At this time of year, as summer wanes, fading into fall, we cling to the season’s last fruits, gorging ourselves while we still can, in search of wistful comfort as we stare ahead into winter’s long shadow.
For us, it’s the tomatoes. In these last warm days before the nights cool, sapping our precious heirlooms of their lushly intense flavor, we eat them with the same passionate lust a teenager brings to those final frantic makeout marathons with the gorgeous foreign exchange student they’ve fallen for, deeply, in the last days before they must return home, at summer’s end, to the other side of the ocean.
The perfect vehicle for this passion? The tomato sandwich – thick slices of ripe heirlooms, on toast, with mayo. And what about that mayo? Today, in search of the perfect compliment to our final romp with summer, we stop by Empire Mayonnaise’s tiny shop on Vanderbilt Avenue to chat with co-founder (along with WD-50 vet and James Beard nominee Sam Mason) Elizabeth Valleau.
So Elizabeth, we’re in search of the perfect mayonnaise for a tomato sandwich. What do you think?
Hmmm…I’d have to say that for a tomato sandwich three of our varieties come immediately to mind – I think the red chili, white truffle, or bacon mayonnaise would all work very nicely in that context.
The red chili is fantastic. Spicy mayonnaise is really versatile. There are all sorts of ways you can use it. We use Korean chilis, which have a really nice flavor profile. It’s great in anything from a sandwich to a potato salad to a dipping sauce on its own. It’s spicy, but not so spicy that it would overwhelm the complex flavors of a really ripe tomato. So if you like a tomato sandwich with a little zip, this one would be perfect.
The white truffle sandwich is a slam dunk. People have been known to eat this one straight out of the jar with a spoon. I like to use it almost as you might use a compound butter. It’s a great way to finish a piece of meat or fish. It’s wonderful on grilled vegetables. And it would be fantastic on a tomato sandwich. The deep earthiness of the truffle would balance so nicely with the sweet acidity of the tomato. So if you wanted to go for something lush and luxurious, this would be perfect.
Do you use real truffles?
Of course. Some people assume we use truffle oil. We don’t. Truffle oil is fake. There’s no truffle in it. We use real, organic white truffles. We infuse a mix of olive oil and canola oil with the truffle, and use that in the mayonnaise.
And what about the bacon mayonnaise? That sounds like it would probably be pretty good on a tomato sandwich too…
What could be more perfect than a tomato sandwich with bacon mayonnaise? It gives you all those classic B.L.T. flavors without having to actually make bacon! To make it, we use bacon from The Meat Hook in Williamsburg. Their bacon is from local, pastured pigs, and it’s very, very good. Sam roasts it and renders it, then clarifies the fat for emulsifying in the mayo. It’s definitely the most bacon-y mayonnaise on the market! [laughter.]
How do you make the mayo? Any special ingredients? Special eggs?
We use all local, organic eggs, and we just use the yolks, because that gives you a much richer mayonnaise than if you use the whole egg. We use good local ingredients whenever we can because when you can find something produced very well locally, it’s going to be fresher and of a higher quality than any of the alternatives. But we like to experiment with all kinds of flavors, so we use exotic spices from all over the planet too.
All our mayonnaise is completely natural. It doesn’t have any preservatives. It’s a totally healthy version of the mayonnaise you get in the store that lasts a million years and has a bunch of strange ingredients.
And we make all our mayonnaise by hand. Sam makes it all himself.
How are things going? You guys took some flak when you opened the shop – never for the product, but some in the press jumped on you as an example of Brooklyn ‘jumping the shark’ when it came to food…
I know. Opening an artisanal mayonnaise shop does seem really pretentious! [laughter.] The reason we leased the space was really to use as a kitchen and production facility. We wanted a place we could use for recipe testing and development, for actually making the mayonnaise, and for holding tastings and that sort of thing. We thought, “Why not just open to the public too?” So we did.
So Elizabeth, how did you end up as co-founder of a mayonnaise company?
My background is simple. I was born in New York. I’m a creative director and designer. I’ve lived in Europe and Asia, but never anywhere else in the States. I’ve always loved mayonnaise, and thought there was a big hole in the mayo market. It was such an unsexy condiment, and no one was doing it really well. When I met Sam through a mutual friend, we talked about it and he agreed. We decided to do something about it and here we are!
Empire Mayonnaise Co. is located at 564 Vanderbilt Avenue, between Bergen and Dean, in Prospect Heights.
Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton. All rights reserved.