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Old-School Food

Alumnus Brett Ottolenghi builds a company as a treasure hunter for some of Las Vegas' top chefs.
People  |  May 25, 2011  |  By Cate Weeks

Brett Ottolenghi's chef-clients want beans. Special ones. Heirloom varieties that haven't been genetically modified to grow faster or bigger or more uniformly. Beans that taste better than those on your grocery store shelves.

And Ottolenghi wants to sell them to those chefs, who make magic happen in the kitchens of Las Vegas' top restaurants. He spent hours researching farmers, tasting their products, and learning their growing techniques. He found the perfect provider in Napa, Calif., where a company specializes in foods native to the New World.

But here's the hitch: The owner doesn't want to sell to Ottolenghi. He wants to preserve his tradition of selling directly to chefs and to people at farmer's markets. And he already has some customers in Las Vegas. Why go through a middleman?

Ottolenghi, '08 BS Hotel Administration, has faced this situation before. "The reason my company is called Artisanal Foods is because the people making these products are, in many ways, artists. They can be quite temperamental," he says. It took him two years to convince master vinegar maker Albert Katz to sell through Ottolenghi and to repackage his products in larger quantities for professional kitchens. (Katz's Gravenstein apple cider vinegar is one of Ottolenghi's favorite products.)

And so he persists with the bean farmer.

Beans are heavy, he explains. Trucking a pallet for Artisanal Foods to distribute rather than sending directly will cut the customer's shipping costs by 20 percent. Plus, Las Vegas chefs can get same-day delivery of the prized pintos. Lower costs means more restaurants can choose the superior beans. More people will be exposed to foods prepared with these "real" ingredients. That's something that both the bean grower -- or the vinegar producer or the chocolate maker -- and Ottolenghi want. People to appreciate their art.

In 1998, when he was just 13, Ottolenghi launched The Truffle Market along with his father, Arturo. Truffle hunting was a family pastime when they visited Italy, where the elder Ottolenghi spent his childhood. Brett studied truffles from every angle and eventually created a website to sell the treasured morsels and related products.

When it was time to go to college in 2004, he chose UNLV and started knocking on swinging kitchen doors along the Strip. The chefs liked "the truffle kid" and started asking him about other hard-to-find ingredients. Ottolenghi had learned all he could about truffles; it was time to expand.

He researches every product -- the prosciutto di Parma, the Spanish saffron, the honey from Pahrump -- thoroughly before adding it to his offerings. First priority, of course, is taste. Then Ottolenghi considers the environmental impact of the product, the processing techniques used by the producers, how the animals are treated. He investigates the packaging. Bottles can become slippery and take up too much space -- is the producer willing to box the olive oil so it's easier for chefs to use? He visits potential suppliers in person, snapping pictures on his iPhone to show his chefs later.

In February, he visited chicken farms. In industrial farms in the United States, the live chickens are hung on conveyor belts and killed by cutting their heads off. "My French chefs hate that because all the blood runs out and with it, all the moisture."

Ottolenghi found a California farm that will dispatch the chickens through carbon dioxide asphyxiation, a common practice in Europe. It's a more humane way to die -- the chicken simply doesn't wake up -- and the flavor is improved. "When an animal is stressed out, the hormones it releases can change the flavor of the meat. And if the muscles are tense when they die, they stay that way," Ottolenghi explains.

Now he's researching caviar and traveling to sturgeon farms in California, Florida, and Spain. "Caviar is so fascinating. It's like mankind has been on a mission to make this fish extinct. "

Farm-raising can bring back the sturgeons, and he believes the industry has the same potential that producers saw in California wines 30 years ago. The Pacific white sturgeon is commonly raised in the U.S. "But the green sturgeon," he says, rattling off its scientific name, "is native to the U.S. and produces an egg bigger than the beluga. I'm hoping to find a farm willing to try them."

In Nevada, he's searching for farmers who want to try escargot. Oddly, a federal law prevents transporting snails across state lines so they are imported from other countries. He's looking for a species native to Nevada that is both large and has the right taste profile. "I don't know how many snails our city could use, but it should be enough to support one small farm."

Now with four employees, Artisanal Foods opened a storefront last year across from McCarran Airport. The store's demonstration area gives Ottolenghi space to share his knowledge about every product on the shelves. The navigation on Artisanal Foods' website notably includes "Learn" to connect customers with Ottolenghi's blog. "My aim is to demystify one ingredient or subject at a time," he writes in the introduction.

Ottolenghi also shares his knowledge with children -- Artisanal Foods was the first sponsor of the Tonopah Community Garden in North Las Vegas -- and with legislators. He's part of a group lobbying to legalize raw milk in the state.

"There's such a disconnect between people and their food," he says. "I wish people would learn to cook again so instead of buying individually frozen chicken breasts, they'd try breaking down a whole chicken. There'd be so much less waste."

And the cost of quality ingredients would come down, giving more people better access to those heirloom beans and vinegars.

"When the recession hit, there was a point where things were starting to get bad and I thought I might have to do cheaper products. But then I realized that wasn't the answer for me. I'd rather not be in the food industry if I had to sell on price alone."