So many cooks in the kitchen

The gleaming 80-gallon stainless steel kettle nudged into the far corner of Blue Ridge Food Ventures' wet kitchen is where Viable Culture's Brian Moe cooks his soybeans for tempeh, Fisher Farms' Maria Fisher boils tomatoes for sauce and — twice a week — Imladris Farms' Alyssa Rudolph makes jam.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

"One of the things about the kitchen is you have to be attentive to everyone's needs, which is great," Rudolph says.

As the economic-development facility's 30-plus users scramble to prepare for their annual marketplace event next week (details below), there's a heightened emphasis on peaceful coexistence at the shared commercial kitchen. The kitchen, always crowded, is this month crammed with entrepreneurs trying to wring their culinary dreams from a room where someone else is always using the dish sink, everyone's vying to use the same extension cord and the pathway to the cooler is inevitably blocked by a fellow user's mixing bowl.

"You have to play well with others," says executive director Mary Lou Surgi.

According to Surgi, some prospective BRFV clients — entrepreneurs pay an average of $20 per hour to use the facility, not counting deposits and storage fees — are dismayed by the jovially cooperative environment, in which workspaces are necessarily confined by consideration for others. She reports that those food producers' eyes widen when, say, a hot dog cart operator races into the room to grate cheese on the same table where a truffle maker was just rolling out a tray of chocolate.

"Some businesses walk through on a tour and I know I'll never see them again," Surgi says.

Still, the set-up works remarkably well for disciplined entrepreneurs who don't mind ceding some control of their environment in exchange for access to dehydrators, vacuum sealers and that giant vat.

On a recent Wednesday morning, jam maker Rudolph, the Uli Mana chocolate truffle crew and Leslie Kirrane, who makes a line of flavored mustards, allowed me to work alongside them to better understand just how the facility functions. My job was to help complete the unskilled tasks needed to put local products on local shelves — and to take notes while doing it.

8:53 a.m.

Rudolph, who was appointed Imladris Farms' jam maker back in January, is unanimously admired at BRFV for her sunny attitude and quiet calm, which lends an air of near-serenity. As other producers watch Rudolph, she's watching them.

"I see people come and go, so I'm learning what it takes to make it," says Rudolph, who bought a patch of land in Fairview this spring and is hoping to develop a wintertime CSA.

It takes money, Rudolph says, although it doesn't hurt to have the confidence she exercises as she hoists 16-pound pails of boiling hot blueberry jam over her head into the Simplex jar filler, which looks like a vintage Gramophone with its horn tilted skyward.

"Unfortunately, I've burned my eye," Rudolph says with the understatement that's made her so popular around the kitchen. "It stayed red for months. But it's pretty safe. I just always make sure to eat breakfast first."

While Rudolph loads jam into the filling contraption and then pokes at its various parts with a screwdriver, I'm put to work labeling the jars. The goal, she explains, is to center the labels precisely. I'm also given a sticker gun so I can affix bottling dates to the bottom of the jars.

As I'm doing my best to summon the dexterity of a supermarket clerk, the jam kettle begins to choke on a tangle of berries. The steady jam flow from its extruding pipe has stopped.

"Are you ready for an adventure?" Rudolph asks. "I'm having a clogging issue. Blueberries are devils."

Rudolph prepares to shove the back end of a paddle into the spout; I'm ordered to close the spigot as soon as it's clear. Unfortunately, I overshoot the mark, so there's suddenly an unstoppable blueberry fountain, a raging river of sugary thickened fruit.

Rudolph finally dams the flooding, but I'm left too rattled to center labels. With my labels landing a good quarter-inch off target, I say goodbye and move to my next station.

10 a.m.

While Rudolph runs a strictly solo operation, Uli Mana organizes its work on a communal model, with eight employees making its raw, organic chocolate (Kirrane's friend and volunteer staffer Ginenne Rife calls it "serious-as-a-heart-attack chocolate"), rolling it into truffles and coating them with equally raw and organic toppings. Today, the team is starting with coconut.

But before the work begins, shift supervisor Amelia Steuetzel beckons the chocolatiers, most of them clad in "Made in Nepal" aprons, to join hands in a circle just south of Rudolph's jarring table. After a slightly self-effacing pep talk, the workers take their places around a stainless steel table, settling in for hours of transforming 14 trays of cooled chocolate slabs into nearly 1,000 flawless orbs. The resulting scene evokes the ethos of a vegetarian basement co-op crossed with the work ethic of a tenement piecework operation, as workers roll and roll and roll and roll.

So long as I keep my hands cool — the trick is taking frequent trips to the nearby sink — this is work I can handle. The workers, their palms mottled with chocolate, chat about new haircuts and old boyfriends as they work. Occasionally, their attentions wander.

"I'm seeing some big truffles here," Steuetzel says, rifling through the tray of finished truffles. "It's annoying to say, but I'm quality control."

10:51 a.m.

The lively hum of repetitive motions and simple machines skips a few beats as Kirrane and her entourage tumble into the kitchen, clutching tote bags and tins of mustard powder. Kirrane's clad in a black apron with the words "Leslie the Mustard Lady" written in hot pink script.

"It takes chicken nuggets to the whole next level," beams Rife when asked about her friend's mustards, inspired by a family recipe that Kirrane's sister-in-law had perfected.

Kirrane is having trouble carving out a workspace between Rudolph and the Uli Mana team.

"Has anyone seen an extension cord?" Kirrane yelps at nobody in particular. "I don't even have a place to plug my scale in. I'm so discombobulated."

Kirrane is also missing a whisk. "You didn't find it?" she asks Rife's husband Tom, who's just sent a few dozen jar lids clattering to the floor. "Oh, come on, where's my whisk? I lost my whisk."

Rife has already taken her position on a stepstool, hovering above the pot in which Kirrane plans to heat her first batch of mustard.

"Why can't I be a chocolate roller?" she laughs. "Instead, I'm a mustard stirrer."

My only job here is to stay quiet, so as not to distract Kirrane from her recipe.

"People are so addicted to it, they're like, 'Don't ever stop making this mustard,'" Kirrane says.

Surgi relishes the mix of personalities that daily convenes in her kitchen.

"I’ve got caterers, I’ve got bakers, I’ve got farmers, I’ve got hot dog carts," Surgi says. "If you want to rent my kitchen and make coleslaw juice, I’m not going to stop you. It’s a lot of human relations here, but to be a food entrepreneur, you’ve got to be out there."

The Third Annual Blue Ridge Food Ventures Marketplace will be held next Wednesday, Sept. 23, from 5-7 p.m. on the A-B Tech Enka-Candler Campus, 1461 Sand Hill Road. Admission is free. For more information, call 348-0128.

Xpress food editor Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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