Austin Food Crafters Earn National Accolades From Good Food Foundation
Great news for good food
By Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Feb. 11, 2022
Question: What do unusually spiced chocolate bars, small-batch chicken liver pâtés, and possibly the best trail mix you've ever munched have in common?
Answer: They're made by your fellow Austinites and they all received Good Food Awards this year.
The annual Good Food competition's been going on since 2011; of this year's 2,000-plus entries nationwide, 244 took top honors, including a trio of hometown heroes: Madhu, artisans of spiced chocolate; Casero, purveyors of custom charcuterie and the condiments that enhance it; and Shār, producers of snack mixes from just nine ingredients.
The Good Food Foundation, based in San Francisco but with a national purview, "exists to celebrate, connect, empower, and leverage the passionate and engaged, yet often overlooked, players in the food system who are driving towards tasty, authentic, and responsible food in order to humanize and reform our American food culture."
More often than not, at least in the greater Austin area, the tasty, authentic, and responsible food honored by the Good Food Foundation over the years has been in the category of alcoholic beverages. Considering the amount of breweries and distilleries in Central Texas – the scene's undergone a veritable renaissance since Tito Beveridge proved, in 2001, that Texas vodka could kick global ass – it kind of makes sense. Adding what we personally know about past winners like the Hill Country's Treaty Oak Distillery and Jester King Brewery (and this year's Driftwood-based champ, Vista Brewing), as well as Austin-centered Hops & Grain, Strange Land, and Still Austin, it makes perfect sense that adult beverages have scored so well. That fewer nonliquid products have ever made the grade – noms from Lox, Box & Barrel; Epic; and Pogue Mahone Pickles among them – also suggests a relative rarity that indicates braggably high standards. In that light, let's take a look at this year's winners.
Harshit Gupta and Elliott Curelop, happily transplanted from not-quite-so-sunbaked Seattle, started their Austin chocolate company in 2018. We profiled them in these pages right before COVID shut everything down. And we pretty much raved about their products, due to the spices supercharging each bar with uncommon flavor: rose and pistachio, saffron, dark masala chai, coconut milk and cashew, and lemon with coriander. But none of those bars, according to the Good Food experts, were precisely award-winning.
"We applied to the Good Food Foundation two years back," says Gupta, "and we got a lot of feedback around that time, but we didn't win. So we refined the chocolate, and our process has changed a lot."
"Our chocolates used to be a little on the grainier side," admits Curelop. "So we changed the way we make them. We used to just throw the nibs in for grinding, but now we make cocoa liquor first – and then we grind that along with the sugar, so it starts smooth and then we refine it from there."
Another likely reason for this year's win: Idukki Black Pepper. It's subtle, it's unexpected, and it works remarkably well in a bar of 68% cacao. "This was our ode to India – using Indian cacao, Indian spice, everything Indian," says Gupta. "All of our other beans come from Colombia, but the beans for the Black Pepper come from the Idukki Hills in Kerala. And the pepper itself comes from the same region, so there's a lot of terroir happening. Everything is single origin, too, coming from very small farms."
Why is getting one of these awards such a big deal?
"It adds much more credibility," Gupta says. "Like, when you're giving a pitch, being able to call your product a Good Food Award winner, that gets the other person's attention very quickly."
Once upon a time, Jackie Letelier sold pâtés at local farmers' markets under the Pâté Letelier banner and earned a 2012 Good Food Award finalist accolade. (She closed that business not long after.) Upon founding Casero, an artisanal cheese-and-charcuterie board company, with business partner Emily Stengel, she started making pâtés again and was once again a Good Food Award finalist in 2021. "It's been my dream to win one of these awards – and this was the third year entering as Casero," says Letelier. "Both of the pâtés we submitted won – it's so exciting!"
"Her pâté is why I became Jackie's partner in Casero," says Stengel. "It's just the best that I've ever had. And we're excited to expand the product line."
Those award-winning delicacies: Pâté Elsie, chicken liver pâté with Texas lavender; and Pâté Marta, chicken liver pâté with whiskey and herbs. Both of them are available online, of course, or by visiting Casero's new storefront in the Mueller development. Although the pâtés aren't a regular feature of Casero's charcuterie boards and cheese plates, they can be added or purchased separately. And the duo's boards themselves are such works of art – the sort of nomworthy tableaux of feasting that old Dutch royals might've hired Floris van Dijck to paint – that the business is a standout even in a destination neighborhood that includes the likes of Rebel Cheese Co., Lick Honest Ice Creams, L'Oca d'Oro, and more.
"That's where our commercial kitchen is, so it made sense to turn it into a retail space," says Stengel. "We were already open for pickup for our charcuterie boards, Wednesday through Saturday, anyway. So we were able to get our beer and wine license to expand our offerings, and just felt, with the foot traffic and the nature of that location in a series of shops on Robert Browning, that we were missing an opportunity if we didn't open a retail shop."
Competitive runner Peter Rushford launched his elevated trail mix company-with-a-mission in 2018 and, no, he hasn't slowed down since.
Shār Snacks offers organic mixes made with just nine ingredients: pecans, almonds, pistachios, cashews, wild blueberries, Montmorency cherries, cranberries, dark chocolate chips, and coconut flakes. It's tasty all-natural nutrition in a tube, is what it is, and the tube itself – the "sharing tube," the company calls it – is made of paper and perfectly compostable. These are the sort of energy-boosting noms you'd expect to find at, say, the Austin Bouldering Project – and you would. Also in Austin's Royal Blue Grocery stores and – well, you can find more locations online.
Company-with-a-mission, though? Yes: Shār is a passionate supporter of the Conservation Alliance, donating 20% of their net profits to that pro-environment cause. Rushford has said that he wants to one day be able to attend the Alliance's annual gathering and present them with one of those hokey giant paper checks for a million dollars.
For now, though, he'll just have to make do with this year's big win from the Good Food Awards. We reckon that he – and those hard-working folks behind Madhu and Casero – will cope.