Tucked away in the side streets of San Francisco’s SOMA District is a place known as Renaissance Forge. Like any artist’s space, the Forge combines a charming mix of eclecticism reflecting the person who inhabits it. Part blacksmithing studio (thus the name), part office, part garden, part kitchen, the Forge is also home to Omnivore Salt, a small purveyor of cooking salt, and Angelo Garro, its indomitable creator.
On the day that I visited, the Forge is also serving as a makeshift winery. I’m greeted at the door not just by Angelo and one of his assistants, Jeff, but by four of those large grey, plastic garbage pails full of fermenting grapes. That pungent smell of yeasty, wine-y goodness permeates the entire place, which I find out later, also houses a small wine cellar and Angelo’s personal salumeria, with sausages hanging and legs of prosciutto resting in a small walk-in refrigerator. And by the time I leave the Forge after talking to Angelo, Jeff has pressed the grapes, and each barrel has been filled with new wine.
“Is there anything you don’t do?” I jokingly asked Angelo as he tells me about his annual winemaking project, something he started while he was living in Toronto in his younger years.
The short answer to that question is probably not. As Angelo, another of his assistants, Beth Malik, and I sit down in his open air kitchen to talk, he immediately jokes that he is like the guy in the Dos Equis commercial—“The Most Interesting Man in the World,” but without the beer. “I drink wine,” he says, in a thick Italian accent. Unbeknownst to him, I’d already come up with that analogy after reading a little about him online but obviously someone else had beat me to the punch in sharing that comparison with him.
Not that it isn’t an apt comparison. Nor does it seem like an act of hubris for him to bring it up. Rather it’s an honest acknowledgement coming from someone who has indeed had the good fortune to live an interesting—no, fascinating—life and whose friends read like a register of the “Who’s Who” of the San Francisco food community. The Six Degrees of Angelo Garro go deep into Bay Area food—after all, it’s not everyone whose product carries bookjacket-like blurbed endorsements from the likes of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan or film director Werner Herzog (who, by the way, directed the video for the Omnivore Salt Kickstarter campaign).
But fascinating food friends aside, I’m here to talk about salt and the man behind it, to hear the story about how Angelo, who is, indeed, a practicing blacksmith by trade, got from Sicily to San Francisco to salt. Sitting at what looks like a handcrafted wooden kitchen table with blues music flowing from overhead speakers, Angelo tells me his story over cappuccinos.
From Sicily to Switzerland to San Francisco
The son of a citrus broker, Angelo left Sicily at the age of 18 to go to Switzerland where he had asked a distant cousin find him a job and where he hoped to study art. According to Angelo, when he was growing up he “always wanted to be an artist.” Angelo’s creative inspiration came from watching an artist in Siracusa who made marble angels and statues for the local cemetery. Even at age eight or nine, Angelo said, he was so captivated by this artist’s work that he would go to the cemetery, slingshot in hand, and ask whether he could help.
“He wouldn’t allow anybody except me to be close to him,” Angelo said. “All the other kids, he would chase them away.” The artist took a liking to Angelo, giving him a hammer and chisel to play with, letting him work with the fragile marble, learning how to chisel and craft sheep in stone.
“We all have someone—a tutor—that when we grow up influence us the most and that was this guy. And basically he was kind of mentor,” Angelo said.
It was after Angelo’s father’s business went under due to a lost citrus crop, that Angelo left Sicily.
“I think I had pretty good childhood, but I guess Sicily was too small for me,” he said. “When I was little kid, I used to go plow on my grandmother’s farm, and I would look at the clouds and say ‘I wonder where those clouds are going—maybe America!’ It’s daydream. I was curious about the world. Some of us are like that.”
Despite his desire to attend art school at the Istituto Statale D’Arte in Siracusa, Angelo’s father wanted him to be an accountant because he thought Angelo had a good head for numbers. So instead, he went to Switzerland.
“I promised my father I would stay for a year, and I stayed 10 years. Especially when I discovered you could actually dance with girl and didn’t have to marry,” he said. “In Sicily, if you dance with someone, you have to marry.”
After arriving in Switzerland, Angelo decided to take some art classes, including sculpting. But he needed to support himself and wanted to find a way to combine something practical with his desire to make art. He then met a female artist in her 60s that took him under her wing. He would help her in her studio, making plaster cast moldings of clay for her pieces. Although she encouraged him to go to art school and even offered to let him stay with her if he went, he says he was too proud at the time to accept her offer.
