced her to Peter Martinelli just as he was beginning his partnership with the Tusks. These relationships have been important to her, both personally and professionally, especially with other female farmers. “Farming is an isolating field,” she says. “I’ve found a lot of support among the female farmers I know.”

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Winfield is Fresh Run’s first crop manager. In the three years she’s been working there, she’s shared management duties with Martinelli. She’s responsible for seed inventory, propagation, seed starting in the greenhouse, transplanting, harvesting and record keeping. When she drops off produce to the restaurants on harvest days, she usually takes the opportunity to educate Tusk’s staff about the crops she’s delivered. In her off-time, she continues to teach ecology classes. 

This model—a direct relationship between a restaurant group and a single farm—exists in only a few markets around the country. Most of these farms supply to high-end fine dining establishments who can afford such intimate partnerships and afford to pay their employees a livable wage. “The ethos behind fine dining, especially with respect to California, is really based on fresh, sustainable, local produce,” she says. “For these types of restaurants, there has to be value in these partnerships. Restaurants can get ingredients tailored to their menus, so it’s an opportunity in terms of product. For the Tusks, it’s important to invest in local agricultural. It’s about creating a different experience for staff and guests, who have to be willing to say this type of eating is important to them.”

I ask Winfield about her future as a farmer. “I love my job. But after this role, the only way I’d want to continue farming is to own land. That’s not attainable in the Bay Area,” she tells me. Land is extremely valuable in the region—which can cost over $10,000 an acre—and there’s perpetual pressure to develop. Leasing land is also prohibitively expensive at $1,700 a month for 1.5 acres, making it nearly impossible for people without deep pockets. In fact, Winfield is headed to graduate school in the fall to study environmental policy and management at UC Davis. 

At the mention of equity in land ownership, Winfield becomes animated. She whips off statistics. She quotes data from the 2017 Agricultural Census. “Women only own thirty-six percent of agricultural land in the United States, and the number of female principal operators is even less,” she says. “If you look at the numbers, women are super below where men are. How did the men who own the land get it? There’s been generations of sexism,” she says. “The way that women are treated in agriculture is exactly how women are treated in other industries. There’s a lot of implicit bias. It needs to be part of a larger cultural shift where women are respected without having to demand respect.” 

It’s for these reasons that it was important for Winfield to hire another female as her replacement when she leaves for UC Davis—another young woman like herself. “A lot of people in my generation didn’t grow up on a farm, and neither did our parents,” she says. “We never tell young people that we can be farmers, but it’s really encouraging that so many of us want to be involved in urban agriculture. And it’s a wonderful job for women to have.”

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From the  Coffee Issue

Every day, it seems there are more options when it comes to ordering coffee. Drip or pour over? Espresso or americano? Cappuccino or cortado or macchiato or flat white? And don’t get me started on the whole milk selection (I’ll leave that conversation to Life & Thyme correspondent Carly DeFillipo’s exploration in our Coffee issue).

But for all the diversity with which we’re faced when placing an order, the faces behind the counter are often decidedly homogenous. The caricature of the bearded white male hipster roasting your beans and making his signature monk’s head on your latte so incongruous with the faces of farmers at the source. And as specialty coffee begins to spread through communities beyond the major metropolitan and upper middle class areas, it becomes increasingly stark that cafés—the cornerstone of so many communities—may not be a proper reflection of the neighborhoods they serve. 

At Brooklyn’s East One Coffee Roasters, those representations are being challenged. The company, which opened in Carroll Gardens in 2017 and will have opened its third location in 2019 (two of which are in Manhattan), is a growing one, now with a wholesale business from which it supplies coffee to shops and purveyors.

But at its flagship location, the roastery itself is the centerpiece of the Eatery at East One—a glassed-in area in which the equipment is on full display, so diners and drinkers can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how their coffee is processed. This gives a bit of a fishbowl effect—perhaps metaphorically apropos, consistent with the company’s efforts toward transparency. But for the two roasters behind East One’s celebrated coffee, their roasting program is about more than just giving guests a show; it’s about real visibility. 

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the two roasters at East One—Director of Coffee Selina Ulrich and Emily Wendorff, Production Roaster and Quality Control Liaison—both of whom identify as black, queer women. We spoke candidly over cortados about the modern specialty coffee business, particularly with respect to diversity, representation and challenges facing anyone who might disrupt the status quo.

