Syslee Schael’s road to making and selling ghee and spice mixes has been a long and winding one that has taken her from her home in rural Oregon to Alaska, Australia, and Portland while including stints working on fishing boasts, going to culinary school and working as a caterer, selling both high-end stereo equipment and linens to becoming an herbalist. The through-lines on her journey have been the acts of searching and foraging, two things that have been central to her life since she was a child growing up in southern Oregon.
When Syslee says she grew up in a “rustic” area, what she means by rustic goes well beyond most people’s definition of the word. Her family lived near Crater Lake in a house without electricity in the woods on Forest Services land. As a child, she and her sisters spent much of their time outdoors collecting things, whether in the forest searching for mushrooms or on the beach, where they would cut willow and collect seaweed for their mother, who crafted handmade furniture from the willow and baskets from the seaweed.
Syslee first discovered she had an interest in food when was working on a small fishing boat after high school. She didn’t feel ready to go to college, so an aunt and uncle bought her a ticket to Alaska to work the salmon runs. Since she was bringing home fresh fish every night, Syslee bought cookbooks so she could learn how to make fish in different ways, bringing some variety to the act of cooking and eating the same thing every night. She took inspiration from a small restaurant, Through the Seasons, in Soldatna, the town she was staying. The restaurant had its own garden and made use of wild herbs and plants from the garden in the food they served.
“I fell in love with cooking and food there. I would make stuff with my dad as a kid—steak, artichokes, mushrooms—but that restaurant really did it for me using wild food,” she said.
After her stint on the fishing boat, she moved to Portland to attend culinary school. While in school she did an internship at Aqua in San Francisco. After returning to Portland, she worked in restaurants and at a catering company, Briggs and Crampton, that also made use of food grown in their own garden. By the time Syslee was 24, she had started her own catering business but had begun to find it difficult to do all the cooking on her own. When her boyfriend at the time asked her to cater an event at the mom-and-pop audio store he worked for, the owners of the store liked her so much they asked her to come work for them, a job which led to 12 years in high-end retail sales positions.
During that time, she kept her love of food and cooking up by starting a supper club called the Table Supper Club with a friend. They would host dinners at her home—seven course meals—and invite farmers to come talk about the food.
“I got into foraging. I’d get mushrooms, etc., and make a meal. After about four courses, everyone would be getting full, so we’d take a walk around the block with a glass of wine. It was a great way to share cooking and food. I enjoyed having people in my house that I didn’t know.”
Then heartache struck. Ready for a change, she and her boyfriend at the time had planned to move to Alaska. To prepare for the move, they took wilderness training courses, learning survival and foraging techniques, how to make fires and trap animals. Syslee sold everything, quit her job and was ready to go when he changed his mind. Devastated and with only a few possessions and no home to hold her back, she booked a trip to Australia to join a friend who was already traveling there. Australia allowed her time to think about what to do next, eat good food and spend a few months as a sailing partner for an older Dutch man who wanted to sail from New Zealand to New Caledonia and back. But after a few frightening episodes at sea, she was ready to come home.
“I got back to Australia and I was ready to go home. My sisters are both teachers and they were getting done with school for the year. I was feeling disconnected from my family and my roots,” she said.
During that summer, Syslee got into wild food again, collecting things like morel mushrooms, cattail pollen or wild grapes on a daily basis and making things such as dolmas with the wild grape leaves. It was then that she began to take an interest in the medicinal quality of food and herbs.
“I was realizing that these things were both edible and medicinal. I started realizing that food is also medicine. I just felt so connected to it,” she said.
She started looking into herbal medicine and found the Ohlone Center of Herbal Studies in Berkeley, which offers a formal training program in Clinical Herbalism. One visit to the school and Syslee was sold. “I wandered in and thought ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,’” she said. She packed a van full of all her stuff and moved.
During her course, Syslee continued to forage, collecting plants in Oakland and the Berkeley Hills, making all sorts of herbal concoctions for school. At the end of the first year, she and her fellow students were required to put on a medicine show at school. While most of her classmates made tinctures or lotions or soaps, Syslee had began to investigate oils for cooking and had discovered ghee, a cooking oil made from butter by caramelizing, then removing the milk solids and used primarily in Indian cooking.
“I found out about ghee and thought ‘This is the most amazing thing ever.’ I started making ghee and thought ‘Why don’t people infuse it and put herbs and spices in it?’”
According to Syslee, ghee has a number of health benefits, including aiding digestion. Adding herbs and spices to it also amplifies the medicinal quality of the herbs, boosting the health effects of all overall product, she says. She decided to make some for the medicine show and ended up selling out of everything she’d made.
“Everybody was like, ‘This stuff is great, you’ve gotta make more, it’s so beautiful.’ At the time I didn’t think it would be a business.”
But fellow students from her school kept asking her to make more. Then she got a call from Nic Weinstein of Homestead Apothecary in Oakland, who wanted to sell it at his shop in Temescal Alley.
“I started thinking maybe this is a business, and I need to keep doing things. He [Nic] really pushed me. He said you have a good product and we want to have you in here, make more, so I kept going and now here we are,” Syslee said.
