In the Press

The Interview That Sort of Never Was But Still May Be

Earlier this Spring I was asked to do an email interview about our products and company for an ecommerce site.  I think I did rather well but I was later told there was a word count limitation and cuts would need to be made but it would go up soon. I still haven’t seen anything and I did put some effort into it (noting that I will never do this again without knowing exactly what the interviewer wants.) My clever solution is to post it here.

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Talk to us a little about how it all began...how you got the idea, how you decided to make a reality, what made it possible, etc.


I was having a dinner party and went to the supermarket. This was in August in Napa and the only tomatoes they had were Dutch hothouse pink, hard rocks. How was it that I lived in this incredible agricultural region and the tomatoes were from Holland? If they at least tasted like something, it almost could be justified but they were nasty and I started gardening the next day. This led to an abundance and I sold the extras at the local farmers market. This was a blast and I loved it so I decided to try and make it a business. The problem was that tomatoes ripened late here and the markets opened in May, so I thought I'd try heirloom beans. The rest is history....

Rancho Gordo is doing so much to preserve local agriculture traditions
and bring New World cuisine to the forefront in the U.S. What's next on
both of these agendas, and why do you think both of these causes are
important? 

When I started, the food revolution was just starting to really trickle down and affect consumers. I found a lot of the talk shrill and unpleasant, even if I agreed with most of the concepts. I decided to focus on chefs and get them excited about what I was doing and then work direct with consumers, first at the farmers markets and later via the website. When we control the story, we tend to do better. When you just have a bag of beans on a grocery store shelf, out of context, they tend to collect dust.

I really thought taste has to come first. People are loud and they like to complain but in the end, they don't buy "moral food". They want food that tastes great. Happily, most tasty food requires responsible farming and sustainable practices, but I don't scream that from the rooftops. It's a happy side story that beans are one of the greenest crops you can grow. And then you add all the health benefits and what's not to like? But I think you have to start with flavor. I market the beans as a great ingredient that we've either forgotten or taken for granted. I think this is why Rancho Gordo is one of the first companies to get any real traction with heirloom beans, despite many people trying or showing interest.

A customer recently said, "Oh, I get what you're doing. You're taking a serious subject and treating irreverently." I loved this. I think you can do a lot of good without getting preachy or overly moral. I know non-profits have their place but I can't work with them. They're too slow and I've got things to do and if you can make people laugh while they're supporting sustainable ag or fair trade, we all win!

Here's more on the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project if you’re interested:
<http://www.ethicurean.com/2011/04/09/rancho-gordo-steve-sando/>

You mention American cuisine as re-inventing itself. Do you notice or
foresee a more south-of-the-border-driven cuisine emerging?

I'm not a very good forecaster. I used to try and came up short. When I started Rancho Gordo, it was after many failed attempts at different businesses that almost made it. I thought, screw it. I'm going to do what pleases me. I like the lady on my logo. I like real food. I like vintage graphics. I like Mexico, etc. I really am trying to please me and for the first time, I'm having real success! So I hope more Latin America culture creeps in but I'm basing everything on what I like.

Seed sharing and heirloom agriculture culture aren’t necessarily that
well-known. Is it big in Napa? Could you tell us a little bit about it?

I have a lot of people wanting bean growing information. We started a little group in Napa called The Family Farm League and we would host potlucks and have a seed exchange. We also found five heirloom seeds that would do well in our climate: a bean, a tomato, a corn, a zucchini and a cucumber. We picked the seeds after a few seasons of trials. It was a lot of fun and was nice for people just getting into gardening to have five proven winners and we were happy to share heirlooms and the romance of passing on seeds. This all fell by the wayside as my business grew and I couldn't keep up. Now we have a Google group called Bean Buddies and we send out free seeds for people to trial. We just ask that they note the days for germination, first real leaves, first flower and maturation. They support each other and it's a very nice group. So often people ask something like which bean is best for my New England climate and of course I have no idea.

You travel a lot for Rancho Gordo. What is that like? Could you give an
idea of your schedule or a day-in-the-life?

I work very hard but no one should feel sorry for me. I am the luckiest guy on the planet. My job here is mostly a desk job, selling the product and working with our farmers. I like it but I like the trips to Mexico even more. My partners there are also two of my best friends. I'll say something like, "I hear there's a good black bean in Veracruz." Yunuen, who owns Xoxoc with Gabriel, will say yes, there is and did I know about this or that food and have I seen this or that archeological site and the next thing you know I'm on a roadtrip. I love Mexico and Mexicans and the music and the food. Gabriel recently calculated that we've traveled almost 18,000 miles throughout Mexico. Happily, we have the same threshold for food, music, old churches and ruins. It's a drag if you want to linger in a church and you're with someone who says they never want to see another one.

