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December 22, 2014

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Weekly Q&A: Gourmet purveyor Brett Ottolenghi dishes on food as art

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Beverly Poppe

Brett Ottolenghi’s “collection” at Artisanal Foods is ever-changing, reflecting the best-of-the-moment in food categories from dry pasta to sustainable seafood to single-origin chocolate. He says he is focusing more and more on proteins, though there will always be room for special ingredients he finds on trips around the world and throughout the U.S.

Food is rarely seen as art until it’s on the plate, but every ingredient at Artisanal Foods is part of a “collection” painstakingly curated by Brett Ottolenghi. The UNLV graduate broke into the truffle import business at 13. Now 26, he’s the go-to purveyor for Strip chefs and recreational gourmets in search of Korean black garlic and Armenian green walnuts, sustainable octopus and anchovy fillets so exquisite they fetch $4 apiece (and that’s wholesale). But like the artisans he represents, Ottolenghi isn’t in it for the profit margin. The proof is in the insanely pure saffron.

Most kids will only eat macaroni and peanut butter. How did you develop such sophisticated tastes so young?

My brother and I always had to taste everything when we were growing up. We weren’t allowed to simply say we didn’t like something. We always had to take a bite, no matter how weird it was. We also traveled a lot as a family. Even before starting the company at 13, I had already seen many countries around the world, a lot of South America and Europe. … Food is one of the best ways to see a country.

You recently got back from a wasabi-harvesting trip in the mountains of Japan. What’s next?

In April I’m doing a thorough trek through France. I want to see Pommery mustard being made; I may see Banyuls vinegar, Bayonne ham. … And escargot, I’m really interested in that. It sucks in this country because, to remove the snail from the shell, you have to first quickly steam it. ... Most restaurants—we’re talking, like, 99 percent—are using canned. ... So you take a cooked product and cook it a second time in the can, and then the restaurant, when they cook it, it’s a third time. So you end up with these rubbery, nasty little things.

The Details

Artisanal Foods
2275 E. Sunset Rd., 436-4252.

The producers you work with are from everywhere, including the U.S. You even found world-class coffee in Boulder City.

There are such amazing foods in our own country, in many cases, there’s no reason to import them. For instance, we have this New Mexican balsamic vinegar, [Monticello], which would rival anything from Modena. It’s incredible. I personally like it more than any balsamic that’s even twice the price, from Italy. … When you go to Europe and Asia and around the world traveling, you see a lot of traditions, and you see these products where it’s passed down. Here in the states you see a lot of trial and error. There are great products coming from here, but it’s usually a first generation, so it’s almost exciting to think about where the U.S. will be 50 years from now.

How do you find the small-batch, family-run, obscure little gems?

It could be that a chef recommended it. It could be a random sample sent to me. It could be a convention ... or Google, or the trade commissions. A lot of my friends in the food industry, at this point, know what I’m always looking for. … That’s one of the benefits of having your philosophy toward food out there.

What is your food philosophy?

Traditional, sustainable ... humane. I like to think of us as a responsible company, where we look at all the perspectives. What is the environmental impact of this product? What are the social implications of, say, the cacao that our chocolate company is using? I try to look at every aspect of that product’s impact. When they buy from us, people can feel confident knowing that somebody has already done that homework.

You’ve been outspoken about the impact of shark fin served on the Strip.

I’ve been trying to find a sustainable alternative for shark fin because our city uses a lot. Huge amounts. There’s no short-term solution, unfortunately. The best product I’ve found is coming from China, from a tilapia farm. … It looks and tastes and is identical in every way to shark fin, and yet it costs about an eighth as much. The trouble is that when you’re trying to fight the consumption of shark fin you’re not really working in a logical world. … It’s about eating that animal that is a predator in the wild and getting that virility. … Without shark fin soup we wouldn’t have the gamblers that pay for this city. You could take away that one product and probably destroy this economy, because they also see it as luck.

Are you on a crusade to, ingredient-by-ingredient, elevate the Vegas food scene?

I’m definitely drawn to ingredients where there’s a lot of cheating currently. I like the idea of trying to bring an honest product.

For those making these beautiful goods and small distributors like you, the profit margin is slim.

That’s one reason that I have so much respect for the artisans that I work with. ... The people I buy from have dedicated their lives to perfecting one ingredient often. … [Some are] wealthy people who’ve decided they want to do something as a contribution to the marketplace. ... Instead of patronizing the arts and commissioning a painting, they create a food.

Your contributions to the local marketplace include a rarity of rarities—unadulterated saffron.

This is one place that fits our model exactly, where everyone else is cheating their ass off and we’re the one pillar of honest saffron in the city. ... If I told the guys in Spain that I was selling it at $100 an ounce, they would be like: ‘You’re crazy; why would you sell it so cheap?’ But I have to.

You supply some of the best kitchens on the Strip. How did you cultivate relationships with so many famous chefs?

I’ve been here forever. They’ve seen me since I was 19 coming into their kitchens. … When I ask the chefs now why they want to work with us, it’s about the history. ... If you’re just there during the day doing sales, it doesn’t really prove much. But if you’re willing to make a delivery at 9:30 on New Year’s that you won’t make any money off of, and you do that year after year, then they start to trust you.

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