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DS: (con'd) I spent some time at that Italian place, some time at the French bistro I just mentioned, and then moved on to what would be called a "New American" place — Four Square Restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. The chef there, Shane Ingram, had trained with Patrick O'Connell at The Inn at Little Washington, Charlie Trotter in Chicago, and Emeril Lagasse when Emeril opened his first restaurant in New Orleans. Shane really blew my mind and got me excited about food. He made a lot of reductions as a way to intensify flavor — he'd make a stock and reduce it down to the demi-glace, or he would take a couple of bottles of wine and reduce it all down to a syrup — he would bring out these intense flavors without taking a shortcut. And that's when I started playing with these techniques, trying to imitate what he was doing.
I still use some of the lessons that I learned at the French place, like [preparing] the compound butter. There, we were serving meat dishes with it: the hot hangar steak comes off the grill, the blue-cheese compound butter goes right on top of it, and by the time the plate hit the table, that blue-cheese butter would have melted all over the steak — it was just luscious and decadent! So I thought of combining that process with Shane Ingram's intense reductions and began putting this whole thing together. It started one day while I was at my in-laws house and they asked me to make a sauce for a side of salmon. So I thought I would make a beurre-blanc sauce — a white wine reduction finished with butter, shallots, and herbs — but instead, I decided to make a compound butter so people could take a piece of salmon, put a little bit of that butter on top and let it melt. And then I thought that since the main ingredient in both of those concepts is butter, why couldn't I make a beurre-blanc compound butter? So I tried it: I made an intense wine reduction, adding some vinegar to heighten its acidity, then cooled it down and whipped it into some butter. I was totally amazed because, ultimately, it was very convenient to just pull this thing out of my fridge and dollop a bit on top of the piece of fish — there I had the convenience of the compound butter with the flavor of the beurre blanc. I then did some research online to find out where I could actually buy it because I could see using it all the time. I looked all over the place but couldn't find anything like it, nothing at all.
"When you take an acid and a fat and a dash of salt, you get something that's going to taste really good."
NM: So, you went from the experience of deciding that this was something that you liked and wanted to have, to then making it and actually moving forward with marketing and selling it. That's quite a leap, from enthusiast to entrepreneur! Can you say a bit more about what motivated you to do so?
DS: Well, it is quite a leap; you're right about that. I guess I saw a niche and thought [my compound butters] would make a really cool product, something I could get behind and not be afraid to put my name on. There's nobody else out there doing this — not like this. Now, make no mistake, there are other compound butter companies, and I've since seen some that use wine. But we have over half a bottle of wine in each 4-ounce container! That's not a splash; it's significant, it's one of the main ingredients. And that, I think, is what makes our product so unique. If you look at our red wine compound butter, the Raspberry Honey Mustard Beurre Rouge, that thing is really red! And the reason it's so red is because there's half a bottle of reduced Merlot in it. Of course, that also gives it qualities of fruit and acidity. And when you take an acid and a fat and a dash of salt, you get something that's going to taste really good. That's one of the big foundations of flavors, taking an acid and cutting a fat with it — that's essentially what a salad dressing is. A beurre blanc is the same thing, with the fat from the butter and the acid from the wine.
NM: What goes into the choice of wines that you reduce into your butters and what did you face when it came to sourcing that wine in larger quantities?
DS: There are several factors. In North Carolina I have to use something that I can buy directly from a grocery store or a wine shop; I'm not allowed to buy bulk or directly from a distributor. So that restricted what my options were. But more to the point — I read an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago, a discussion on the subject of what wines you should cook with. The entire food editorial staff of the Times gathered together as a tasting panel for an experiment. They made an authentic Italian dish, a risotto cooked in red wine, whose recipe specifically calls for Barolo. In the experiment, they prepared the dish exactly the same way, but one version used Barolo and the other used Two Buck Chuck [Trader Joe's value wine, Charles Shaw]. And it turns out that the panel chose overwhelmingly in favor of the Charles Shaw version. This really cheap, simple wine ended up making a much more elegant and refined classic Italian Barolo dish than the Barolo itself did! The reason for that is that when you take a really intense, complex wine that's full of subtle nuance and is wonderful on its own, and then reduce that down, all its flavors are intensified — including ones that don't work out so well when they're concentrated. One example is oakiness: if you have a very oaky wine and intensely reduce it, the oak character turns bitter, giving you a bitter sauce. In other words, when some nuances are exaggerated, you can have an issue.