Valentin is from Austria; Nanette, from New York. He came to the U.S. in the late ’80s as a hospitality professional and suffered the usual culture shock that a national palate reared on the Golden Arches tends to produce in European chefs. Curious, polite, handsome and affable, Valentin made friends with other European chefs, the smart ones who didn’t merely pooh-pooh our industrialized foodscape, but sought to improve it.
Chef Jean-Louis Palladin was one of them. Having won two Michelin stars for his small French restaurant at age 28, he was brought over by the Watergate Hotel in 1979 to help them salvage an image so tarred by Richard Nixon that “–gate” remains a suffix to any political disaster. Palladin didn’t deride our lack; he fixed it. He employed divers to harvest scallops, he encouraged ranchers to feed garlic scapes to lambs to flavor their meat and he loved grapeseed oil so well that he is said to have regularly rubbed it all over his chest to improve his virility. He also changed the American fine dining landscape, using Valentin’s grapeseed oil to alter taste buds and expectations about what honest farm-based food should taste like when elevated by French culinary culture.
Valentin had just begun to import the oil and Palladin encouraged him and supported him, giving testaments to its quality and suggesting it to Daniel Boulud and others. Today, the Humers’ Salute Santé! Grapeseed oil is used by “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto at his eponymous Napa restaurant, by Ron Siegel at Madcap in San Anselmo, by the cool kids at State Bird Provisions, Saison, the Angler and the Progress in San Francisco, and by countless other professional chefs across the U.S.
So why aren’t you using it in your own kitchen? Actually, when you’re not dressing your salads with it or sautéing your mushrooms in it, why aren’t you using it to soothe your face, soften your hair and strengthen your nails? All are lauded applications of the stuff.
Never let it be said that we aren’t an ingenious and rapacious species.
It takes a ton of grapes to produce just three liters of grapeseed oil. Why would anyone even try? Because the oil that comes from the vibrant, life-loving vigor of a grape plant has an energy of its own. Because it’s a food just waiting to be used and we are very, very good at using things up.
For the Humers, it’s about tradition, but it’s also about modern sanity. Grape seeds are found in winemaking’s waste. In Europe, the government subsidizes the transport of wine grape pomace to an extraction facility to harvest its oil. In the U.S., not so much. The Humers use steel cans to store their oil to protect it from heat and light, but also because it is significantly recyclable. They grow the herbs included in their infusions themselves (unless Oprah’s orders cause their daughter to frantically source additional supplies in Mexico), they know the farmer who raises their lemons, are friends with the importer who provides the truffles. It’s family, it’s among friends. It’s how business often gets done on the other side of the ocean.
The Humers have recently launched a new five-liter bottle of their grapeseed oil suitable for big-box buying, not that Costco has yet picked it up. They’re seeing more local stores carry their wares, not just the fancy infusions but the day-to-day oil that can soften your skin as well as it dresses your salads.
It’s a slog, but the Humers are in it for the long haul, planning to launch an “oil club” that would ship the good stuff to you every six months so that sourcing Salute Santé! isn’t a question.
Valentin admits that chefs are their biggest customers. Nanette is sanguine about being on Whole Foods’ shelves—and then off again. It’s a business, but really—it’s a passion.
“I’m just interested,” Nanette finally says, “in bringing the product to the people who want it.”