Both Ullrich and Wendorff had circuitous—if characteristically ambitious—paths to their positions behind the Probat roaster. Ullrich was in the midst of a double major pre-medical program when she began working at a New York City café. While getting a job on bar was one thing, opening the door to the production side—something she realized was appealing to her scientific skill set—was a whole other bag of beans. “I was really trying to push into the production side,” Ullrich recalls. “But it’s really difficult as a woman to get people to understand that you’re not afraid of lifting things that are heavy—that you’re okay with getting dirty. There were so many gatekeepers to get into the roastery.”

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Emily Wendorff, Production Roaster and Quality Control Liaison
Selina Ulrich, Director of Coffee

When it came to her attention that the new roastery in Brooklyn was opening, Ullrich saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, even if it meant starting out in service, not production. Still, she doubled down to prove herself and her depth of knowledge. “I worked twenty-hour days making all the coffee on bar all the time, and simultaneously trying to train everyone else to make coffee that way—to really make to spec, to taste for extraction, to talk about what factors and variables you were manipulating and understanding the why of the coffee.”

Demonstrating a depth of knowledge would be critical to breaking through that glass wall around the roaster. While she credits a male mentor at a previous café for giving her a foundation for roasting, it fell largely on her shoulders to teach herself the ropes. “Having years of experience tasting really critically for evaluative purpose constantly—if you can do that and then have some guidance on how that machine physically operates, you can, in theory, guide yourself toward knowing how to roast coffee.” Ultimately, that independent study approach served to make up much of Ullrich’s education. “Of course, at first all the coffee was terrible by my own standards,” she laughs, remembering early batches.

Wendorff, hailing from Wisconsin, was also staffed in a coffee shop while working on a double degree (hers in psychology and music), and eventually relocated to New York. When she was hired at East One, Wendorff paralleled Ullrich’s natural inclination and curiosity about production.  

Ullrich remembers, “I would go to the roaster on my days off when I was young in the game. You knew that if you were just in the space, you’d get answers to the questions you had.” She tells me Wendorff displayed that same dogged pursuit of information, showing up to package beans or stamp bags.

Coming from two such academically inclined individuals, maybe that tenacity and desire to deepen their understanding is no surprise. But in Ullrich and Wendorff found having access to information required more than just showing up; it also meant there would be a gatekeeper open to sharing it. 

In Wendorff’s case, she says she found that willing mentor in Ullrich, who was generous with her hard-won knowledge. In previous jobs, she recalls a “vagueness” in which rules were made and systems put in place, but without any substantiation or explanation. She tells me Ullrich was transparent and forthcoming, welcoming questions and hopeful her staff would take an interest in learning the finer points of coffee, on both sides of the café. “I remember Selina was roasting and explaining the profiles to me,” Wendorff says, referring to a time before she became involved with production. “I was comfortable knowing what I was tasting, and [Ullrich] interrogating me about that made me feel okay to express what I felt was true. It was a totally different experience, and one I’ve never had before in coffee.”

That encouragement was paramount to Wendorff’s transition into production. She feels the dynamic between Ullrich and herself was a departure from previous environments in which she encountered a pattern of protectiveness around information. “If I have a mentor that’s a man, everyone takes his word for it, and it’s a really weird and scary thing when you do the same thing and model your behavior on that person’s behavior and everyone has a totally different reaction to it,” she says. “I feel like it’s this learned behavior, that every time you do something you have to explain it to your male counterparts because people are going to question what you say so much more than they would with a white man.”

And Ullrich and Wendorff discuss a shared philosophy when it comes to the technical specifics of their craft, regardless of gender. It’s one free of posturing, a belief that their field requires an active pursuit of improvement and education, industry awareness, and adaptability to both product and tools. Wendorff draws a parallel between the music world (in which she is active as a trumpet player), and specialty coffee. “You’re in the warm-up room with all these other trumpet players and it’s like, ‘What kind of horn is that? How long ya been playing it?’ Who cares? You should be able to play good music on a variety of equipment, and you should be able to roast good coffee on a variety of equipment.”

The presence of women in coffee is growing, but slowly, especially in production. Ullrich tells me it’s far more common for women to be considered almost exclusively as front-of-house staff. “There was almost a ghettoization of women in coffee for a while where if you wanted to move up, you became a café manager,’’ she says, explaining the generalization that women were more well suited to customer interaction roles, while men would take on the manual work of roasting—an assumption she felt was at odds with her own personality, interests and abilities.

