Food and Memory: How One Local Chef is Spicing Up the Condiment World
The Queen of Crunch and Bold Flavours
I first heard about Althea Potter when I reached out to another chef and food blogger named Lola Milholland in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, for recommendations for an article I was writing at the time. Lola told me about Althea, and shortly after I reached out to her, she responded to me right away. I quickly discovered her business, The Flavour Society, a line of delicious and crunchy condiment toppings.
I was fascinated by how she came to found The Flavor Society, not just with the beautifully designed jars but also how she created such unique products. Shortly thereafter, I invited her to chat about her journey toward becoming a small business owner. We met via Zoom and I quickly learned that Althea is as friendly and enthusiastic on video as she is via email.
Not surprisingly, Althea was named Portland’s Food Personality of the Year in 2019 by Eater Portland, a high accolade for someone who prides herself on staying local by building connections with local businesses, crafting dinner menus with her own unique dishes to compliment several events, one of which is taking place at a local wine bar later this month, on May 26th. (If you happen to be in the Portland area, do check it out. If not, you can always order her flavourful condiments via her website or visit local stockists.)
Althea’s journey toward becoming a chef is filled with tender memories of growing up in a food-loving family, and being surrounded by parents who were good cooks, she told me during our chat. Still, Althea thought that cooking was simply a hobby. She studied sociology in university, only to realize afterwards that she really wanted to be a chef. So she went to culinary school and later made her way through several restaurants, including the now-defunct Oui Wine Bar, part of the Southeast Wine Collective. Eventually, she landed herself a spot on the Food Network’s two shows: Chopped and Guy’s Grocery Games. She used the money she won on Guy’s Grocery Games to start The Flavor Society, and the rest is history.
Here’s How Althea Potter Became the Creator of Crunch
Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a chef and business owner. Was this the career you always knew you wanted?
As a child, I loved food and I was always obsessed with flavour. I grew up with parents who were really good cooks. It was a simple life. We had a vegetable garden and cooked from scratch just about every day. We also cooked a lot of international cuisines. My dad, in particular, liked to cook Indonesian and Chinese foods, and my mom was an avid baker. Plus, we had a ton of cookbooks, so I was always reading them for fun. I’d browse the cookbooks and look at the recipes and the stories behind them. Of course, this was before the Food Network came along, so it was a great way to learn about other cultures!
I always thought that being a chef was just a dream, a hobby. In college, I studied sociology, but then I realized that I wanted to be a chef because I’d been working in restaurants ever since I was fifteen and I loved it. I was also very inspired after seeing a classmate of mine whose parents owned a natural foods business (this field trip had occurred in kindergarten), and I thought, “What kind of creative thing can I do that I can package and ship around the world?”
So I moved to Portland to attend the Oregon Culinary Institute (which sadly, is no longer around) and I’ve been here ever since.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given with regards to careers and success?
As a chef, I’ve learned a few things. I can’t say that it was someone specific who gave me this advice, so it’s more like things I learned from being a chef, which is to cook only foods that I’m passionate about. Don’t try to copy others; you have to create your own style. Of course, you can always take inspiration from other chefs and business owners, but ultimately, your creations are your own.
I learned this lesson after years of working in kitchens and creating menus for others. I realized that when I felt pressured to emulate other chefs, it didn’t always work out, but when I branched out and did my own thing, people loved it! I was lucky to have worked in restaurants where owners were very open to me experimenting with menus and the customers were open to trying them, so it was great to be able to take those risks.
What books are on your reading list right now?
I love to read cookbooks. I also love audiobooks. It’s great because I’m always working with my hands so I can’t always hold a book. It’s great to listen to a book when you’re cooking or preparing food. That said, I loved Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner [editor’s note: I also love this book!] I also love autobiographies from chefs. For example, Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch by Erin French and Padma Lakshmi’s autobiography.
When you’re working–where do you work? What is the setting?
Right now, I work in a shared commercial kitchen. I rent out the space and it’s great for small business owners, because I don’t have to pay as much, and I have all the equipment I need. It’s where I go to do all my prep, create tasting menus, and where I can experiment! Plus, I can be there when no one else is there, so I can put in an audiobook and listen while I cook.
How have you been staying connected to your friends/family/community during COVID-19?
It depends on the phase. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in the quarantine stage, my friends and I would have Zoom dinner parties. I have lots of friends here in Portland, and we’d all take turns preparing a meal, and we had a contact list where people could come to pick up the food. Then we’d get online and just have a fun (and safe) time together.
I also have some family members overseas – my sister lives in Sweden, and my mom is in Massachusetts. I’m grateful for the available technology; it brings us all together from different corners of the world.
Do you have exciting projects coming up? If so, please tell us.
Yes! I’m really excited about collaborating with local businesses here in Portland and creating tasting menus for their events. I have an event coming up later this month with Flor Wines. It’s a wine and dinner event, where I’m in charge of the tasting menu and they’re in charge of the wines.
What is your dream brunch date? Where and with whom?
I’m a big fan of Julia Child, so it would be great to have brunch with her in Paris. She was a big influence for women in the culinary world. She just did it for herself.
What is your ideal comfort food?
One of the first things I learned to make was my grandmother’s meatballs in marinara sauce. I have a fond memory of cooking it as a child with my dad, standing next to him by the stove. It’s a simple family recipe, and it’s very special. Now I know how to make it by heart.
That’s the thing I love most about food – its smells and tastes can transform you back in time, to family and good memories. And that’s definitely what it did for me.
Which chefs and/or business owners inspire your work the most?
I have so many! I’m really inspired by strong, powerful women who’ve shaken up the industry, like Julia Child, for example. Another woman I admire is Martha Stewart. Some might not consider her a chef but I do. She’s like a more modern version of Julia Child. She believed in herself, and what she can do, and ultimately created her own path. She doesn’t take no for an answer and I love that.
Where I live in Portland, there are a lot of women-owned food brands that I love, whose owners have been instrumental in helping me get my business off the ground. They were kind enough to give me advice and were very helpful. For example, Sarah Marshall of Marshall’s Haute Sauce. She’s so supportive of people starting their own brands! It’s really about community, advice and support here.
Finally, I am really inspired by Sarah Masoni of the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center! Actually, she and Sarah Marshall have a podcast called the Meaningful Marketplace that interviews women in the food business.
Want to learn more about Althea? Check out her website or Instagram! Better yet, order a jar of her bold and delicious chili crunch topping to go with your bagel or pizza on her website. You can also shop at one of the stockists listed here.