What's been the coolest thing that's happened for you since starting
Rancho Gordo?

I think it would be going on a roadtrip with Diana Kennedy, the actress Patricia Bernal (mother of Gael Garcia Bernal) and Sergio Yazbek (Gael's stepfather). We spent two weeks traveling through Oaxaca while filming a documentary that was later shelved. There were a few problems but mostly I remember singing, listening to Colombian salsa, eating with Diana's incredible network of friends and home cooks and laughing a lot. I remember at one point thinking, I can't believe this is what I am doing!

The other "a-ha" moment was a recent Bon Appetit magazine profile about a French chef and it described some of his acquisitions from a recent trip and they listed "10 bags of Rancho Gordo beans" without any further comment. They didn't have to explain who we were or why a chef would be interested in beans and I thought, we've made it!

What's the biggest challenge facing you in the marketplace?

Sadly, it's getting people to cook. They just can't believe they can turn these rocks into soft, creamy orbs. My job is to show them how easy it is and then remind them of how much better they are than commodity beans or canned beans.

A company approached us to make frozen dinners using our beans and it didn't feel right but I couldn't say exactly why. It dawned on me that we are an ingredient-driven company that focuses on helping consumers to cook. Once that was defined, it really helped future business decisions.

What is the process of making the sauces? If you’re willing to share,
it would be great if you could talk us through the process from start to
finish, i.e. where do you source your ingredients? What size batch do
you work in? What is the preparation process and the packaging process?

This was a nightmare and I'd rather keep this proprietary.

When you're not doing Rancho Gordo-related things, you're usually....

.....doing Rancho Gordo things. It's my pleasure. I love dinner parties at my house and I love traveling and in the end they're related to Rancho Gordo. It makes a better company and I'm happy.

What's your favorite way to eat your hot sauces?

In Mexico, they often serve a "sangrita" as a back for tequila or mezcal. You can even order something called a bandera (or flag). It's tequila, a shot of sangrita and a shot of lime juice and they represent the colors of the Mexican flag. Every bar makes its own sangrita but one easy trick is to take a bottle of tomato juice and mix it with a bottle of our hot sauce and serve it as a sangrita. You can also use it as a Bloody Mary mix.

Another fun trick is to mix it to taste with yogurt and ta-da, you have a sauce.


Sweet Corn and Fresh Oregano Fritters

We had a great little party here at the Rancho Gordo store in celebration of the new book by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M Evans, The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook. The women made fritters from fresh corn and it was only moments before they were devoured.

Along with Georgeanne and Ann, we had tastes from St Supery winery. Their 2011 Estate Savignon Blanc seemed made to be served with the fritters. They also sampled their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon which I seemed to enjoy just a little too much, if you know what I mean.

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Here's the recipe for the fritters, followed by the winemaker's notes on the sauvignon blanc.

Sweet Corn and Fresh Oregano Fritters.

Makes 12 to 16 fritters; serves 4 to 6.

4 ears white or yellow corn, husks and silk removed

1/4 yellow onion

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

Coarse sea or kosher salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano

1 egg, lightly beaten

Extra virgin olive oil for frying

Crème fraîche for serving (optional)

Hold an ear of corn, tip down, in a large, wide bowl and, using a sharp knife, cut straight down between the kernels and the cob, cutting as close to the cob as possible without including the fibrous base of the kernels, rotating the ear about a quarter turn after each cut. Repeat with the remaining ears.

Using the coarse holes on a box grater, grate the onion. Using your hand, squeeze the onion as dry as you can and then add it to the corn.

Sprinkle the flour, baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, the pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the oregano over the corn and onion and mix well. Add the egg and again mix well.

Pour the olive oil to a depth of a scant 1/4 inch into a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, form each fritter by dropping the corn mixture by the heaping teaspoon into the hot oil, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Press down gently with the back of a spatula and fry until golden brown on the first side, about 2 minutes. Turn and fry the second side, about 1 minute.

Using a slotted spatula or slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Cook the remaining fritters the same way, adding more oil if needed and reducing the heat if necessary to avoid scorching.

Arrange the fritters on a warmed platter and sprinkle with salt and the remaining 1 tablespoon oregano. Top each fritter with a small dollop of crème fraîche, if desired. Serve immediately.

