When you can count Chefs Tyler Florence, Michael Chiarello, Emeril Lagasse, John Ash, Ming Tsai, and a certain President of the United States among your culinary fan-base, you know you’re onto something. But the owners of The Smoked Olive in Petaluma still say they often have to get people to stop and taste their pungent olive oils before they fully understand — and appreciate — the unique flavor.
Sitting in the smoke-scented warehouse where she and partner Al Hartman produce and bottle their oils, co-owner Brenda Chatelain explains their unusual smoke-infused extra-virgin olive oil as “a marriage of two primal things: Smoke and oil. It just creates a taste that’s a combination that I think strikes something from our cave days.”
The couple make three different oils, the most popular of which is the Sonoma Smoked Olive Oil using premium California extra-virgin olive oils. Unlike imitation “smoke” flavors that can turn acrid or have a fake barbecue flavor (or worse make you feel like you just licked an ashtray), the proprietary process of smoking gives Hartman’s oils an intense, focused wood and smoke flavor that plays with both your tastebuds and your sense memory — for me campfires and burning autumn leaves. The mellow mix of olive oils blankets the tongue for a creamy, buttery finish.
Chef Florence, an early fan of The Smoked Olive, describes their product more succinctly as, “the sexiest new flavor I’ve tasted in years.” He’s included their olive oil in his recent cookbook and served it at a $20,000 per plate fundraising dinner for the President. Reportedly, when Barack Obama got a drizzle of it on Florence’s squash and quail egg ravioli he didn’t just ask for seconds. He asked for thirds. The couple said they were also were asked to Fedex a shipment to Washington for the Inauguration. “But that’s about all we can tell you,” said Chatelain.
The idea for smoking olive oil came to Hartman in a dream, he said. The grandson of a chef, Hartman said he’s been fascinated since his teens with smoking meats and fish, building his own smoking contraptions that aren’t as much about fire (“That’s barbecuing,” he insists) but a slow, sustained infusion of wood and smoke into foods. His passion earned him the moniker “Smoke Whisperer” among his friends. So, after years of working in the real estate business, one day he just knew that smoking olive oil was his destiny. Chatelain, however, wasn’t so sure.
“Some of those first batches? Yuck.” she laughs.
Over several years of testing he got the flavors right, making sure that the oils weren’t exposed to extreme heat and light during the smoking process. “We were standing in the kitchen,” said Chatelain. “I just remember we both looked at each other and said, ‘Yes. This is it!’”. The couple began selling it at the Santa Rosa farmers’ market at the Veteran’s Hall, and found they were regularly selling out. A stint at San Francisco’s Fancy Food Show drew buyers like Michael Chiarello’s Napa Style, Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, who all carry the oil.
Like many small business owners, Chatelain and Hartman have put in 14-plus hour days over the last five years to get their new company off the ground. But they don’t plan on letting the recent national attention go to their head. “It’s been timing, luck and hard work. We keep thinking all this is going to stop and then someone else writes about us,” Chatelain said, pointing to a stack of magazines and even a Washington Post article that gush about the oils as the “It” food product of the moment and a “new pantry essential”.
Why? Chatelain and Hartman think its a combination of a trend in food for smoked flavors, and the product being a simple luxury in a struggling economy. “There’s a curiosity factor, but then they taste it,” said Chatelain. “They are hooked.”
Another local fan, Chef John Ash, like many, were skeptical about the oil at first, but soon became a believer. “The two great enemies of fine oils are heat and light and I couldn’t imagine that one or both of those hadn’t been used. When I tasted the oils I was amazed. Lovely olive oil flavor with an interesting smokiness that those of us who like to grill are always searching for,” he said. Ash added that he recommends the oil to students of his healthy cooking classes as a way to add a grilled flavor without adding carbon to your food.
Hartman, who jumps up during the interview to check on his smoking operation, keeps a tight lid on his proprietary process and research and development. Suffice to say his smoking lab is as unconventional as his oils and there are a number of other smoked foods in the works (his smoked brown sugar is currently available). Saying anything else, well, might end us up in a whole lot of heat.
Currently the oils, which also include a stronger Napa Smoked Olive Oil and a spicy version, Santa Fe Smoked Chili Olive Oil are in approximately 600 stores nationwide and has begun shipping to far-flung places like Dubai and Australia. Locally you can find them at the Saturday Veteran’s Hall market, Sur La Table, The Olive Press, Big John’s Market and the Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg and online at thesmokedolive.com.