So instead, she introduced him to a master blacksmith who could provide him training in a craft where he could make a living and create practical art at the same time. At the time, the blacksmith was living in the Alps and was in the midst of restoration project to rebuild the metalwork in a mountain cathedral. He took Angelo on as an apprentice, and he moved to the mountains to learn blacksmithing and welding over the course of three years for minimum wage.
After finishing his apprenticeship, Angelo moved back to Zurich, where he met a Swiss woman. When she decided to move to Canada, he followed her and found himself in Toronto. Finding work in Canada was tough at first, Angelo said, even as a welder. Everyone wanted to see that he had experience working in Canada, he said. “I said ‘I’m landed immigrant—what do you mean experience? Experience come when you try me a month then you know if I’m good or not.”
Not to be discouraged, Angelo decided that if he couldn’t get hired, he’d start something on his own.
“I said screw them. I had a couple thousand dollars, I went to auction, I bought a settling, bought a welder, I bought a bed—a frame from a bed, I make a forge with coal. I bought the coal from the Mennonites, very nice people. I buy the coal, and they always send me with eggs and stuff that they grew, ‘This is for you.’ Very nice people. So it was a good Canadian experience. I was there seven years, then I met my ex-wife and she moved here.”
While in Canada, Angelo not only worked as a welder, but also became known for sculpture and public art. Two of his works are featured in the Toronto Public Sculpture Garden and a bronze bower, or arbor, he created has become a signature piece in the city’s St. James Park.
“Nobody ever gave me anything, I just had to work hard for it,” he said.
In the mid-80s Angelo moved to San Francisco with his now ex-wife, whose brother was the drummer for band The Tubes, because her family was here. He bought the Forge in 1986 and has been creating metalworks for homes and public buildings throughout the Bay Area ever since, in addition to raising two grown daughters, one a doctor, the other an English teacher both of whom still live in the area.
As Angelo was developing as an artist and metalworker, he was also developing his artistry as a cook in parallel. Food has always been central part of his life, since he was a child, he said. Not only was his father in the citrus business, but his mother owned and operated a small trattoria in their town when he was growing up.
“She was a great chef. Learned not from a training school but from her mother. And she was a master of cooking fish. And I am a master of cooking fish, too, because she was,” he said.
Angelo’s paternal grandmother was also an influence when it came to food. Angelo says his grandmother grew most of the food they ate and also insisted that they help can tomatoes and make sauce for three families every year. His grandmother was also an avid pickler of things like romano beans ,and she had an olive grove. The family would also pick olives and press them to make oil to last an entire year for four families. Then she would sell whatever was leftover or make olive oil soap for the family to use for bathing. Although getting roped into the canning process was not necessarily the kind of fun that an active boy was looking for as a child, Angelo grew to appreciate his grandmother’s traditions as he grew older.
It wasn’t until he was living in Switzerland, though, that Angelo really began to cook. He found himself missing Sicilian food, so his mother would recite recipes to him over the phone. With her restaurant quality recipes in hand, he began to develop a love of cooking and quickly became popular among his friends because he would throw elaborate dinner parties and cook for them on the weekends.
Angelo says that since coming to San Francisco, he’s always been part of the food culture here. It wasn’t something he purposely sought out, he just happened to become surrounded by people in the food scene over the years. This, I suspect, is due to a combination of his charm, warmth and generous spirit, love of good food and cooking skills. Along the way, he’s had the opportunity to meet friends such as restaurateur and slow food doyenne Alice Waters and author Michael Pollan, whom Angelo met through Waters when Pollan was writing The Botany of Desire. Angelo was later featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when he took Pollan hunting for wild boar and Angelo taught Pollan how to process and cure the meat.
“I love him, we get together once in a while when – he travels a lot now because that’s what happens when you’re famous – he travels a lot, but we see each other every other month and make a little dinner, lunch, whatever.”
Salt of the earth
Angelo first came up with the spice mixture that would become Omnivore Salt about 25 years ago, he said. The idea for the recipe came from his grandmother.
