Olive Oil And Vinegar For Life is one of the most beautiful cookbooks I have ever read. It’s a keepsake like Joy of Cooking or Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s pure unadulterated Theo!
If you want to impress anyone who steps into your kitchen then you better have Theo’s Global Gardens collection of organic oils and vinegars. Not just those imitation knock-off brands that claim to have all the essential organic ingredients. It’s just the pits! Consumers aren’t getting what they think they payed for instead, they are getting more quantity and less flavor.
Don’t succumb to strategically placed labeling which indicates, “light, virgin, cold pressed, extra virgin,” and so on. And watch out for those green glass bottles that diffuses the truer color of the olive oil and makes you think its virgin and green.
I’ve got your back!
I had a chance to sit down with Theo Stephan and learn a lot about her personal dedication in cultivating one of the worlds most flavorful line of products. Organic olive oils and vinegars. Made with love. Its her own signature and personal alchemy. Here is the first part of our interview.
NGC- Obviously you hail from Greece, what inspired you to leave your homeland and settle in Los Alamos/Los Olivos and grow olive trees?
TS- Actually, my father is from the former Yugoslavia and my mother was from Thessaloniki (which is the northernmost port of Greece). I was born in Dayton, Ohio. My Aunt Lou was the one who introduced me to cooking with olive oil in the mid-60’s. (that story is in the cookbook). I had founded a graphic design and marketing firm in Dayton when I was 23. It grew beyond my wildest dreams and I landed a large account with Universal Studios in Hollywood. Flying out to CA frequently in the mid 90’s encouraged me to extend my stay once in awhile. So I’d rent a convertible and head up to Santa Barbara…then, continuing farther and farther north until I (literally) ran out of gas turning into (what was then) a gas station in Los Olivos. I picked up a real estate brochure, called a realtor, found Rancho La Cuna, traveled to Crete, researched olive varietals, imported the 1st Koroneiki trees to southern CA (from Crete) and became the first to plant an olive grove specifically for olive oil.–a longer version is in the book!
NGC- Why organic? What made you decide to create your own line of products i.e. Global Gardens but take all that extra effort?
TS- I have gardened since I was 6 years old and founded my first business selling American Seeds after responding to a “Hey kids, make extra money this summer selling American Seeds!” ad in 1966. All I ever used were my hands and water. It never occurred to me to use chemicals—my flowers and veggies were wonderful. In 1972 I did an 8th grade research report on ecology and sustainability. The subject matter always fascinated me, inherently I suppose. When I bought Rancho La Cuna in 1996, the owner explained that he was from Argentina and had used the land to raise veal. It had never been planted, except for some family gardens near the home…so I was very eager to keep the hillsides sustainable and pure. The terroir of that particular property is California sage brush. Prior to planting my 2000 olive trees, I’d climb the hills in all kinds of weather and relish in the smells prevailing from the earth and surrounding hillsides. I researched wild mushrooms and found lovely, edible varietals, besides chanterelles that the valley is known for—boletus (porcini in Italy, Cepes in France) were prolific. I also found a patch of highly prized black elfin saddle mushrooms. (I’d originally become a funghiphile back in the midwest where morels were my mushroom of choice). Anyway, it just never occurred to me to disturb the land and try to make it anything that it wasn’t; it was gloriously productive, aromatic and vibrant all year long and I wanted to keep it that way.
NGC-Food comes to life, any food, with the addition of olive oils and of course a variety of condiments. Many of your recipes consist of home grown varieties, olives, vinegars made from fruits, herbs, and spices… how do you create these various tastes and combinations?
TS: It’s very intuitive for me; I honestly don’t put a lot of thought into it. We are so lucky to have access to such fresh fruits, veggies, seafood and meats where we live. Moving to California really opened a door for me to experiment with what was growing all over the hillsides and just outside my front door. I’ve always been a forager and I’ve always enjoyed entertaining. There is nothing more wonderful than having family and friends compliment me on a meal. I think eating should be a very sensual process, literally, including all of the senses we own. Cooking and eating is a therapy of sorts for me to create for myself and whoever is in my home. I don’t make it “work” and I don’t spend a lot of time on it really—I just use what I have and what’s fresh.