Winemaker's Notes on the St Supery Savignon Blanc:

This Sauvignon Blanc presents a brilliant shade of pale yellow
speared by youthful streaks of green. The vintage of 2011
provided generous grapefruit aromas coupled with green lime,
kiwi and a subtle zest of caper. Flavors are rich with
grapefruit, guava and a lemon zest citrus combination. The
wine is rich, vibrant and generous, yet elegant with a terrific
crisp finish. Enjoy!

Growing Season:
The year started with very cold conditions and high rainfall.
It is said to be the 4th highest rainfall winter in 40 years.
Spring moved temperatures up into the 70’s, with late May
bringing more rain. June commenced with significant
rainfall during flowering, reducing crops a little. The summer
provided good sunshine, yet was cooler than most. Late
August and September were warm and encouraged good
ripening. While the Sauvignon Blanc harvest commenced
late, it was short and compact, finishing by the end of
September. Overall, a cool season that provided intense rich
Sauvignon Blanc.

Winemaking:
After achieving the desired flavors on the vine, the Sauvignon
Blanc was harvested in the cool morning hours to preserve
delicate flavors. The fruit was received in the cellar, where
grapes were pressed to tank and immediately chilled and
settled prior to fermentation. All fermentation was completed
in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures to maintain and
enhance the natural flavors. The final blend was completed
soon after to capture the lovely fresh qualities and intensity
of flavor of the Sauvignon Blanc.

More information on the cookbook.
More information on St Supery wines.


My Nanosecond of Fame

Did you watch the Oscar telecast this year? You may have noticed a very tasteful and beautiful commercial for American Express featuring Thomas Keller and his French Laundry restaurant. Being a really nice guy, he asked that some of his vendors be in the shot as well. Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up now!

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Thomas also had Connie Green of Wine Forest and we all had a swell time on the "set". Every cliche you hear about this kind of work is true. There are lots of people and the whole thing moves very slowly. But it was fun and if you didn't blink, you might have seen me on TV.

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While my best work is clearly my scenery-chewing meeting with Connie and Thomas, you may want to know I was also excellent as Man Getting Haircut in the brief but seminal barber shop scene.

I chose not to hide my talent any longer and I've sold Rancho Gordo and I'm moving to Los Angeles to live among my fellow actors.


Beans Cooked in a HUGE Clay pot and a Caja China

Friends invited me over to a party to celebrate their new Caja China and the roasting of a whole pig. Rich did all kinds of research and dutifully prepared the pig according to the instructions and other comments on the internet. I decided the party deserved beans so I cooked them in a huge clay pot. I started 8 pounds at home and cooked them on the stovetop with onions, garlic, olive oil and salt. When they were just shy of being perfect, I shut off the gas and went to the party.

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The beanpot on fire performed beautifully and everyone agreed they were swell beans. (Good Mother Stallard, for the record.) The Caja China however did quite perform up to par. Hours and hours went by and the pig still wasn't done. I had to leave when the night came and my friends were still laughing and drinking and enjoying beans with no pork.

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25th Anniversary Party at Cakebread Cellars

The American Harvest Workshop has been an integral part of the Napa Valley and blink, it's been 25 years since those first chefs came to Cakebread to work with local ingredients and some excellent wine. When Rancho Gordo was very young, chef Brian Streeter and hostess Karen Cakebread, met with me at the local farmers market and asked if I'd participate. It was an incredible time and one of the first times I felt like the beans were taken seriously. It was a great moment for me and the beans!

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Most years, the Cakebread family invite 4 or 5 chefs to come for several days and meet with the local purveoyrs and work with the family's wines. The event ends with two incredible dinners using the tricks and resources they've learned and the talent they bring to the table.

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As a producer, it's a chance to meet world class chefs, like Rick Moonen of RM Seaood (above) and have them create dishes using your product. As a young company, it's like getting a Wonka golden ticket. And the meal? You can't imagine.

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This year, things are getting shaken up a bit. The public is invited to the big party on August 19th. There will be tastings, seminars, wine and more. I'm teaming with Taylor and Toponia from The Fatted Calf for a seminar on pork and beans, Napa style.

For more information or tickets, visit the Cakebread website or call 707/963.5222. See you there!

 


Rancho Gordo in Bon Appetit

Lucky us! We made it into the newly revamped Bon Appetit magazine!

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I love standing in the grocery store check out line with one of my sons and casually leafing through the magazine, pointing to one of the other items and making them discover the Rancho Gordo reference. "Papa, look!"

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The article says our Runner Cannellini beans are "a must for authentic minestrone". We won't argue!


Some Bad Press for Diana Kennedy and Her Response

The Washington Post food section recently published a weird, bitchy profile of Diana Kennedy. I'm a little torn as I think in general, their food section is one of the highlights of the paper and I think the world of Diana Kennedy.The article is here.

