Local Family-Owned Company Hosts Lexington Students For An Insider’s View Of Entrepreneurship And High-End Food Products
Beth Nielsen of Nielsen-Massey, a Waukegan based company famous for their high quality vanilla extract, welcomed Lexington students to her demo kitchen and factory on Friday, October 25th. Nielsen and her two brothers are third generation owners of the hundred and six year old company.
Pastry Chef-Instructor Cheryl Brookhouzen organized the outing. The students had the chance to taste Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, Indonesian vanilla and Mexican vanilla. “I was surprised how different each one looked, smelled and tasted,” reported Maria Miranda (Class of 2015, from Michigan), “ and I never knew that vanilla is indigenous to Mexico.”
Nielsen is a super-taster, which helps her identify the various flavor components of different vanillas. She works with chefs to identify which vanilla, or other pure natural flavors her company produces, such as pure orange extract or rose water, will best complement the flavors of the chefs’ recipe. She particularly likes to work with vanilla in savory dishes. She uses it in red sauces to tone down the acidity while elevating the natural tomato and garlic flavors. “What many people don’t know,” says Nielsen, “is that vanilla, like salt, is not only a flavor on its own, but it also enhances other flavors.” Next week, she is off to the James Beard House in New York City where she will educate chefs on how high quality vanilla can enhance their dishes.
After experimenting with flavors and aromas in the demo kitchen, Brookhouzen and the students donned lab coats and hair nets and entered the highly sanitary factory and laboratory area. Nielsen explained that, like extra-virgin olive oil, high quality vanilla extract is produced by a cold process. Of the over 250 flavor components in vanilla, only one, called vanillin, has been chemically isolated. Since heat breaks down the flavor components, Nielsen-Massey uses a cold process, which is time consuming--taking from three to five weeks. The result is a more complex and flavorful product. Of course, this means Nielsen-Massey vanilla will have a higher price point and will have to compete with imitation vanilla extracts as well as extracts labeled “pure,” but produced with heat processes.
Even so, quality seems to win out in the end. Nielsen was happy to show the students the ten course menu produced by Graham Elliott on the occasion of the company’s 100th anniversary. She was also proud to tour them through the newly expanded factory and the laboratory. In the lab, samples of each batch of vanilla extract are stored and analyzed to be sure they contain the full range of flavors from the Grade A vanilla beans from which they are made. And, if Nielsen picks up a product, like a lip balm for example, that claims to have vanilla as an ingredient, she gives it to her on-staff scientist for analysis. “Oh, if I had your job, I would be bringing all kinds of stuff to be analyzed in this lab,” Brookhouzen told Nielsen.
On their way out, Nielsen gave everyone “presents” from the company: a copy of The Story of Vanilla, written by her father, Chat Nielsen, Jr. and a bottle of pure vanilla paste. Meg Aldrich (Class of 2014, from Springfield, IL), who works as a baker at the Art Institute, commented as they left, “Even the air around the building is full of the aroma of vanilla.”