Hell's Kitchen owner Mitch Omer on his new creamy peanut butter
Remember those no-bake chocolate peanut butter bars your mom made when you were a kid? You know, the ones you occasionally see at potlucks that force attendees to feign interest in the entrees while contemplating how many bars they can stuff in their mouths before they inevitably run out?
Hell's Kitchen's new creamy peanut butter is the spreadable version of those peanut butter bars, without the chocolate but with double the rich, creamy flavor.
Hell's Kitchen has offered its acclaimed crunchy peanut butter for the past 12 years, drawing attention from all over the country. The recipe developer and Hell's Kitchen owner, Mitch Omer, finally decided it was time to offer a smoother version. After a long period of trial and error, it's finally here.
Omer started by tinkering with the original crunchy peanut butter recipe, assuming he could get the optimal consistency by continuing to grind the nuts, but found the extra grind changed the taste and texture. He reworked the recipe to his liking, but still couldn't attain the butter-smooth taste of store-bought brands. Confounded, he called up the experts and learned that the secret to super creamy peanut butters like Jif and Peter Pan is a special preservative-filled paste, which Omer wasn't willing to settle for.
Earlier this week, Hot Dish chatted with Omer about his peanut butter beginnings, his new creamy recipe, and his upcoming Elvis-inspired banana peanut butter set to hit shelves in September.
Can you tell us about the beginnings of your original crunchy peanut butter? When we went to open the restaurant 13 years ago, I had always been kind of anal retentive about some things and here was the first chance I ever had to open my own restaurant. I wanted to do something just a little different, so I made everything that I could from scratch. It was just part of that whole idea of taking the foods that every other restaurant takes for granted and making them from scratch. Where did the inspiration for your particular peanut butter recipe come from?
That's kind of standard research and development. You start off with the grind that is so fine or so chunky and then you balance that with sweet or salt. I started fancy and was using different sea salts and things like that, you know, kosher salt and different sweeteners. I ended up using brown sugar, but when I was a kid growing up, one of my favorite sandwiches was peanut butter and honey, so I backed off the brown sugar and I started adding honey until I felt I had a pretty good balance. The honey gives the peanut butter a different texture as well. It was just trial and error. You know, just over and over and over again until I felt I had something that I was happy with. Whether or not it was going to sell was irrelevant to me.
On that note, shortly after we opened, we had a customer ask for Skippy peanut butter and one of our servers said, "Well, the owner doesn't believe in that. He likes to make everything from scratch." The guy says, "I don't give a goddamn what your owner thinks. I want Skippy peanut butter." So, lesson learned was I brought in Skippy peanut butter after that. If they really want their Skippy, I'll give it to them and it won't bruise my ego at all.
Does that happen often? It has happened. It's happened with my ketchup and it's happened with my mustard, so I keep Heinz and French's and Skippy on hand. Otherwise, the peanut butter seems to have gone over smashingly. Yeah, it really kind of took off when Jane and Michael Stern were writing for Gourmet Magazine. They had happened to stop in and had the peanut butter and wrote about it in Gourmet. After that happened, the phones just rang off the hook from people wanting to buy it. We had to set up a shipping and receiving department... we did this in just a matter of days so we could start shipping the peanut butter out.
About a year after we started shipping it, one of my regular customers said that she had a nephew who was in Iraq fighting and she wanted to put together a little care package for him. I said absolutely, so I threw in some hats and some t-shirts and then I threw in a bunch of peanut butter and she came back to me about four weeks later and she said, "We got a problem." I thought, "Oh yeah, I'm shipping food halfway around the world." But, as it turns out, she said his commanding officer was from Minnesota and he knew about Hell's Kitchen and he wanted peanut butter too. After that, for the duration of his deployment in Iraq, I sent peanut butter every month to his post. And I did this not to be a patriot or right wing or anything else, I just kind of dug the idea of these poor bastards fighting the war eating my peanut butter. So, I mean, that's what I enjoy about it.
How long has the new creamy version been in the making? It wasn't like just taking the old recipe and making it creamier, you know. I had to buy a new piece of equipment, which was pretty expensive because with the food processor -- you can only get the nuts so fine with that. But because now you've got more pulp in the matrix, your recipe doesn't hold together as well, so I really had to kind of start all over again with the recipe and, again, trial by error until I had that same balance I had achieved with the earlier chunky peanut butter. It's got all the same ingredients in it, we've just got different amounts in it now as a result.
It's going over well so far?
Yeah, I didn't think it would affect peanut butter sales. I mean, we've been selling the chunky style for 13 years and I didn't think this was really gonna unseat it. But it turns out our peanut butter sales overall have gone up, almost 100 percent, so we're selling not only more of the creamy peanut butter than I thought we ever would, we're selling more of the chunky as well. Overall, we're just selling a lot more peanut butter.
It's fun. It's just something a little bit different. You can go the Wedge, which has got those peanut butter processors, and make your own peanut butter right there, but it lacks the sweetness and the salt. Salt is such an important connector in this. You need that little hint of salt to balance the sweetness and I think we've achieved that. And again, we're talking about the simplest of foods here -- I mean it's five ingredients.
My old publisher, when we went to publish the cookbook, she said "Oh, we can't give them everything. Let's hold back the peanut butter and let's keep some of the magic or some of the allure or something." And I said, "Well fuck, I've never held back anything in my life. You really think I'm going to lose customers if I give them my peanut butter recipe? Absolutely not." I had to fight to get that thing in the book and, you know, people love that it's there. Most people aren't making peanut butter. They still buy it from me. I think they like the idea that it's there for them if they want it.
It seems like if you add up all that goes into your peanut butter, it comes out to be more expensive than what you sell it for.
That's part of our problem. We've set a price for our peanut butter and that's what I'm going to sell it at. I don't change the menu very often. I don't change our retail things very often. A year ago, the cost of peanuts went up almost four times and my raw product... I start looking around for a different product. One thing is that when you're getting it out of the southern United States and lose that crop, now you're going to Texas, you're going to Mexico, you're going to California. So not only are just the raw ingredient costs going up, the shipping costs have come in to be a factor where before they didn't. We're charging a premium price right now and there was a long stretch of time where we were losing money on it, but I'm not going to change my prices. If I get lucky and prices go down, I'm going to keep my price where it is. That seems admirable.
Well, I'm not doing it to be admirable. I think I'm doing it because I'm not a very good businessman. [Laughs]
Do you have any other upcoming flavors?
I've been an Elvis fan and have posed as Elvis for television shows all over the country and have done anniversary shows for his birth and his death, so we put together this banana peanut butter for the Elvis estate. We're still waiting to hear back from that. That one is just a labor of love. I'm a real Elvis fan, and to do something we would approach their estate with would be pretty cool. I think we're going to start pushing it when the State Fair begins. I have not made a master batch of the banana peanut butter yet, so I don't think that we have it on the shelves yet.
This one was even harder... you introduce another ingredient to the peanut butter and it again throws everything off, so you've got to strike that balance between salty, sweet, and then bananas. You know, how much banana, and what type of banana product you use for it makes all the different in the world. You can't use real banana in there -- they turn black after a couple hours. I used dried bananas, and then I needed something with a little more banana flavor, so I made my own banana oil. Again, this is what I do. I do the recipe development and all of that. This is the stuff that makes me happy. These have been labors of love, I'll tell you that.
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