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Naturally, she's not happy with the writer. I could go on about the problems but instead, I think I'll post Diana Kennedy's response to the author:

Letter to: William Booth, Washington Post – Fiery Chronicler –11th January, 2011

After three arduous trips in the US to promote my book, Oaxaca al Gusto, I was persuaded by a respected acquaintance, photographer  Keith Dannemiller,  to accept  that you come to do an interview in my Mexican home. (It is not usual or correct to take your wife along to an interview without mentioning it or asking if it is OK.) Yes, I was tired and mad. Trouble is I am too damned frank.

This article smacks of character assassination (although I am not surprised, The Washington Post had me dead abut 25 years ago and never had the courtesy to apologize when they found out I was very much alive and kicking.)

My helpers are always introduced to visitors (Ambassadors, scientists, even Prince Charles etc.) where were you? ..But then I see it is convenient to say so because you go on to insult one of my helpers by calling him a “serf”. They have been with me for many years and, as everyone who has been to my many classes knows, they are treated with respect and affection.

I object to “withering appraisal of competitors”, and “wrangling home cooks to reveal etc”....those are rather nasty and untruthful interpretations! And what’s a  “killer mole” for goodness sake!

You were, I thought, supposed to come and talk about the book and see how I live in my Michoacan abode, but instead you repeat that silly, gossipy book Arrugula USA about something that happened 32 years ago. In the first place, I didn’t have a car so how could I have dumped him out???? A pure lie. I also said how much I admired him as an exemplary restaurateur who sources ingredients locally, and takes his staff every 7th July weekend to a great gastronomic experience in Mexico. And yes, I make no secret of the fact that I thought the White House menu totally inappropriate, but I did add that many of the ideas came from a committee and not directly from Rick.

Why is it that everyone delights in trying to put a wedge in between Rick and me.! And why the hell did you drink that coffee!  It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for another reporter to visit me and I will quote your article as a reason why.

Saludos dk

I love gossip and intrigue as much as the next person, but it's a shame the article wasn't about her seminal new book, Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere) The subtitle isn't Quick and Easy Weeknight Microwave Dinners from the Heart of Mexico. It's the kind of book that will inspire you and maybe even make you reach for the phone to book a flight to Mexico. You can cook from it, of course, but you won't find many burrito recipes!

For a more typical Diana Kennedy store, here's my account of the day she came to Rancho Gordo.



Rancho Gordo on the New Cooking Channel

We were lucky enough to be filmed for a new show called FoodCrafters with host Aida Mollenkamp on the new Cooking Channel. The people who Food TV, who have seemed more interested in competitive cooking than food these last years, have wisely retooled their boring Fine Living channel and it's now Cooking Channel.

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I saw a little of it this morning and it's like the old Food TV. You can just watch and very soon something interesting will be on. Some of it is actually great. I think they did something very smart. And of course featuring heirloom beans on one of their best shows is not a mistake!

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The crew were a lot of fun and I hope the good time we had all day comes through on the finished show. The director made use of all the staff and even the stray shopping card that hangs out in the warehouse. It seemed a little silly to the staff but he assured us the final cut will be particularly cool. I believe him.

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Our segment is tenatively scheduled to air on July 12. I'll try and update here on the blog if there's a change and our Twitter account will be up to date as well (@RanchoGordo).


Media Round Up

A few nice things I may have forgotten to tell you about.

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Our paper here in Napa had a very nice profile although the photograph would have sent me into a a deep dark depression if I were more vein. The article gets most everything right but we don't buy beans from 20 different farms. I think she was confused by 20 varieties. Napa Valley Register.

The LA Weekly declares "The beans, stewed Rancho Gordo limas with toasted bread crumbs and garlic, were among the best I've ever tasted" about our new restaurant account, Forage, in LA. LA Weekly.

We're featured in the San Jose Mercury News article on beans in Spring. There is season for good things! SJ Mercury News.

Greetings from Lovely Morelia

Boy, did I need to get out of town. I flew into Mexico last week for a quick hello to some old pals and to reacquaint myself with the beautiful state of Michoacan and the town of Morelia in particular.

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I've been able to see some great pottery and eat some very good food. There are many great dishes from this area and I never understand why they never seem to get exported to the US.

Cristina Potters was kind enough to introduce me the lovely chef Lucero who runs her Lu restaurant right in the center of town. She's taken some great traditional food and tuurned it on its head, creating a menu that's clever, repsectful and whimsical. And she enjoys a good book it would seem!

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And you can read Cristina's blog entry about Lu here.