To help gear up the business, Syslee attended the Women’s Initiative in Oakland and began renting kitchen space at Kitchener Oakland for her production. Spice Child features both ghee and a number of spice blends designed to combine medicinal herbs that can be used not only to flavor food but boost people’s health. Syslee’s ghees can be used in any application where butter or oil would normally be used, whether in baking or in place of oil in cooking or as a finish for grains, rice or vegetables, even for eggs or popcorn. Syslee says that, with so many people suffering from digestive ailments these days, ghee is a pure oil that is really good for you. It’s also for lubricating joints, she says. Because the milk solids are removed from the butter, people with dietary restrictions and most lactose intolerant people don’t have a problem with it.
Syslee currently makes five different flavored ghees and one plain one. Bali Nights, an Indonesian-inspired ghee flavored with ingredients such as turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, thai chiles, thai basil, lime and fresh herbs, is her most popular. Turmeric plays an important role in many of her ghees, she says, because it is combats inflammation.
In addition to the ghee, Syslee makes two different blends of dukkah, a traditional Egyptian spice mixture made with nuts and spices. Syslee currently makes both a sweet and a savory blend of dukkah. Her Sweet Queen Dukkah contains rose petals, lavender, ginger, elderberries, mint, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and pistachios. She also makes gomasio, a Japanese blend of sesame seeds and seaweed often used in place of salt.
“My whole philosophy is to try to make a ghee that took from different countries. I want people to be able to take a little scoop and be transported to another country,” she said.
What drew you to food?
I think it’s really that restaurant in Alaska was what really started drawing me to food. I just fell in love with it there, that was the start of it. And the fact that you can go out to the garden and get fresh herbs and vegetables and you can make something different and take the beauty that they are and change them into something different.
Why spices and ghee?
Because I was in my second year of school, and I realized that people were not eating very well and that people needed to eat well to feel well. And they weren’t eating vegetables or taking herbs and it was really, really good for their health. That’s why I make ghee.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Nature. It’s about the foraging again. I try to go on a hike every day up in the Oakland Hills. As the seasons change you see turkey tails, which is this mushroom that grows up. It’s really good for soups and it fights cancer, so I will get back [from a hike] and make soup stock. It’s really about seeing what’s going on in nature and seeing what’s going on. I wander around the farmer’s market and see what amazing stuff there is and what I want to make. Also travel—I get inspired from that. Like the dukkah—I’d like to go to India and learn more about it. For Christmas I started making my family try to have a different Christmas every year—one year we celebrated Diwali, and another we had a Chinese Christmas. I invited an Indian family I knew. It’s about bringing people together. I think food does that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I think it’s easy to get hung up with all the things there are to do everyday. The thing to do is take it bird by bird. It’s a quote from Anne Lamott’s book [‘Bird by Bird’]. I had a boss at the linen store who used to say ‘Take it bird by bird.’ There was this kid in the book who was working on a project on birds and getting overwhelmed by how many there were and his dad said just take it bird by bird.
With a small business there’s cooking, licenses, etc,. so if I say to myself, ‘bird by bird,’ I slow down and can take it bit by bit.
And then the best advice I have for others is don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’m sometimes afraid to ask people for advice or help, but people really want to help and they want to help small businesses get started and they want to help and give advice. I sometimes think it’s just me but I think they’re really interested and it makes them feel good to help.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think it’s really educating people about ghee and spices because people don’t know what ghee is and they don’t know the benefits of herbs and oils in their diet, how important it really is. I try to get that across really quickly. In a fast-paced world, it’s hard to take the time to do that. And I think just teaching people how easy it is to really use and how good it is for them.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Truly being on my own and getting to call my own shots and build and create this thing on my own. It’s really rewarding to start having success on my own.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
That’s tough—lots of things. I really love the Sprinkle Sesame Gomasio. I’m at home all the time for lunch and breakfast, and I’ll have an egg and put it on that. It has sesame seeds and I’ll sit there and grind the batches with a suribachi. Let me sit and meditate and grind. I really like that part of my day.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Are you familiar with Phoenix Pastaficio? Their place was right next to school in Berkeley. I think they’re amazing. It’s a married couple that owns it. They are really hard workers. I’ve never seen two people work so hard, and they’re super sweet and kind people. They make the best nettle and fromage blanc ravioli and homemade vegan cookies. They make vegan cookies with avocado. I know it sounds strange, but it’s really good.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
I would have fresh, grilled seafood from the Rogue River, with morel mushrooms and I would have old-fashioned, hand-cranked vanilla ice cream with fresh-picked blackberries for dessert. It’s kind of what I grew up with, so that’s what I go back to.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I would say I really like Outerlands. I really like to go there. They have really great brunch on the weekend. They make this German pancake thing that’s really amazing. Hot apple cider whiskey. Just the look of the place–it’s always kind of cold and beachy feeling. They have these pieces of beach wood on the walls. It’s a really quaint, small, cute sort of place. I love the feeling of the place. They make their own bread…
Photos courtesy of Syslee Schael, Spice Child.