Going for the Slow Jam
Many artisans who sell their wares at farmers markets are hobbyists or passionate amateurs – not seasoned pros who’ve toiled for decades in restaurant kitchens.
A cynic might look at the label of Nic & Luc’s Small Batch Provisions, spot the buzzphrases of the artisan food movement – “small batch,” “handcrafted,” plus the curly ampersand – and dismiss the authenticity of what’s inside the jar. If so, they’d miss out on the real deal: bright, fruity flavors, gently nudged into stardom with judicious use of zests, spices and citrus, with just enough sweetness. Their creator, Leroy Bautista, 46, is not a naive hipster looking to cash in on trends. Instead, he is taking a highly personal approach to create a palette of preserves that reveal his culinary finesse and thoughtful restraint.
LESSONS IN FLAVOR
Growing up in Houston and New Orleans, Bautista would cook for his three younger brothers. “Shake and bake chicken, hamburgers, simple things,” he says – just to tide his siblings over until their mother came home. In the eighth grade, he and two other boys took home ec because there was no room for them in general mechanics, and he enjoyed it. “I learned why things went in the pan first,” he says. “We also did sewing and cake decorating.” In high school, he got a part-time job rolling taquitos in a Mexican restaurant. “They made everything fresh there,” he recalls. “Their hot sauces had no vinegar or salt, just fresh hot peppers boiled and pureed. It wasn’t about heat, it was about flavor. Jalapeños are flowery. Habaneros, sweet and hot. Round cascabel chiles – you can hear the seeds shaking like a rattlesnake – very aromatic.”
The experiences pushed him into a culinary career. Because he had family in Sardinia, Bautista served a one-year apprenticeship where he studied and worked at La Romantica, a seafood restaurant. “It was more about making sure pots and pans are clean. I got to watch a lot, learned patience, dealing with stress in the kitchen, how to be well organized, how important it was to go slowly.” He also learned to handle seafood and vegetables. “In Sardinia, you don’t put sugar in tomato sauce. It’s about how long you cook the tomato – 3-4 hours, concentrating the flavor.”
Back home in Houston, the 19-year-old Bautista was invited by an uncle to go to New Orleans. He got his first job at The Court of Two Sisters, where they served classic Creole dishes and huge buffets. From there he worked at a series of restaurants and catering companies. It was at a wine tasting at the Whitney Wyndham (now the Whitney) that he met a Miamian, Aurora Gonzalez, and took her up on an invitation to eat Cuban food: ropa vieja, yuca frita, plantain soup, flan. A year later, he proposed to her on New Year’s Eve and she accepted.
The young couple built their life in the Big City. Soon Aurora was pregnant with their son Nicolas. Bautista had put together a business proposal to open a 28-seat gourmet cafe, Refuel Coffee, in the Riverbend neighborhood in 2005. It was nearly finished when Hurricane Katrina, which had come ashore south of Fort Lauderdale and crossed the Everglades, re-emerged in the warm Gulf waters, and was headed for New Orleans. The couple evacuated to Miami, returning to find some damage to the new business, but no major flooding. Refuel was eventually able to open and serve breakfast and brunch. Three months after Katrina, Nicolas was born, and in 2008, their second son, Lucas, was born. The following year, family matters brought them to Miami. Bautista worked at South Florida restaurants, including Angelique Euro Cafe, Il Corso, Ocean Reef in Key Largo and Shape Lovers, a cantina service that featured healthy, portion-controlled foods. “I learned to use herbs for flavor, cooking low and slow and making low-sodium dishes,” he says. Taking on a job as a personal chef, he started experimenting with canning, developing jams to use in finishing sauces and vinaigrettes as well as more conventional uses.
Cultivating healthy-cooking skills turned out to be useful for Bautista, who had discovered he was diabetic. While his early preserves used full sugar, he kept looking for ways to boost flavor without adding all the sweetness typical in most jams and jellies. A tablespoon of Smucker’s strawberry preserves has 12 grams sugar; his versions have 4 and 5 grams. Bautista tracked down a low-sugar pectin, Pomona’s Universal Pectin, that let him cut back on the sugar and also use local honey when it makes sense. More fruit means “our products are more a conserve than a preserve,” he says.
Bautista’s preserves were so tasty, he decided to sell them at a farmers market under Florida’s cottage food law. He met Claire Tomlin of the Market Company and sold his wares at her Aventura market. “We did OK for the first time,” he says. Soon, they were looking for a commercial kitchen so they could increase production. They named their brand for their sons, and included the fleur-de-lis, symbol of New Orleans. Some graphic help from Miami’s Mixed Media Collective refined the labels, and Nic & Luc’s Small Batch Provisions started making its appearance all around South Florida: at the Upper East Side and Parkland farmers markets, Miami Flea at Canvas and Food in Motion in Fort Lauderdale, where a sous chef from The Miami Beach Edition said he was interested in his products. “Can you come over tomorrow? All the chefs will be there.” Exhausted, Bautista gathered samples and met the chefs. It was worthwhile – the preserves are now part of the luxury hotel’s menu. They’re also available at a handful of select retailers.
FROM FIELD TO JAR
Because their distribution is limited, Bautista is able to take his time, cooking up small batches of jams and handpicking the produce himself. “We use local sources for mango, peppers and strawberries in season from a Kendall u-pick,” he says. Other produce they pick up on the road – peaches from Georgia on a road trip to New Orleans, for example. Other than looking to buy a machine that can fill 600 jars per hour – handy for the small jars the Edition uses on its brunch tables – Bautista is content with the pace and scope of his business. Selling preserves online and through subscription services, rather than trying to get into supermarkets and big retail outlets, is what he envisions for Nic & Luc. “I don’t look at myself as growing [the business] to sell,” he says. “I get to spend time with kids – I don’t want to rush it. I like how slow my life is moving.
I want to keep it mine.”
Jamming with Chef Leroy
When he says “all of our jams, jellies and sauces are hand-crafted,” Bautista means it – he picked strawberries for the Strawberry Balsamic Preserves he is making at the commercial kitchen at Verde Community Farm and Market in Homestead. The local mangos, used in his Honeyed Mango Preserves, are Hadens from his mother-in-law’s tree. To prepare jars for canning, they are first sterilized in boiling water and vinegar. For the preserves, he adds his low-sugar pectin to the honey so it doesn’t clump. The honey and pectin mixture is cooked briefly with the mangos. The sterilized jars are filled up to ¼-inch to allow for expansion. He wipes down lids carefully to make sure of a good seal, and the jars get another turn in the hot water. Finished jars are left for one hour to cool before drying and labeling.
Bautista suggests ways to use some of his flavors:
Apple Pie Jam – Add to grilled cheese sandwich made with Manchego or English cheddar.
Carrot Cake Jam – Stir a spoonful into hot cereal.
Fig Newton-ish – Serve with Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Chianti and brie, boursin, mascarpone, St. Andre.
Lemon Lavender – Add a tablespoon plus fresh lemon or lime juice to vodka and shake.
Trio Pepper Jelly – Brush on grilled shrimp or scallops.
Salted Plum Caramel – Serve with merlot, zinfandel, pinot noir and goat cheese, cream cheese, brie and smoked gouda.
Nic & Luc Small Batch Provisions
Find Nic & Luc Small Batch Provisions at Sweetness Bakeshop in Kendall, Verde Community Farm and Market in Homestead and the Upper East Side Farmers Market Saturdays at 6599 Biscayne Blvd., The Market at Edition, Lunchbox Wynwood, Sprout Miami, Thousand Pound Egg in Fort Lauderdale, and online.