Finally, the answer to the question that I’ve been asked a million times. “How did I start Al Dente Pasta”? It is a long story. There’s no way around it. Now you’ll see why I take a deep breath every time someone asks.
It began at the height of what I now refer to as the Pasta Revolution of 1981. Many of you will not remember the years prior when sauces like Pesto and Alfredo were unfamiliar unless you were of Italian ancestry. Pasta dishes other than Spaghetti and Meatballs, Lasagna, Macaroni and Cheese, were considered exotic and foreign. I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true. Ask anyone.
Actually, I have to take you back even a few more years, especially because people are always, and I mean ALWAYS, asking how a 24 year old, with a degree in psychology and no business background, with no money or financial backing and, most shockingly, who had never even made pasta before, could even think that she could start a pasta company that would eventually become one of America’s most recognized brands of specialty pasta. It all comes together at the end, I promise.
Looking back, this is how it happened. In 1978 I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Psychology. Like so many people upon graduation, I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to stick with working at the Blind Pig, which was a way-ahead-of-its-time-European-style-blues-seven-days-a-week-super-cool-democratically-run-café-bar, while I figured things out.
Time passes-a couple years, in fact. Then, while working at the Blind Pig, I meet, Dennis, aka the man of my dreams. Talk about being Mr. Right-for-Me: he was strong and fearless- the better to rescue me from the (occasional) drunks at the Blind Pig. He had a French last name which would beautifully complement my French first name. He could build anything and trouble-shoot like nobody’s business—the better to design our first pasta dryers as well as to eventually build our entire pasta factory. That he was a remarkable family man is an understatement. He would eventually end up working not only with me, but also my sister! That he was a people person, and the hardest working people person is also an understatement-as you will see, I started Al Dente, but he built Al Dente.
So, where was I? Oh yeah. I was trying to explain how I figured out what to do with the rest of my life. My advice to anyone when they are in this same boat is that you must ask yourself the following questions. What do I love? What am I passionate about? Who am I? What makes me tick? In my case, I loved cooking, reading, traveling, and, entertaining. I was curious about the world, thrived on meeting new people, was fearless in some ways and oddly phobic in others. I seemed to seek out personal challenges and prided myself on over-developed problem solving skills. I had an unrivaled sense of optimism, inherited from my mother. I also learned from my mother how important it is to work your strengths. In my case, having grown up with a French mother, I not only spoke French but had spent many summers in France enjoying foods that were not yet common in the U.S. (I assure you that this really will come together very soon).
Another important part of this history. It is not unusual, even to this day, that I find the answers to my questions in something I read. In this case, I read about two women who were starting a pasta business in Washington D.C. Thousands of people probably read that same article. But for me, and I am not kidding, it was at that moment that the proverbial light bulb went on in my head. (It’s quite a dramatic feeling when that happens, mind you). From everything I was reading and observing, it all of a sudden dawned on me that a huge shift was occurring in our country. Changes were happening in the food world that were unprecedented. This was it!! I knew what I wanted to do!! I picked up on a trend and decided that pasta was my future! Not just any pasta, but pasta that would taste exactly like homemade! Tender but firm, to the tooth, pasta! Sheeted pasta (not extruded), duplicating the rolling of the dough in an Italian grandmother’s kitchen!
Of course, the idea was only the beginning. The hard work was still ahead of me. Lots and lots and lots of work, especially because I still lacked money and experience.
Next step was to contact the owner of a well-known cookware store/cooking school/café called Complete Cuisine. It was the place in town where the foodies hung out. Sandi Cooper gave my idea an encouraging thumbs up and recognizing that we may be able to help each other out, presented me an opportunity for which I will be forever grateful. She suggested I use my familiarity with “gourmet, specialty foods” to set up a food department in her store. In exchange, I would gain experience and contacts that were priceless. That put me smack dab in the middle of everything exciting that was happening in the food world at the time. The famous Chefs back then, prior to the Food Network, would tour the country giving cooking classes in stores like Complete Cuisine. That is how I got to meet, and even assist, the likes of Jacques Pepin and many others.
Finally, after one year of working at Complete Cuisine, I couldn’t wait a minute longer to start Al Dente. Sandi, keeping good on her promise to help me, proposed we go to New York and she would set up a meeting with Marcella Hazan. That’s when it all started to come together. Marcella graciously invited us to her beautiful NY apartment and shared with me her secrets to making perfect pasta. Could I have been any luckier than that?
I was getting closer by the minute to my dream of starting a pasta company. I now knew how to make pasta and had gained some business experience. Next hurdle…… money. Eventually, I convinced someone to lend me $6,000 for our first little machine. Sandi lent us her kitchen at Complete Cuisine and my friends and I would work all night to make enough pasta to supply local stores. Over the years, a lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same. Most importantly, no matter how much we’ve grown, we have stayed true to everything Marcella Hazan taught me.
Today, if you came to our factory, this is what you would see. Actually, factory isn’t quite the right word. It is not at all high-tech. People dramatically outnumber machines. I am always asked how big (or small) we are. Let’s put it this way, we have 20 employees, if that gives you an idea. Everyone looks happy. Why wouldn’t they? What’s not to like about pasta? To be truthful, my sister, Nanette doesn’t always look happy. But that’s only when we get so many orders that we can’t keep up. And, since she is the one who runs all of the day-to-day operations, she is also the one who has to appease our customers by explaining that we are a small company, making pasta the old-fashioned way. And it takes time-lots of time to make perfect pasta. I must clarify that Nanette is beautiful whether she’s happy or mad, but we like it best when she’s happy.
I hope that this gives you a sense as to “who is making your pasta and where it is coming from.”
Now, at this point in time, another one of my dreams is about to come true. Via the Al Dente Canoodler, pasta-lovers everywhere will be able to cosmically connect. I certainly hope you will be inspired and intrigued. I will be sharing stories, discoveries, recipes and adventures. I encourage you to have a pasta party, visit us often and make lots of new friends.
Talk to you soon,