NGC-Few people are as dedicated as you. There are major brands that stem from very well known chefs in America that have piggybacked on a huge movement to capitalize on their brand names rather than the products themselves. Tell us why Global Gardens philosophy and products differ?
TS-That’s a great question. When I started the business I’d been a brand developer/designer for big names and Fortune 500 companies for almost 20 years. I had some illusions of grandiosity. Few people know that I started Global Gardens as a wholesale company. We were in over 100 stores around the country. I had acquired partners for my design firm and negotiated a 5-year buyout that was a win/win for my partners and me. Subsequently, I used the proceeds of the sale of my firm to launch my own brand. I didn’t realize I was starting Global Gardens as a wholesale endeavor during a time that most grocery/wholesale operations around the country were consolidating into larger companies, creating purchasing networks from large distributors. I quickly lost over a million dollars during my start-up years, chasing after the almighty volume. I only had 7 products at the time and was naïve about what was happening as it all happened quite quickly. We were critically very well received—had appearances in some top national magazines, etc. I was importing olive oil from Greece as my own trees were too young to be very productive. I had created a few vinegars, appetizer spreads and our first snack: Organic Spicy Walnuts. When I sold direct to store operations and went out on demos to these large stores, things were great—I’d sell out. Then, when I was asked to go thru distributors (who would take minimum 25% and require my demos to be managed by demo companies at about $21/hour per person, per store, per demo), I started losing money faster than I could realize. Also, the demo staffers weren’t passionate about my products—it was just another demo/another job for them—so consequently, my products did not sell as well. I am not a known “name”…nor do I ever pretend to be a “chef”…so I was quickly gobbled up and spit out. I went to Trader Joe’s and had meetings with distributors and manufacturers who encouraged me to add water and “air” to my jars of product to make my items less expensive. When I argued that they would not taste the same, nobody seemed to care; I was told that their customer hadn’t tasted them yet and I was “too emotional” about what I was creating. I wanted to quit, completely—and thought about moving back to Ohio in 2005 as my mother was ill, I was a single mom with two little girls, etc…but my mom encouraged me to open what is now our flagship store in Los Olivos. I borrowed money from friends & family and worked the store by myself the first year we were open, then started hiring employees. Basically, I started all over. I don’t like to cut corners when it comes to flavor and presentation.
NGC-Your new cookbook is truly one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Olive Oil And Vinegar For Life has a wonderful mission statement. Please elaborate and tell us about your latest venture?
TS-The book is a result of my desire to educate people on the many nuances, facts and uses of extra virgin olive oil—by varietal—and balsamic fruit vinegars too. I wanted to tell the story of my own evolution into the food world and also share ideas on how people can eat healthfully, tastefully, nutritionally and beautifully without going to a lot of trouble or time. I was in the shower one day, thinking of my mediterranean upbringing and how I had evolved it into my own California lifestyle, having adopted two girls from Nepal—trying to intro them to flavors beyond their own curries and learning the indigenous nature of our lovely region—expanding into traveling throughout CA and tasting/learning about things grown all over the state. So I came up with the word “Caliterranean”…and what that means to me—including lifestyle, meditation, space and time for a life that is more full of some things and more void of others—creating a balance in an otherwise hectic life—making choices, etc. I want, mostly, to teach people how to enrich their lives through healthfulness and quality in creating a relationship with their own selves and their personal environments—no matter where they live! I’ve learned how to live so differently myself—lots of people have asked me what my “secret” is…and it’s really no secret—it’s just been a natural evolution (that word again). I’m no less “busy”, that’s for sure! I’m hoping to write more books to inspire people further to experiment and relish in their own lives, creating wellness for themselves in lots of different ways that I am myself continuing to learn, being committed, personally, as a student of life.
Next week we will explore more with Theo Stephan author of Olive Oil And Vinegar For Life. Learn about her annual farm to table VIP luncheon and wine paring and explore the glorious details of its stupendous success.
WATCH: Nancy’s Organic Kitchen and learn how Global Gardens can infuse your desire to cook.