After an intensive week-long program where more than 110 olive oils were sniffed, sipped and analyzed, the International Culinary Center in New York and the Olive Oil Times Education Lab conferred their Sommelier Certification to 26 olive oil virtuosos from 11 countries Friday.
There's this moment when a light bulb goes on in your head when the brain and the sensory organs connect, and suddenly you know what you’re talking about.
Over the course of the seven-day program, nine instructors from Spain, Italy, Greece and the United States led students through an exploration of olive oil health benefits, production, sensory science, chemistry, culinary applications and instructional tastings of oils from every region.
The candidates needed to pass rigorous testing to show they had acquired the skills to reliably recognize the sensory characteristics of olive oil samples. Curtis Cord, executive director of the International Culinary Center Olive Oil Program, credited his staff of instructors, the huge number of oils assembled, and the hard work of the participants for the successful results.
Participants came from as far as Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, The Netherlands, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia and Dubai, and from just as diverse professional backgrounds in their quest to gain a thorough understanding of one of the world’s most important foods.
There was a marketing executive for one of the world’s largest olive oil brands; the chief executive of a chain of more than 100 olive oil shops; a Yale University School of Public Health researcher; a quality-control and compliance analyst for a major supermarket group; the owner of a leading gourmet products brand; the head of a culinary services company with more than one thousand chefs in its network; an olive oil producer with a few hundred trees and another with 100,000.
Professionals from every corner of the world came together for one week and became a close team, learning from each other, they said, as they set out on a discovery of an ancient food that has long served as a bridge between cultures.
The program aims to do more than create olive oil experts, Cord said. “We are out to build a community of educators who can change the lives of people everywhere by revealing the truths about this gift nature has given us. This group alone can reach millions through their networks with what they now know and help make the world a better place.”
The program manages an active online community forum where those who have taken the course collaborate and other social tools are in the works to serve the growing ranks of olive oil sommeliers. To develop their skills even further, Cord announced an apprenticeship program at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, where the new sommeliers will sit alongside the leading experts as they analyze entries from 27 countries in the world’s largest olive oil tasting event.
“While the analyses of these nascent experts will not be a factor in the judging, the apprenticeship program will rapidly build upon their skills and expose these tasters to an environment few will ever experience as part of the elite team of NYIOOC judges,” Cord said. “If they continue to work hard to develop their mastery I have no doubt some will eventually be called upon to serve on the panel as full members.”
Elise LaGamba, who works for a major supermarket chain in Pennsylvania said she had taken courses in Italy but found that the diversity of her peers made the course in New York stand out. “If you have an interest in olive oil, whether it’s a passionate interest…or you know you’re not consuming the best olive oil and you want to tell good from bad I highly recommend it. Every day was absolutely worth it,” she said.
Karim Fitouri, a producer from Tunisia said he was the first to arrive at the course each day and the last to leave every night. “I have enjoyed from the first thing in the morning when I come, to the last minute when I go home. The course was extremely well done,” he said, and he called the instructors “brilliant, with olive oil running through their veins like me.”
Wilma van Grinsven – Padberg, who owns the Oil & Vinegar chain of 140 olive oil stores, said she was “very proud to be part of the group” of professionals taking the course. “I loved every minute of it,” she said. “I think we tasted over one hundred olive oils, which is incredible.”
Thomas Sheridan, a Philadelphia importer said he would recommend the program “one million percent. I’m going to pitch this course to everyone I know. If you are involved in anything in the food world, whether you’re a chef, an importer like myself, no matter what area you’re in, you should do this course.”
Ellie Tzortzi said she was “so inspired” by the first level course in October that she has taken a sabbatical from her work as a designer and moved to New York City for a few months to pursue olive oil-related projects — part of what she called a “new frontier” of olive oil appreciation. “Doing level 2 and 3 of the course was the anchor hopefully leading to inspiring new things for me.”
Tzortzi, who holds a Greek passport but has lived in 19 countries where olive oil is an important part of the culture, said she was looking to acquire the vocabulary and knowledge to talk about olive oil with others. In what she described as an “epiphany,” Tzortzi said there was “this moment when a light bulb goes on in your head when the brain and the sensory organs connect and suddenly you know what you’re talking about. It’s about treating a small part of your daily ritual with increased respect.”
Tassos Kyriakides, from the Yale University School of Public Health, said the most important thing for him was to think of olive oil as something beyond national boundaries. “It’s something that unites people no matter where you come from. This might be a tipping point,” he said, to guide him in a new direction in his career.
The instructors for the course included: panel leaders for the New York International Olive Oil Competition Antonio Lauro and Kostas Liris; oleologist Nicholas Coleman; award-winning olive oil producer Pablo Voitzuk; program director and Olive Oil Times publisher Curtis Cord; Michelin-starred Spanish chef María José San Román; Monell Chemical Senses Center president emeritus Gary Beauchamp; Eurofins CAL laboratory manager Derek Yeadon; and Brown University nutritionist Mary Flynn.
The next Level 1 course is scheduled for June in New York, and another all-level program will be held in October. More information can be found on the program’s website.
The International Culinary Center and the Olive Oil Times Education Lab awarded the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification to the following candidates:
Ammar Ammar, Nikolaos Basoukos, Elisabeth Belanger, Paul Cannella, Susan Chamberlin, Emmanuelle Dechelette, Jacquelyn Dougherty, Nasseam Elkarra, Jeff Enright, Michel Favuzzi, Karim Fitouri, Mario Giganti, Catherine Gouraud, Marie Heiland , Tassos Kyriakides, Elise LaGamba, Reilly Miller, Jill Myers, Elena Pérez Canal, Perola Polillo, Jack Riley, Travis Samson, Thomas Sheridan, Ellie Tzortzi, Wilma van Grinsven-Padberg and Priscila Vejo.