“I used to ask my grandmother ‘What are we going to do without Sicilian cooking?’ and she said, ‘Oh, if you have wild fennel, you have red pepper, black pepper and salt and you can cook anything that tastes very good.’ And that stuck in my mind, so I worked out the formula myself, but my grandmother [was] the inspiration really.”
Soon Angelo became as famous, among his friends at least, for the salt as for his metalworking and cooking. And his friends starting asking for the salt, including Waters, who Angelo says uses the salt at home in her cooking all the time. “Alice takes it everywhere she goes,” he said. “It’s not an accident that they endorsed me.”
With such stellar support, it made sense to try do something with the salt, but the difficulties of starting a business seemed too daunting.
“I didn’t plan to go to the market with the salt,” Angelo said. But then he heard about Kickstarter and the success others were having with it and thought, “maybe that’s a chance to launch the salt.”
Angelo says the good thing about Kickstarter is that it provides a chance for small producers to go into the market that’s more humane than dealing with banks or venture capitalists. “If you fail, it’s because you fail for your own mishap, not because you owe money to the bank and you can’t pay or other things.”
Omnivore’s Kickstarter campaign raised $140,000 in funds, all of which was spent to start the company in 2013. Angelo says he didn’t realize at first just how much capital it would take to start a company. “I was naïve to think that $30,000 would open it,” he said.
“We’d kind of been thinking we wanted to do something with it, with the salt, for a while,” Beth added, “but we didn’t really know how to get something like that off the ground because it’s a big endeavor to get something like that off the ground, to start a business. Especially a food business. It’s so hard.”
Angelo’s salt recipe consists of sea salt, black pepper, red pepper and wild fennel, nothing else. They source the salt from a local California harvester and the spices from an organic spice company called Spicely Organics. Angelo said finding the right packaging was a challenge because they were looking for something that would have a low environmental impact and that wasn’t unattractive. They currently use a co-packer in Colorado to mix and package the product.
“We are small but determined. We try to be green as much as we can and hopefully we can make happy our customers.”
According to Angelo and Beth, the salt is versatile enough to be used on just about anything—from meats to salads. It’s especially good for roasting and curing—used with olive oil, it makes a good rub for everything from pork to duck to rabbit, he said. Angelo loves to have it on poached eggs with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And the reception for the salt has been very positive, Angelo said. They even get handwritten cards from people who like that salt.
“They say, ‘Oh my god, your salt is so good.’… In this fast way of living, our salt is perfect because you can take a chicken, rub it in, put it in the oven. There’s nothing you can’t do with the salt…Steak, chicken, fish—done!”
Omnivore Salt is currently in more than 150 retail outlets throughout the country. Although they sell mostly to small gourmet stores and through the website, it can also be found in NorCal Whole Foods stores and in local Bay Area stores such as Draeger’s and Andronico’s.
“You have to be friends with the small guys, stick together, otherwise you die before you start. It’s too overwhelming,” Angelo said.
Angelo says the going from welding to a food business has been organic for him, because he’s moving to something that he knows how to do. “It’s leaving something that I know very, very well and moving something I feel comfortable even though I don’t know everything very, very well. At the least, it’s a transition that is kind of organic.”
Nevertheless, he has no intention of giving up his metalwork. “As long as I can walk and I’m still strong, I think I’ll still do metal. Until I drop dead. It’s not going to be retirement for me. Probably my friends will find me dead by the anvil someday and be ‘oh, what happened?’ I love metalwork, it’s very creative work.”
In the meantime, he’s anxious to see Omnivore succeed and take off. He is also concentrating on developing some hush-hush new products so they can eventually expand the Omnivore product line.
“We just have to be patient a little bit longer. Most of the businesses take three years to take off. Although it’s hard not to be impatient, but we have to endure it,” he said.
“I think that’s kind of the problem, is that with a small company, you have to sprint, and get past a certain point just to stay alive,” Beth added. “And that’s what we’re doing – we’re sprinting just so that we can keep in business and if we can keep it going for a few years, we’re going to add more products to the brand. So we’re going to grow the brand so that basically Omnivore is going to be a brand that you can trust and you know whatever we make, it’s versatile, it can go on everything, it’s easy to cook with, it tastes wonderful.”
Before I leave Angelo gives me a quick tour of the Forge, pointing out his anvil and metalworking equipment along the way, as well as showing me the prosciutto he cured the previous weekend. It’s about lunchtime, the wine has been pressed and a friend from the neighborhood has stopped by. Angelo gives me a bag of salt and a bottle of homemade wine on the way out.
