The following is the first in my new series on this blog featuring local food artisans, their businesses and the exciting foods they are creating.
If you met Paige Icardi, it would come as no surprise to you that one of her specialties is making kombucha because she has an effervescent soul and her enthusiasm for food and making—no surprise here—fermented foods bubbles over both in person and even over email.
Paige’s first memory of working with food was as a child picking basil with her mother in the family garden and making homemade pesto. Born on the Peninsula and raised in an Italian-Armenian family (“that means they eat good food and a lot of it,” she pointed out), food was always a central part of her life, from cooking with her mom to working at an organic food store in Burlingame called Earth Beam Foods while in high school.
Ferments + Flour was born, in part, out of Paige’s desire to be able to make sure she could use the vegetables and herbs she was growing in her garden or buying at the store without wasting them. “I believe in no waste,” she said. A self-described “forager,” Paige started pickling vegetables out of this sense of (literal) preservation, so she could avoid waste and make great food, taking inspiration from Sandor Katz’s fermented foods bible, Wild Fermentation. Pickled vegetables, as well as kombucha, make up the “Ferments” portion of her businesss. The “Flour” side—savory, barely sweet shortbreads made with seasonal herb combinations—came “from the same beliefs—tending my garden, not wanting to waste the thyme, lavender, rosemary, basil” she grew. She had been experimenting with baking shortbread for a while but decided they would also make a great vehicle for herbs so she started adding different herb combinations to her cookie recipe depending on what was available each season.
Paige says she always knew she wanted to sell the foods she was making but the prospect of starting a business came when a friend introduced her to Good Eggs, a local distribution site that serves as an intermediary for sourcing and delivering foods from farmers and artisans direct to consumers. The folks at Good Eggs helped walk her through the process of what she’d need to do to sell her pickles, kombuchas and shortbreads—from getting a business license to business cards. “They made everything legit,” she said.
Ferments + Flours currently sells through both Good Eggs and her company website.
What drew you to food?
Probably just being in my family and cooking with my mom and spending every day watching the Food Network with her. I honestly don’t watch anything but the Food Network! Sometimes HBO with my boyfriend, but that’s where I learned to cook other than from my mom. Also just having a great household and being around good food. My parents became foodies in the past 10 years, as well, and it helped develop my relationship with food. I just always loved to eat with them, and I knew that they made better food than most people. And tradition—we make a lot of traditional Middle Eastern and Italian foods and that brought us together as well.
Why fermenting and baking and why together?
Just to represent seasonality, locality and doing justice to the produce I had available to me. Both fermenting and baking are ways to preserve product and putting them together made sense because they were both delicious and share a way for me to be conscious and preserve the seasons.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I’d say it comes from just living in the Bay Area and living in my multicultural household. I was really blessed to be able to be raised in such a dynamic food area where food is always the focus and is always changing.
You can’t get all of the produce here anywhere else. Even though part of what I do is I bake cookies, the produce is also great. Also working at Bi-Rite, that’s really inspiring. And the places like [Craftsman and Wolves]—I can just come up with ideas that inspire me. I also just love San Francisco, it’s really hard not to be inspired by everything here, food and everything else, even though it’s mostly food!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
My old boss from the natural food store, David Hinkle at Earth Beam—it’s such a hippy, down-to-earth institution and it’s been around since 1971. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He’s a savvy businessman combined with the love for all things natural and organic. I called him up when I was thinking about my own business, and I asked him about pricing and technical things about bringing product into the store, etc. He told me, ‘don’t forget that your time is the most valuable thing that you’re charging for. The labor is the most expensive thing.’ I’m realizing as I go that my time is not always available—it’s so valuable and that takes the most time.
Get ready to do stuff that doesn’t involve cooking and that’s not in the job description. Be prepared to do everything. I package, I squeeze every pickle into the container, I do every single thing cooking and not cooking related in order to get them into the hands of the customer. I do get help from my mom, but right now I do everything by myself. Get ready for a lot of paperwork, too!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Probably just being able to meet demands myself. A couple months ago, I would have said getting all the paper work in order. Now it’s just meeting demands and making sure every batch has consistent quality. At the end of the day, I have to remember that I’m making things for the customer, and I have to meet their demands.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Basically just doing whatever I want. I can work on my own time, even though I don’t have that much time. I’m not working to someone else’s rules. I’m not doing anything wrong because I made everything up. I have my own creative license, and I get to do things the way I want to. And I just love to cook—I get to do what I want everyday all day.
I also just really enjoy people’s reactions to what I’ve made. I have a customer who I used to work with who just buys my stuff up, and I asked him ‘Are you doing this because you’re my friend?’ and he was like, “No, I love this stuff!’ It’s very flattering.
What’s your favorite item that you offer?
By nature it has to be my kombucha, but I am a huge fan of the thyme lemon chili shortbread. I like to eat them with some of Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam Triple Cream—that’s pretty good! Or the Vietnamese pickles—they’re great with veggies and rice.
What other local food artisans to you admire? Why?
Inna Jam. She’s doing everything right. She has nice people working for her, really humble people who just love what they’re doing and are really inspiring. I just also love their chili jam.
Vital Vittles in Berkeley, a local mill. They mill their own flours—all organic, all vegan. Just completely done with love. Doing it all by hand, on a large scale but small batch. Sliced bread—it’s just amazing. I could eat their bread all the time.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
That’s so hard. I would go all out with decadence. I’m a huge fan of fish. I love fish roe and caviar, so that. I’d throw foie gras into the mix just because it’s banned in California. Fish, pasta—I could eat pasta all day. I’d skip dessert—there’s no need. Probably one of the Rebels [from Craftsman and Wolves]. Foie gras, chicken liver, I’m a big fan of Jewish food. I’m convinced I was Jewish in another life. Duck for sure. And a ton of roasted vegetables. That would probably be for me and a couple other people! I have a very big appetite—I can eat a lot in one sitting!
Favorite Bay Area foods or restaurants?
Right now I’m obsessed with Kronner Burger on 20th and Mission—they hand grind their own meat from Niman Ranch. Best burger I’ve had in my life—it comes with bone marrow, so what more could you want? Coqueta, Michael Chiarello’s tapas place on the Embarcadero—everything there is great. Craftsman and Wolves is my favorite place to go. Bi-Rite—the people who work there are full of knowledge and they’re kind and share so much information you can’t help but learn something new every day. It’s such an amazing atmosphere to be a part of and Sam [Mogannam] is one of the most admirable people I’ve met in my life—if only more people were sharing at the same level he is.
For customer service—I’m a big believer in customer service—Inna Jam, Bi-Rite and Earth Beam.
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.