Of course, the question of women’s place in coffee is much bigger than the café or even roastery. “On the producer side, there’s been a lot of effort to empower women at the farm level who are already running their households, to get more involved in running the finances of the farms because it gives them so much more power,” Ullrich tells me. 

Much of that power comes from the fact that women across the board are focusing not only on the manual work like sorting beans for defects (a task which Ullrich explains has long fallen to women thanks to their “detail-oriented” sensibility), but becoming educated in all facets of the business. Still, Ullrich tells me with some frustration that though many women, particularly of a younger generation, have earned degrees in agronomy or have a deep ancestry of coffee farmers, they’re still not being provided the platform on which to demonstrate that expertise. “They “have a ton of knowledge, but because of the cultural landscape of where coffee is farmed, they’re still not being listened to,” she tells me.

Perhaps even less representation in specialty coffee goes to people of color and the LGBTQ community. “There are a lot less deliberately POC spaces in coffee,” Wendorff tells me. And with reference to LGBTQ visibility, Ullrich explains, “It comes up a lot less because it’s not something you can look at someone and see; you can’t discriminate against someone for it unless you know it already.” 

As a hiring manager within the organization, Ullrich strives to ensure “others” not only have the chance to see themselves reflected in the various coffee roles, but the opportunity to pursue them. “When I hire for barista and production roles, I am always looking to hire for diversity pretty deliberately because it can be hard in coffee to be a woman or a person of color,” she says. “And it can be especially hard if you’re working for a man and being ghettoized into administrative and human resources roles when you don’t want them, or are just not given any opportunities no matter how hard you’re pushing.”

She can help open the door to those opportunities, but Ullrich’s philosophy is also about making sure that once inside, the experience allows for quality of life and cultivates job satisfaction. She emphasizes that to create sustainable change, it’s not enough to hire across a spectrum, but to develop a working environment for engagement, one that returns a sense of value to staff, personally and professionally. “I try to train for engagement,” Ullrich tells me, “which means I want you to understand the why of everything. I hope that that helps to encourage more engagement among barista staff.” 

In an industry famously transient and tough on employees both mentally and physically, in which it’s not uncommon to adopt a go-through-the-motions mentality, that feels especially significant. At East One, Ullrich and Wendorff believe that support, encouragement, and access to information are keys to creating an inclusive and stimulating environment that has a chance at enduring. And the throughline of the conversation with both women, from the first sip of my cortado to the very last drop, is one of education, curiosity, transparency with knowledge and a constant effort to improve. “If you give people information, you end up with people actively challenging me all the time,” Ullrich says. “Why are we doing this? Should we do it this way? That’s only going to make you and your program better. You should want the challenge. The challenge is good for you. It’s good for the organization.”

Speaking with Ullrich and Wendorff, there is a clear sense of responsibility in their roles as de facto leaders and representatives for a more diverse and inclusive industry. I’m curious if this duty is a welcome one. “When you taste the coffee you definitely don’t know what I look like and who I am,” Ullrich says. “If I had my druthers, I’d like to be respected first and then have that responsibility. But I’m okay with having that responsibility, because if I don’t, then who does?” 

Wendorff agrees, again referencing her music industry experience. Of being called a “female trumpet player,” she tells me, “It always feels so weird to me. [Being female] doesn’t even occur to me, because [that industry] has already progressed. But it feels different with coffee—we’re not there yet. And until it doesn’t feel weird, there is a responsibility.”

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From the  Coffee Issue

It may be known for its iconically hexagonal shape, but the moka pot represents a more modest—though no less impressive—number of Italian traits: ingenuity, resourcefulness, whimsy and style.

Like all great inventions, that of the moka pot is the culmination of a conflation of social, political and economic factors, including the rise of fascism, a government-promoted reliance on natural resources, and a recession that prompted coffee drinkers thirst for less pricey, at-home options.

While the United States was experiencing the Great Depression, fascism was on the rise in late 1920s and early 1930s Italy. It was Mussolini’s hope that his country, with its rich supplies of bauxite and leucite, would favor aluminum as the metal of choice (a wish he essentially forced into reality after placing an embargo on foreign stainless steel).

