The Sultan of Olive Oil
“Do you remember how to do this? It’s going to be loud, but that’s okay,” warns Nick Coleman. We’re sitting at Del Posto, the celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant in the Meatpacking District, as he guides me through a tasting of two olive oils, one Tuscan and one Sicilian. A piano plays in the background and my handbag sits between us, perched on a footstool the waiter has brought. The footstool’s sole purpose appears to be protecting handbags from Del Posto’s immaculately clean floor, and I can’t shake the nagging feeling that the footstool is far more expensive than my handbag and that if things were in their natural order, my handbag would be supporting the footstool.
On a Tuesday at one in the afternoon, Del Posto is filled with small groups of men in impeccably cut suits and a fleet of discreet waiters. Coleman picks up a white ceramic tasting spoon, sucks olive oil into his mouth and then proceeds to aerate it. The aeration process bears a remarkable resemblance to very, very loud slurping. The well-suited men cast a few glances but the waiters and a chef who has dropped by the table are unfazed. Coleman has trained many of them in this very process.
One of the oils is bright green and the other a mellow chartreuse. “The Tuscan will taste grassy and the Sicilian will taste like green tomato,” says Coleman. “But that’s not because of the color. The color has zero connection to the taste.”
I follow Coleman’s lead, slurp and promptly cough, tears blur my vision as a peppery sensation spreads down the back of my throat. Coleman’s eyes light up at my discomfort.
“That’s the antioxidants!” he exclaims. “Anytime you feel that burn, it’s a good sign for the quality of the oil.”
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Coleman officially works elsewhere in the Batali empire, at a foodie palace called Eataly—Manhattan’s supersized Italian foods emporium—where he is Chief Olive Oil Specialist. But Coleman prefers to refer to himself as an oleologist. (Yes, that is a real profession.) In the past six years, he has become one of America’s leading experts on olive oil and New York’s most fervent evangelist. At Eataly, Coleman’s domain includes row upon row of dark glass bottles of olive oil that line white wooden shelves—more than ninety different types, all Italian, all extra-virgin, and many as pricey as a nice Chianti.
At his home in Queens, Coleman currently has more than twenty different types of olive oil in his kitchen and estimates that he goes through a liter every ten days. No, he doesn’t chug it by the glassful, but he does bathe in it. (“You don’t actually fill the bathtub with it,” he notes as he explains the technique. “You pour a layer on top of the water and then it soaks into all the open pores, moisturizing the skin.”) One of his prized possessions is an olive wood bass guitar custom built by Brooklyn-based master guitar maker Carl Thompson. When Coleman takes a call during our first interview in August 2012 I catch a glimpse of his iPhone background—unsurprisingly, it’s a picture of an olive branch.
Coleman, though—thirty years old with the well-trimmed beard and thick-rimmed glasses that are the uniform of the male creative professional—actually grew up in suburban Allandale, New Jersey, raised on a diet of Velveeta Mac and Cheese and Lunchables.
“My family’s proud because they know that I work with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and they see that what I do is highly acclaimed but they don’t really understand it,” he says.
His connection to olive oil began six years ago when, after graduating from Berklee College of Music with plans to run a record label and studio, he embarked on a one-hundred-day backpacking trip from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert. Along the way he stopped at Mulinmaria, a villa and olive grove just outside of Arezzo, Italy, owned by Nadia Gasperini Rossi. Rossi, who was in her fifties at the time, is a member of a disappearing breed of artisanal Italian olive oil producers who still pick every olive by hand and decline to distribute their oil commercially.
“The first time I ever saw an olive tree was with Nadia,” recalls Coleman. “I asked, ‘Nadia, what are those silver, shimmering trees on the hillside?” Coleman stayed with Rossi eight days and flew back to Italy from Marrakesh at the end of his journey so that he could pick up the oil he had processed.
A year later, realizing that online piracy was strangling the music business and without much hope of a career there, he called Rossi and asked if he could return again to help in the groves.
That trip turned into an annual pilgrimage to assist with the olive harvest, learning about every aspect of the oil production, from picking to processing. Rossi would become Coleman’s mentor and the one who encouraged him to pursue it as a career. He began asking questions about the details of olive oil production, drawing on Rossi’s years of experience as a producer. One night after the harvesting, Rossi pointed out that Americans didn’t know anything about olive oil and casually mentioned that if Coleman continued this way he could be the leading expert within five years.
