Two years ago Nicholas Coleman stopped by New York’s newly opened Italian food market Eataly to check out its olive oil section. But he found more than olive oil. Standing by himself staring at the bottles was Mario Batali, the famous Italian chef and restaurateur, who helped open the wildly successful gourmet emporium just off Madison Square.
Coleman, who had given an olive oil seminar to the staff of Batali’s Otto restaurant, introduced himself and told the chef that Eataly had a great olive oil selection, but the average American would have a tough time navigating it. Batali cut him off and offered Coleman the job of Eataly’s chief olive oil specialist.
Coleman’s introduction to olive oil was just as serendipitous. He intended on spending his career working in the music industry, but a trip after he graduated from music school changed his path.
In 2007, on his way from the Arctic Circle in Finland to the Sahara Desert, Coleman stopped in Tuscany during the olive oil harvest. A friend suggested he stay at Nadia Gasperini Rossi’s villa so she could show him what happened during the harvest. “At the time, I had never seen an olive tree, and I had never thought about olive oil,” said Coleman.
His time with Rossi was the most memorable part of his trip. She took him under his wing, and showed him how she hand-harvests, cleans and coddles her olives, as Coleman put it, turning them into extra virgin olive oil. Rossi became his mentor, and since that time Coleman has visited her every year during the harvest (except in 2010, the first year he worked at Eataly).
But it took a couple of years after he met Rossi for Coleman to turn olive oil into his career. He owned his own record label and recording studio, and produced music, but with the increase in music piracy, it became difficult for him to make a living. So he turned to his other passion, olive oil.
A few years ago he started working as an olive oil specialist at the Grand Central Station olive oil store O&CO. During that time, he also started giving olive oil seminars, including one at Otto which led to his current position at Eataly.
“For me it’s the holy grail of single estate Italian olive oils in America,” Coleman said about the market’s slection. “It might be the finest selection of really high-end Italian oils in America,” he continued.
Coleman has about seven of Eataly’s nearly 100 olive oils opened at a time for customers to try, each from a different region. “The true beauty of olive oil is in its regional diversity,” he said. With many different microclimates and varietals, Italy has an unrivaled range of olive oils.
Eataly has olive oils from 12 different Italian regions, with the most from Liguria in the north, Tuscany in central Italy and Sicily in the south. Two of the most popular olive oils are Roi, a Ligurian oil and La Mozza, Eataly’s house oil from Tuscany that is also used in all of Batali’s restaurants. Often people try La Mozza at one of the market’s eateries, like it and want to buy it, said Coleman. Eataly’s olive oils range from about $20 for to up to $50 for half-liter.
Coleman doesn’t select the olive oils that Eataly carries, but does help the market’s Italian food buyers with tasting the oils and he makes suggestions.
In addition to advising customers, Coleman teaches a two-and-a-half hour olive oil class at Eataly’s La Scuola Grande. More than just a tasting, it educates attendees on the world of Italian olive oils — how they’re made, stored, cooked with and paired with food. The class is for anyone who is curious about good food, said Coleman.
Though Coleman’s career is now all about olive oil, he hasn’t forgotten about his other passion — music, and has found ways to combine the two.
He is in a band with Eataly’s wine director and Joe Bastianich, son of Italian chef Lidia Bastianich, who partnered with her son and Batali to open the Italian marketplace. The trio have played on the roof of Eataly’s beer garden, Birreria, and in May performed at the Las Vegas Food and Wine Festival. Coleman even hired someone to make a guitar for him out of olive wood.