Meanwhile, the people of Italy were still making dirty laundry—which meant women were still cleaning up after them. Italian machinist Alfonso Bialetti observed the mechanics of these laundress’ equipment one day—the way in which the water was pumped up over the clothing—and wondered if the same principles could be applied to coffee making.

Armed with his expertise and the abundance of aluminum (known for its versatility, strength and style), along with this simple but powerful light bulb moment, Alfonso collaborated with inventor Luigi de Ponti to create the moka pot—and revolutionized life on the peninsula. Café culture was central to Italian life, but the moka pot democratized drinking coffee, making it more economical for everyone to enjoy at home—including women, who prior to its invention were rarely consumers as they were not often able to leave the home where they spent most days cooking and caring for families.

Of course, a great idea is only as good as its reach. While Alfonso did have success with his product, the company’s progress was halted during World War II. It wasn’t until after the war under the helm of his son, Renato Bialetti, that the moka pot was marketed and globalized, making it a massive international hit—in no small way creating an icon of the humble little pot and its quirky mascot. The little mustachioed man (called L’omino coi baffi, or “The little man with the moustache,” in Italian) is rumored to be a caricature of Alfonso in tribute, while other accounts claim it is Renato himself.

Today’s baristas have many varied opinions on the pot; its coffee is quite different than the precision-brewed espressos in coffee bars—the extraction being quite a bit lower and the flavor inconsistent at the hands of at-home brewers. But few deny its influence in getting espresso-based drinks into homes all over the world.

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Today, the design is featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as well as London’s Design Museum. The fact that its construction has remained largely unchanged over the last eight decades speaks to the timelessness of the simple, efficient blueprint.

Personally, the moka pot has special meaning. I cannot remember a family gathering that didn’t end with the little vessel signaling the transition of a meal into the conclusion of the evening. As a kid, it meant the grown-ups were about to start the long slog that I’d later come to appreciate as “conversation.” And when I later moved into my first Brooklyn apartment, it was a housewarming gift from my mother that felt like a rite of passage. I use my moka pot often and feel connected not only to my family—my mother and ancestors here in the States—but to generations of Italians. To this day, it is a favorite gift of mine to friends of my own—one that my Italian ancestors gave the world, imbued with the characteristics I’m only too happy to carry on.

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June 18, 2019

Why Rice?

Five women reflect on what rice means to them personally, culturally and economically as food industry leaders.

Interview by Nicole Ziza Bauer
Photography by Katrina Frederick

“While rice is very familiar to many people, I now know from experience to never to call it simple.” Ann Soh Woods, founder of Kikori Whiskey, neatly gets to the point. What we can easily pass over as common is, more often, its own form of perfection.

As one of the most versatile crops on the planet, rice is grown in the wetland deltas of Southeast Asia to the coastal shores of South Carolina. It’s been cultivated in the desert of eastern Saudi Arabia and within the zero-gravity confines of the Tiangong space station. According to conservative historical estimates, rice has been feeding civilizations since at least 2500 B.C. A study of rice is a study of life itself. Or, as Carol Kwan, co-founder of Mama Musubi calls it, “a beautiful blank canvas to work with.”

From left to right: Robin Koda, Naoko Takei Moore, Carol Kwan, Niki Nakayama, and Ann Soh Woods

It’s in that spirit of artistry that we turn to five entrepreneurs who have made rice—whether growing it, cooking it, or distilling it—their craft. Where others see a plain grain, they’ve seen, and sown, potential. May a bowl of it never seem so ordinary again.

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Naoko Takei Moore

Author of Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking, and Owner/Founder of TOIRO

Rice is a central part of what you do. How does it inspire you?

The rice made in donabe is simply so special and it originally inspired me to start importing donabe to the U.S. (and here I am now)!

I cook rice in donabe every single day, often twice a day for lunch and dinner, and every time is exciting—the aroma as it’s being cooked, the moment I open the lid, and when finally, it’s served. [It] makes me want to spread more and more of the amazing rice cooked in this traditional Japanese vessel to the people around the world.

Rice inspires me to spread wonderful Japanese food culture to the people in the U.S. and create community around it. Just recently, we threw a Spring Festival at our shop and offered different flavors of onigiri (rice balls) along with other small Japanese dishes to our guests. We cooked countless batches of rice with donabe to make about five hundred rice balls. Hundreds of people came to the event and they were all so enthusiastic about learning more about donabe and Japanese cooking through rice balls. The event was filled with love and made me so grateful that so many people loved to be part of this community and support our mission.