“It was the first time anyone in my life had ever suggested that this was something important enough to devote your life to and turn it into a profession,” remembers Coleman.
In 2009, two years after he first met Nadia, he was hired at O&Co., the oil specialty store in Grand Central Terminal, after he walked in and had the manager taste the olive oil he made with Rossi in Tuscany. No one else in the store had experience producing oil and Coleman’s knowledge of the entire process gave him an edge. He began giving olive oil seminars to chefs at the urging of his friend Daniel Amatuzzi, wine director at Batali’s Otto restaurant at the time. When Coleman heard that Eataly was opening in New York, he went on opening day to check out the selection.
“I walked into the Fifth Avenue entrance and bee-lined back to the oils,” recalls Coleman.” I just stood here for about an hour and I watched. I saw that, sure enough, people weren’t pulling the bottles of olive oil off the shelf. They were intimidated and overwhelmed by the selection.”
When Coleman returned to Eataly the next day, in the place of the gawking tourists he found Batali, clogs on his feet and hands on his hips, staring at the oils. Coleman approached Batali and made his pitch on the importance of educating shoppers about how top olive oils maintained purity from tree to mill, resulting in a product that tasted like nothing on a supermarket shelf. Within weeks he was hired as Eataly’s resident oleologist.
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Twenty years ago, no market existed for an oleologist in New York City. Olive oil shot to the forefront of the American food scene in the 1990s with the newly popular Mediterranean diet, endorsed by the Harvard School of Public Health and the European Office of the World Health Organization. Oldways, a non-profit whose stated mission is guiding people to good health through heritage foods, was instrumental in working with Harvard to assemble the original group of scientists who came up with the Mediterranean diet.
“It was revolutionary at the time because people were really skeptical about olive oil,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways. “We educated chefs about olive oil and they started putting olive oil on tables. It was an unusual thing in the early 1990s to see olive oil on a table.” At the time, fat was the enemy and the concept of “good fats” like olive oil had not yet seeped into the public consciousness. (Oldways received funding from the International Olive Oil Council to publicize the Mediterranean diet, necessitating a healthy dose of skepticism when examining their research. However, in the two decades since the Harvard study came out, hundreds of independent studies conducted by other research teams have found similar links between olive oil and good health.)
By the time Coleman visited his first Italian olive grove in 2007, Americans were habituated to the idea of dipping their bread in olive oil and pouring it on our pasta. But most still hadn’t realized that “extra-virgin” doesn’t necessarily signify high quality.
“All extra-virgin means is that it’s not defective. It turns out it’s not hard to make extra-virgin olive oil as long as you don’t screw up,” explains Ridgely Evers, co-founder of DaVero Farms, an olive oil producer in Sonoma Valley that has won Gold at the International Olive Oil competitions. When Evers began importing the trees for his grove in 1990—three years before the Mediterranean Diet publicity campaign was launched—the U.S. Department of Agriculture informed him that he was the first to import olive trees into the United States in the entire twentieth century. Evers has since witnessed the rise of olive oil’s popularity and the corresponding confusion over labeling.
“The standard for extra-virgin olive oil is that it has less than 0.8% acidity and no sensory defects. So it doesn’t mean that it’s good, just that it’s not bad,” says Evers. A sensory defect is anything that makes an olive oil taste “off”—mustiness, rancidity or a vinegar taste are three common defects that should downgrade an oil to just virgin. But the quality among various extra-virgins still varies widely.
The problem is that American consumers are relatively new to olive oil and many have never tasted a true, top-quality extra-virgin variety. We simply don’t know how a defect-free oil should taste. In fact, a 2010 study conducted by the University of California, Davis found that sixty-nine percent of the imported extra-virgin olive oils that researchers tested did not meet the prevailing international standards.
This is why Coleman can be found wandering Eataly’s olive oil aisles, urging shoppers to sample the different varieties. The day I dropped by there were six oils open as he guided a svelte woman in Lululemon yoga pants, along with her two small children, through each of the bottles.
“Smell it,” Coleman commanded. The kids giggled but everyone did as they were told. As they slurped the oils, Coleman prodded them gently about which notes they could taste in each. By the end of the tasting it was established that the mother liked the spicier oils while the son preferred the more delicate, grassy oils. Now, thanks to Coleman, they each had a favorite oil. Watching the tasting, Batali’s decision to hire Coleman began to make sense.
