A group of olive oil professionals and enthusiasts gathered in Campbell, California last week to attend the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program at the International Culinary Center.
The six-day course produced by the Olive Oil Times Education Lab provided in-depth instruction in olive oil production, quality management, advanced sensory assessment and culinary applications.
Education is the biggest tool in getting the American consumer to know what good oil is. Now I can bring a greater depth of knowledge to help them do that.
It was widely hailed as a success by its participants, many of whom came from different parts of the industry and plan to apply their newly acquired knowledge in different ways when they return to work. However, one thing the participants who spoke with Olive Oil Times all had in common was how impressed they were with the scope of the course and the knowledge of the panel.
“I loved it,” Patti Gilbride, a member of the sales department at California Olive Ranch, said. “I feel like, before the course, I had the bones of understanding. The course added the flesh and muscle to my understanding. I really enjoyed learning more about the science behind the oil and how I can relate that to my customers.”
Gilbride said she plans on using what she learned at the course to better educate her corporate customers.
“Education is the biggest tool in getting the American consumer to know what good oil is. For me, that starts with my buyers,” she said. “I think I will be a better salesperson and resource to my customers. Retailers are looking at how they can educate their consumers and now I feel that I can bring a greater depth of knowledge to help them do that.”
Increasing her knowledge about what makes different extra virgin olive oil stand out from one another was also the reason Yuriko Tsunoda, an exporter at the Sumitomo Corporation, decided to take the course.
“I got my current job at the Sumitomo Corporation in California eight months ago and started being in charge of selling and exporting U.S. vegetable oils to Japan,” she said. “I need to have more knowledge about the vegetable oils overall, and olive oil is the one that I am most interested in.”
Tsunoda plans on using her newfound expertise to assist with her selection of olive oils for export. She also plans to use some of the contacts she made at the event to help build her network and pursue more opportunities to promote great olive oils in Japan.
“[The course was] excellent,” she said. “All the classes were interesting and we could feel the enthusiasm of all the speakers who came all the way from their own countries. After experiencing this course, I feel the passion to become an olive oil specialist.”
While Tsunoda was a relative newcomer to the extra virgin olive oil sector, Theodora (Theo) Stephan, an olive grower and oil producer in California, took the course ahead of her twentieth harvest. She came to the course expecting to learn some more technical details of olive oil production.
“The course far surpassed my expectations relative to what I already knew compared to what I did not,” she said. “The experts associated with the course gave it all the more credibility.”
The instructors included Carola Dümmer Medina an expert taster from Chile and a panel leader at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition; the renowned Italian expert and panel leader Antonio G. Lauro; Kostas Liris, a Greek agronomist and NYIOOC Panel Leader; Nicholas Coleman, oleologist; Perola Polillo, a renowned Brazilian chef and certified olive oil sommelier; Pablo Voitzuk, award-winning miller and worldwide consultant; and Liliana Scarafia and Carlos Marchado, a team from California’s Agbiolab. The program is directed by Curtis Cord, publisher of Olive Oil Times and NYIOOC president.
Stephan is a first-generation Greek who moved out to Santa Barbara, California from Dayton, Ohio with the goal of growing olives and making olive oil. However, she also wants to have a more active role in sharing the knowledge she has gained in the course with everyone from chefs to ordinary consumers.
“I truly hope to become a spokesperson for the industry and especially teach everyone from chefs to home cooks how extra virgin olive oil can increase the depth of their culinary creations,” she said. “I also hope to take some of the more technical information that I learned and make it more digestible for an everyday audience.”
Another attendee looking to add to his olive oil knowledge in order to share it with others was Bryan Saba. Saba is a semiconductor hardware designer, but also a passionate olive oil producer with his own business that just entered its tenth year.
“I wanted to ensure that I knew what I was talking about in regards to olive oil,” Saba said. “We have a large farmers’ market business in the Bay Area. I want to teach my associate so that he can inform our customers about great tasting olive oil.”
In addition to education, Saba also took the course in order to network with local farmers and find innovative ways to market his product to consumers. He was pleasantly surprised by what he learned and plans to apply it to his olive oil business.
“We tasted more than 140 oils in six days from all over the world,” he said. “The dynamic flavor profiles made me a believer that we need to add more worldly extra virgin olive oil for our customers. I also learned that my extra virgin olive oil was just okay. I need to work on this. I need to find better sources to bring to market.”
Another of the attendees who was surprised by how much she learned was Caroline Robitaille, a “natural chef” from northern California. She was not originally going to attend but ended up taking her son’s place after he had to cancel.
“I went in with all of the wrong information about olive oil and I came out with a new appreciation for freshness and quality and the health benefits,” she said. “Equally as important is how risky olive oil can be when improper treatment occurs prior to consuming.”
With her newfound knowledge, Robitaille hopes to become more involved with the olive oil community by teaching chefs and consumers how to better cook with olive oil.
“I want to teach as far and as wide as I possibly can,” Robitaille said. “I absolutely love the [olive oil] community and would love to have some sort of long-term affiliation, in order to get to a greater number of people [involved].”
In a few weeks, she will begin what she called a healthy dinners group, pairing olive oils from around the world with complementary cuisines. After that, she plans on leading a tour of a local extra virgin olive oil shops as part of an effort to promote healthy culinary specialty stores in her area. Eventually, Robitaille plans on leading retreats that are based on her teachings.
While it may not be the only driver behind her ambitious future projects, the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification course added to Robitaille’s passion for holistic nutrition in cooking.
“[The course was] so much more than I could have ever anticipated,” she said. “The quality and care that went into designing this course are commendable.”
The next Olive Oil Times Education Lab/International Culinary Center Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Course will be held in London, England January 20-25.
Olive Oil Times Education Lab
International Culinary Center
Certified Olive Oil Sommeliers
Adam Ben Salah
Yi-Hui Yvette Wang