What was the impetus for starting your business?

It was kind of natural. I love cooking, eating and sharing my joy with people. I also felt it’s my mission to share the wonderful food culture of my country to people outside of Japan.

How do you feel the freedom to play and be creative within the confines of something (seemingly) as simple as rice?

Rice can be enjoyed in so many different ways, such as mixing with ingredients or toppings, pouring broth or tea for ochazuke or zosui, or adding rice vinegar to make sushi rice.

What do you hope to see more of in your industry in the next year? How are you contributing to that vision?

Sustainability. We offer products which are to be enjoyed for many years and help make your life happier and better, as well as stories and education related to the products and our strong belief in home cooking.

Robin Koda

Co-owner of Koda Farms

What is your first memory of rice?

Playing in the rice hull huts and having an allergic reaction. Asthma! Hives!

What role did rice play in your life growing up?

[It was] central to everything, from our plate to our pocketbook. Not dissimilar to many immigrants’ entrepreneurial experiences, the residence I grew up in literally faces the business. Our main rice dryer in our front yard, the warehouses, the rice fields, were all our expansive playground. Walking the processing and packaging lines, as well as wandering the summer rice field levees, formed our experience of the physical world. Nothing was off limits as our parents felt we should know exactly what our livelihood and its historical roots were based upon.

How does the medium through which the public interacts with your product influence your business? Do you need to think about that?

This has been an ongoing pickle for my brother and I. Historically, we were innovators in the California rice industry, and with a superior product and little competition, we literally couldn’t farm enough rice to fill the retail/consumer demand.

Through the years, as our distributors introduced their own “private label” rice brands, they had more incentive to push their own products. Today, we’re still dependent on these same distribution channels. Their private labels (i.e. Nishiki) and imported products also crowd the retail shelf. In 2004 we proudly introduced our first certified organic versions of our concurrent traditionally farmed (non-organic), but were naively bowled over when none of our customary distributors expressed an iota of interest in it.

To this day, even as we continue to transition more acreage to organic status, it’s been a struggle. My thought was interfacing with the public directly in an effort to educate could be beneficial. To that effect, I still participate in the Santa Monica Wednesday farmers market and the Hollywood Sunday market on a once monthly basis. Similarly, I feel that the public often looks to food professionals for validation of products.

How does rice inspire you today?

Rice and its intimate role in our predecessor’s experience as newcomers to this country are forever intertwined. It’s a complicated mixture of pride, obligation and familial duty.

Ann Soh Woods

Founder of Kikori Whiskey

What is your first memory of rice?

A rice cooker was standard equipment in our home. It was a fixture on our kitchen counter, so it seemed pretty normal to me. Except, of course, when I had friends over who were not Asian. They thought my mom was making ice cream. Boy, were they disappointed.

Today, the rice cooker is a mainstay in my own home and my boys know how to make a perfect pot of rice.

What role did rice play in your life growing up?

Rice was our staple; we ate it with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice was our comfort food when we were sick. My sisters and I used it for glue in school projects, little satchels of rice were used as paper weights on windy days, and my mom would even throw some dry rice in a sock, heat it up, and use it as a heating pad.

What was the impetus for starting your business?

I had this idea of creating a spirit that reflected my Asian heritage, was accessible to all palates, and fit my lifestyle. Rice has a flavor and profile that is very familiar to me, so it was easy to understand how rice could be used in different ways.

I served as my own guinea pig for Kikori Whiskey. I thought about all the types of cocktail occasions I enjoyed and sought to create a product with the versatility to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in all types of cocktails. I have sampled many different spirits and cocktails over the past few years in the development of Kikori.

Was there anyone who came before you (or even after you) in your industry who motivated you in a particular way?

I got motivated pretty damn quickly. I was motivated every time I raised eyebrows, was ignored in meetings, was asked where my husband was, requested if I could bring the owner to a meeting (the owner is me!), or was bluntly asked what a woman could know about whiskies.

I really wasn’t aware that a female founder in the spirits industry was such a rare thing, and frankly, I did not care. Despite setbacks and infuriating moments, I found it all to be incredibly motivating.

What does preservation look like within your field and, simultaneously, how do you look for ways to innovate? Is one more important than the other?

