Steve Stallard started BLiS three years ago after spending 20 years as a chef at fine dining restaurants, honing his skills while following his passion or "bliss" which led to his present enterprise, providing extreme foods, primarily for restaurant chefs, but also available at the retail level.
Metro Times: Does the quality of your tuna (which is evident at first bite) justify the $8 per can price at least to enough people to make your business viable?
Steve Stallard: Absolutely. Traditionally, people believe that tuna is a commodity item. Ironically most of the tuna that's caught on the West Coast is juvenile fish between 12 and 18 pounds and two and three years old. They don't have time to accumulate the toxins. Most of that tuna is not sold in the United States. Most of it gets frozen in containers and shipped over to Spain and Italy, where it is repacked and shipped back to us for albacore. They don't have any substantial amount of albacore left in the Mediterranean or the North Atlantic. What we are working with is a fifth-generation canner out on the West Coast that works with my ideas and flavor profiles. I'm a chef to begin with. I cooked for 20 years, worked in Michelin three-star restaurants; I'm a Culinary Institute of America grad. It is a chef-driven company. That's where I got my roots. I'm president and I do everything taste, touch, feel everything. A lot of it's about the experience I've had over the years working flavor profiles. I'm an avid wine and spirit hobbyist. I was a sommelier at the Dow Corning Club. Food and wine have always been an intense passion of mine. I transformed that from cooking into this business to give products that I would use to chefs. They are a little bit higher-end in that they all taste very good and unique and special. But the thing is that when you're going into my value-added Fleur de Sels, it takes more creative skill to be able to use them to the fullest. I'm not saying that they aren't excellent at the retail level, but there's a lot of thought that goes into them. They need a good base of skills and knowledge to be fully utilized. I give those products to my chefs; a lot of them are friends I've cooked with. I try to bring out really cool things that I can make into a business. And it keeps my hands in the cooking end of it somewhat, because I'm in touch with a lot of my clients. We sell our products at Le Bernadin, Charlie Trotter's, Per Se, Alinea, Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago which is the No. 1 rated restaurant in the country.
MT: Is Grant from the family that owns the Achatz Pie Company in Armada?
Stallard: Yes. That's him. He's a super chef. He worked with me at the Amway Grand Plaza where I was executive chef for six months when he was at the Culinary Institute. He was 18 years old. Immediately I felt that he had an amazing amount of raw talent. He went from my place to Trotter's, from there to the French Laundry, then to Trio and now Alinea.
MT: Tell me about your products.
Stallard: The bourbon syrup is a result of combining maple syrup and bourbon, which almost shares a flavor profile with it. Bourbon has a butterscotch, vanilla, honeysuckle, orange peel and maple flavor. When you combine the two, it doesn't mask the maple flavor so much, but blends together with it. We take an organic syrup, put it in a barrel that has been used to age bourbon, and age the syrup for about a year and filter it, pasteurize it and bottle it.
As for the vanilla, we get a Tahitian vanilla bean and put it in organic syrup, and hot-pack it and leave it in the bottle for a couple of months before labeling it. It infuses all of that smooth vanilla flavor into the syrup. The vanilla bean is usable too.
MT: It sounds as though you are trying to change the flavor of what is already a fine, pure, natural product like maple syrup.
Stallard: The old-time maple syrup guys are purists on maple flavor. It's not that I'm trying to bastardize syrup, because I love it exactly the way it is, but I make subtle changes to create slightly different flavor profiles for chefs to work with. We also do a vinegar that's created through what's called a solera process.
We do some wild roes that use sustainable-resource caviars or roes. Technically, caviar is only from sturgeon, but we don't use it because the species is being decimated.
We are a green company. We don't work with things that are threatened. We work with organic as much a possible.
We've got some dry rubs, salt-free. We leave the salting up to the people doing the cooking. We put just the spices into the rubs.
MT: What drove you or motivated you to create these, what I would call, extreme foods?
Stallard: They kind of are. It's because I love it and nobody was doing it. I like to be the first going in and doing things. It's a huge challenge to substantiate why my product is different. Everybody is price sensitive, especially at the retail level.
MT: Tell me what you ate growing up that led to BLiS?
Stallard: My dad was an organic gardener so I got used to tasting foods that were fresh and my palate developed. My mother was a great baker and canner. We didn't eat processed meats. We were on a healthy path long before it became fashionable. Also I am an avid outdoorsman: hunter, fisherman, mushroom hunter. My love of cooking came out of cooking those foods. I got used to eating game, which I love to prepare. I eat things that are not available to a lot of people. One of my favorites is buffalo tongues. I corn them, pickle them and smoke them.
MT: Where can your products be purchased?
Stallard: At mikuniwildharvest.com. The products on that site that are labeled BLiS are ours.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]