“Life is good, you know,” he says.
Yes. Yes, it is.
What drew you to food?
My mother and my grandmother.
Salt because salt is the central ingredient in people’s lives. Without salt, you cannot survive really. I mean, it’s ancient, you can cure, cook. Salt, it’s life.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building the business?
The advice is that they must believe in their product first of all. If you don’t believe in your product, you might as well don’t do it. It’s a lot of difficulties ahead of you, but if you don’t believe—we believe in my product.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
The challenge is, you know, always to find the right packaging, the right ingredients—organic. That’s always a challenge because organic stuff, it’s like the gold—one day it’s up, one day it’s down, so this is a challenge to find supplies. Sometimes they are short of red pepper, so you have to make sure that you order ahead a little bit more so you can be well-stocked and do the process.
Beth: And also what do you think some of your other main challenges are? I think just getting it out into the market and getting people to know about it. That’s the biggest challenge…
AG: Yeah, of course…
Beth: …It’s just to get people to use it and try it ad get hooked on it.
AG: Yeah, you have to be constantly doing what you’re doing.
AG: Yeah, perseverance.
What’s the best thing about doing this as part of your way to make a living?
The best thing about it is this activities, the salt has brought us a larger community that all work with the common goal to live decent and well. Things that we love, the value—the value structure of all these people. And they all aim at the same goal, which is living well and honestly, really.
What’s your favorite way to use the salt?
Oh my gosh—there’s nothing I don’t do without my salt! I use it just like water. I use it like I drink water everyday. Everything I do, I use my salt. Everything. So I say, use it with everything including salad. You can even sprinkle it on dark chocolate and it tastes good—that’s how good it is.
Beth: It’s true!
As far as butcher shop, I love 4505, I love Avedano, Marina Meats. I like Sue Fisher King – it’s a store in the Sacramento [Street] area, it’s a store but they make things with their hands. Of course I admire Paul Bertolli, who used to work at Chez Panisse and then Oliveto and now he has a salami company, Fra’Mani. He used to always invite me to his garage to make salami. Of course Paul is a master of flavor and a chef, and he understands the alchemy of food. I just went to pick up the [wine] press with him over the weekend and it was so nice—we used to see each other once a week in the old days but now he’s so busy, traveling all the time. And it was the best day of my life again—oh my gosh, it’s like the old days! We think up recipes, he tells me the recipes he’s thinking up for Fra’Mani. It’s so exciting to be around creativity. I think the bottom line is that for people that like creativity—and I’m sure you do too—it’s just a pleasure to meet all those people that do some worthwhile within the community and not like Heinz product or a big conglomerate of people that you don’t know where the food comes from.
Beth: We also use a lot of Llano Seco pork in our sausages and in curing. They’re wonderful, and we use a lot of their sausage and their pork, like when we’re doing a prosciutto, they’ll send a leg over or a shoulder when Angelo does the salumi.
AG: There’s a lot of young people that want to do something that is earthy, something that is not contaminated, something that is organic, something that is sustainable. Something that makes our life better, really. And my salt really makes people’s life better because it brings the flavor of foods out, and it’s organic and it’s a good product.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
If I had to choose the last meal, I would like meatball with pasta that my grandmother made. I was always crazy about meatball, I don’t know what it is. It was always so juicy, and she made so juicy and flavorful, and I could taste the wild fennel in it. This [the salt] is very good for meatball, by the way.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Mine [laughs]. Actually I love very much Town Hall the restaurant and Zuni and Delfina and also Locanda. And it’s the same owner as Locanda, it’s a Hungarian restaurant next to Locanda—I went there a couple times and loved it. They have homemade sausage, vegetables—it was very good. Next door to Tartine –
Another one, of course, that I go to once a month is Alice’s restaurant [Chez Panisse]… Over there [East Bay] I like Camino, I like Pizzaiolo. And it’s all people that have the same philosophy that we all have. Over the centuries, it’s always like that. There’s always a group of people that have the same value system and they want to change somewhat the way it was farmed, go back to the way it was farmed, rotating fields, not too much chemicals and all that.
For more on Angelo’s metalwork and Renaissance Forge: