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Chef Becomes Entrepreneur to Bring Compound Butters into the Mainstream
— An Interview with the David Stemmle, CEO of Headstart Gourmet —
When we think of food and wine together, it often involves pairing the two. We might have an aromatic white to go with our papaya salad, a hearty red to drink with that filet mignon, or a dry rosé to enjoy with an antipasto plate. But what about integrating wine into food? That's a bit of a different story and one that far fewer people think about, much less actually practice. That is, of course, unless they happen to have a good amount of comfort with the culinary arts — much like Chef David Stemmle. At the heart of his company, Headstart Gourmet, is a line of quality, handcrafted compound butters that contain a substantial amount of reduced wine. The effect of using wine as an ingredient in this way is to give the foods to which it's added an intensity and concentration of flavor. Coupled with the richness inherent of the butter itself, his product is nothing shy of sensational. Not long after I first met Chef Stemmle at the Annual Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, he spoke to me from his home in North Carolina, sharing not only the story of how he came to create his compound butters but also his culinary perspective on the wine's versatility in the preparation of fine food.
NM: I initially became intrigued with your product because one its key ingredients is wine — and a lot of it! As a chef, can you say a bit about your experience with wine and how it plays into your relationship with food?
DS: I believe that food and wine are intrinsically tied. Food is simply better with wine, and vice versa. I'll tell you brief story to illustrate my point. Awhile back, I went to a wine dinner at a little French bistro where I used to work. I'd requested the night off because I wanted to be there as a customer and enjoy the dinner. I'd convinced ten of my friends to come along with me, and we were all sitting around this big table. They brought around an Alsatian Gewurtztraminer and poured us all glasses — but none of us really thought the wine was that great, and I was starting to get worried. Then they served a salad with it, a relatively plain salad with some spicy greens like arugula and watercress with a tangy citrus vinaigrette dressing. Everybody ate the salad and when they tasted the wine again, every single person around that table said "Wow! That totally changed it!" Everything about the wine was better; everything about the food was better. And that entire experience burned an indelible impression in my head about how food and wine can really work together to become something greater than the sum of their parts.
NM: Yes, there's often a synergy between the two. And I'm always curious to get a culinary viewpoint on that, since it's coming from a very different side of the equation than that to which I'm accustomed as a wine professional. Tell me a little more about your perspective. For starters, what prompted you to create your compound butters and start your venture with Headstart Gourmet?
"Food and wine can really work together to become something greater than the sum of their parts."
DS: I started working in restaurants when I was seventeen years old — at a Denny's. I learned how to make a mean Grand Slam working at that Denny's! After working there for a while, I moved on to another big box chain restaurant, and then eventually moved to North Carolina. It was only after leaving the food industry for a short while and coming back that my real passion began. I started working at a little Italian place, and I learned how to make every dish that they served. I also began to learn about wine there; there was a weekly class that the manager there taught us. And that was my first real introduction to food from a serious, culinary standpoint. [This was a restaurant that was] owned and operated by chefs, and these guys wanted to teach us as much as they could about their product; they also wanted to teach us about the wines they were serving so we could communicate with customers about the quality of their product, and the time, effort, and love that went into that product. So that really got me started on this path.