In the spirits industry, it seems as if it’s important to have lots of new expressions to stay relevant. When I started, I had one rice whiskey, in one size, one flavor profile, one age statement. We just released our second, called Kikori TEN. For me, it was more of a curiosity and excitement to try a new idea, which was bottling the whiskey from a single sherry cask that had been aged for ten years.

The innovation lies in being able to create something new (or, in this case, something ten years old) while maintaining the integrity of the brand. Because new for new’s sake isn’t innovative; being able to preserve the core of what you’ve created while introducing a new product is. I’m really proud to say I think we’ve done that with Kikori TEN; it was just released and there are just 312 bottles, each numbered, produced.

Carol Kwan

Co-Founder of Mama Musubi

What role did rice play in your life growing up?

Rice is a daily routine and it was served at every meal. I find myself eating each bowl with intention now. It gives me gratitude, to appreciate the grain harvested by these farmers.

As a central part of what you do, how does rice inspire you?

This simple grain is the main ingredient for our brand and company. The grain of rice inspires me continuously because it brings so much joy to the kids and people who eat our omusubi weekly. I am always learning and making sure we are sourcing the best of what is available to us.

How did you get started?

The main reason we started this company was when I moved back from the Bay Area and saw that L.A. was lacking good quality ingredients in the quick, casual food scene, and was ready for something that was wholesome, comforting and quick. My son was eight months old then, and options were few when going to grab a quick bite, so when the idea came up, we did R&D to come up with the recipes.

How do you factor in public interaction with your business?

We work hard to build a community at the farmers markets we operate at. I am constantly so grateful for how our customers give us their support and business in our community.

In return, it is my responsibility to give them the consistency and experience. This year we have been asked to do pop-ups and wholesale, as we are humbled to be thought of, we are considering this space and doing R&D to come up with a few menu items for catering and grab-and-go. Nevertheless, the opportunity to grow and scale is really exciting for us.

What are some key things you consider as you look to evolve as a business?

In our industry, consistency is key. But not only is it important to have a product people love, we constantly think about sustainability and reevaluating if the current business model serves a purpose for us anymore.

As we look into the bigger picture, setting up the supply chain and operations is important in our business growth. As labor steeply increases in this industry of razor thin margins, we have to keep an open mindset about technology; options have been presented to us, but we want to preserve the integrity of the omusubi while making sure we take care of our employees’ well-being and growth.

Niki Nakayama

Chef and Owner of n/naka

What is your first memory of rice?

When my grandmother made me a bowl of okayu (rice porridge) and I remember her calling out to me to tell me it was ready. I was just around one or two years old, and I remember being in diapers and being really happy about that fact, since I wanted to surprise her.

I tiptoed outside to do that and she said “Oh! Why are you naked?” so I accomplished my goal. Then she took a spoonful of okayu and put in my mouth and I just remember feeling so happy.

What role did rice play in your life growing up?

I’ve always been the person who wanted rice as the main course and ate everything around it in smaller bits so I could eat more rice. I never understood how people ate more of other items; to me, it’s all about the rice and everything else is a just condiment for it.

How do you balance preservation with innovation? Is one more important than the other?

It’s not a question of whether one is more important than the other, because they’re directly related on some level. When you want to preserve something, you also have to understand how to showcase it in ways to make people understand. You have to adapt and be innovative with it. For example, buri daikon (simmered yellowtail and daikon) might not be understood by the general public because they didn’t eat it growing up. But if you present it in a way that is accessible, then we’re being innovative while preserving what is traditional.

What do you find most inspiring about rice?

Once you’ve experienced truly delicious rice, you realize the most important thing to do is to cook it really, really well. You want to achieve a pot of rice in which every grain has that perfect, shiny look and while it’s soft, you will still be able to feel each individual grain in your mouth.

Rice inspires me to learn constantly because it’s so complex; it’s equally the most technical and the most intuitive thing at the same time. For example, I feel the dry grains between my fingers and depending on the type of rice or how long it’s been stored, it may require more water. I need to figure out how much it will absorb and therefore how much water to add. But then you also weigh the rice and measure the water; that aspect is very technical.

Sometimes it’s a science, and other days you achieve a better pot of rice when you cook it more intuitively. It is a constant mystery.

The post Why Rice? appeared first on Life & Thyme.

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