The olive oils sold at Eataly and many other specialty shops in Manhattan are produced by small, artisan producers. But in the larger market, olive oil fraud has been a major problem in the United States.
“It’s dirty. Just dirty, dirty oil,” said Coleman. “A lot of the big companies will unload their lesser quality oil to the United States because they know consumers here have lower standards.”
In October 2011 the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed more rigorous standards that closely mirror those of other international olive oil regulatory boards. Defective or not, consumption in the U.S. jumped 212.5 percent between 1991 and 2011, according to the International Olive Oil council. Americans are buying olive oil in droves.
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Since I first interviewed Coleman a few months ago, he has found a literary agent, begun work on a web-based olive oil venture, and traveled to Italy to undergo an intensive sensory aptitude course and exam. He was already teaching olive oil tasting classes at Eataly, as well as to food and wine clubs at Columbia and NYU, but he wanted to be eligible to sit on tasting panels internationally. So, just before turning thirty, Coleman became one of the youngest Americans to be certified by Italy’s National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters (ONAOO), the oldest olive oil school in the world. In November he flew to Italy for the thirty-five-hour course and certification, before joining his mentor, Nadia Gasparini Rossi, in Tuscany for the harvest, as he does every year.
To be certified by ONAOO, you must pass a series of taste and smell tests proving you can discern flaws and characteristics in olive oil. In one sample test, a row of ten identical jars was placed in front of Coleman. Each of the jars contained olive oil with the same defect, such as mustiness, in different magnitude. Coleman was allowed to smell the jars and then told to turn his back. When he refaced the row, a single jar had been brought forward from the ten and he had to correctly identify exactly where on the scale of weakest to strongest it belonged.
The exam is comprised of a battery of such tests and students pass if they make fewer than thirty-four errors. Coleman only made four, the fewest of anyone in his class.
“The others were eating cheese and drinking wine,” he says. “I protected my palate.” But didn’t he regret spending a week in Italy without sipping a Barolo? Coleman pauses and looks skeptical. “That didn’t matter, I just couldn’t fail.”
In April, Coleman will be one of only two American judges at the New York International Olive Oil competition. Others listed on the panel include the Official Taster of Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and a representative of the intriguingly titled Carabinieri Anti Sophistication Group—a rather unfortunate English translation of the name of one of Italy’s anti-corruption agencies.
“I think there’s undeniably an interest in olive oil right now,” says Mark Ladner, head chef at Del Posto. Ladner collaborated with Coleman, whom he affectionately calls an “oil geek” and “a piece of work,” to create a special seven-course olive oil tasting menu for customers.”
Del Posto is at the forefront of expanding the diner’s experience with olive oil, along with a wave of new, olive-oil-focused restaurants like Fig & Olive, a New York mini-chain that pairs each of its dishes with a specific extra-virgin oil.
Lately, Ladner has been experimenting with refrigeration techniques and freezing olive oil. A recent menu item involved a loaf of bread baked to order and torn tableside, where frozen olive oil was added. “It would melt instantly and the aromas would rise—it’s a completely olfactory experience,” says Ladner, who had dropped by our table at Del Posto to compare notes on some oils he had recently purchased. The two are also in talks to collaborate with ONAOO on hosting a certification course for the public at Del Posto, the first of its kind on the East Coast.
Coleman thinks the rest of the United States is finally catching up to New York and is eager for information on olive oil. He’s launching his olive-oil-centric website with Dan Amatuzzi, the Wine Director at Eataly, who was recently named to two different “30 under 30” lists released by Zagat and Forbes. The site, called Grove and Vine, will be the first website to focus on simultaneously pairing dishes with both olive oils and wines.
“Olive oil is poised to become the next big thing,” says Coleman. “It’s the way Americans were about wine sixty years ago or cheese twenty years ago. Now, in any nice restaurant you go to there will be a couple of sommeliers to guide you through a flight of wines depending on the different courses you’re going to eat. Imagine how wonderful it’d be if there was the same type of attention paid to oil.”
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Madeline K.B. Ross is a freelance journalist based in New York City who has written about food and culture for Interview, Vs. Magazine and Grist. You can follow her on Twitter (@madelinekbr).