He was a well-liked executive chef — and TV star, winning his episode of Chopped, handily — when he hung up his toque, moved from The Churchill to a rented space on Robertson Blvd., and started boiling pickle jars. Now Bruce Kalman's company, Bruce's Prime Pickle Co., is hitting its stride — and is about to expand.
With a staff of six and a rented kitchen, Kalman churns out six different pickled vegetable combinations: Garlic Dill Horsey Cukes, Sweet Cab Onions, Bloody Mary Asparagus, Cucumber Kim Chee, Curried Cauliflower and Chi-Town Giardiniere. Readers with a taste for tang (or perhaps with a bun in the oven) can buy jars for themselves at the Cheese Shop in Silverlake, Farmshop, The Oaks Gourmet, Bob's Market in Santa Monica, Lindy & Grundy, and Clover Juice. The burger-obsessed will find his work at Umami Burger — atop their patties and served as a separate pickle plate. And some of the country's top rocket scientists are fueled by his produce every weekday. (Really. Turn the page.)
Squid Ink caught up with Kalman in his kitchen to talk pickles and passion projects.
Squid Ink: What made you think about getting out of the kitchen and into pickles?
Bruce Kalman: I wanted to be my own boss. This was something that I had done a lot of at The Churchill: I was making everything in house, doing a lot of charcuterie, my own pickles, everything. The pickle plate was a huge hit over there and people were like “You should start your own pickle company! Nobody's doing that out here!” and I was like, “OK, I might as well.”
It's something I really enjoy doing: I can be really creative with this process.
SI: How did you originally get into pickling? Was it a childhood love?
BK: Growing up in New Jersey you go to a diner, you go to a deli, and it's the centerpiece of the table: a bowl of pickles. Everybody sticks their hands in [shudder] and they're awesome! In Jersey everybody's got a jar of pickles in their fridge all the time.
Couple that with getting into the whole preservation thing at The Churchill, and really embracing it and getting creative with it. I've got an arsenal of recipes behind these. I just want to start out with these 6 that I can do really well, consistently, for mass distribution. At The Churchill we had pickle jars all over the kitchen and really the whole idea truly just spawned from that. There are pickles out there but nothing like these. Everybody has beets, carrots, okra — nobody I've seen is doing anything like this. I've been going around doing tastings and nobody has anything but awesome things to say about them. It feels really good, you know? Because I spent a lot of time really working on these recipes and getting things right.
SI: Tell me about your pickles.
BK: We make garlic-horseradish-and-dill [gestures to jar of dill cucumber slices] and the whole premise is that everything is as local as possible whenever possible. The horseradish we hand-grate and we pack it in vinegar ourselves.
You can taste the difference, you know? I don't buy peeled garlic; I peel it myself. We use a great custom pickling spice mixture and we're using fresh bay leaves and in this curried cauliflower pickle we're using fresh curry leaves from Coleman Farms — it really imparts a great flavor in the brine that's really unique. It's packed with golden raisins from Peacock Farms and then we have brown mustard seed and curry powder. We use all Sparrow Lane vinegar — their white vinegar, we use quite a bit of. [Gestures to a giant white drum of vinegar in the corner, big enough to hide a body in.]
SI: That must have been a beast, sourcing all of this.
BK: I've used a lot these ingredients, I know a lot of these people, it was just working out the logistics. We use Hepp's Sea Salt out of Venice — he does all kinds of specialty salts and this one is a pure ocean salt. There's nothing unnatural about it, it's straight up the ocean. It's awesome. It really makes a big difference … and you can use less because it's such a strong flavor, so there's less sodium in the products.
SI: How does the process work?
BK: We hand-pack so we'll line a whole table full of jars and then every jar gets a pound of cucumbers, two garlic cloves and two tablespoons of horseradish in every jar. If not, then you're going to have a really inconsistent product. [Kalman points out his Sweet Cab Onions, Chi-town Giardiniere, Cucumber Kimchi, and Bloody Mary Asparagus.]
SI: The asparagus looks likes something I could pour in a glass and just add vodka…
BK: When you think of pickles you think “oh, it's packed in just straight vinegar,” but here we used a San Marzano tomato from Northern California so it's a lot of ground tomato, freshly grated horseradish, vinegar, and bay leaf. Then we put a little bit of Sambal chili to give it a boost, some celery seed, and then we pack the jars with fire-roasted Fresno chili and a celery heart. So it's a complete Bloody Mary in a jar … It's a crowd pleaser!
SI: So what's next for you guys?
BK: We just picked up a distributor: a produce company, West Central Produce. It's going to blow up because they have 17 sales reps — essentially I have 17 salespeople working for me now. All the way up the West Coast.
SI: Do you think you'll expand to a point where you won't be hand-packing the jars?
BK: No, I'll always hand-pack. When we get bigger, we'll just hire more people and get a bigger space. This is a labor of love and it's got to be about that, or what will happen is you'll have a quick decline. The reason you grow is because you have a great product and people get addicted to it. And they'll notice — they'll notice if you change the recipes and cheapen the brand.
SI: People really seem to love their pickles.
BK: People do love pickles. They're so versatile. There are so many more customers out there for pickles. We're looking at doing brines, you know, for bars: for pickle backs (shots of pickle juice followed by beer chasers), and for cocktails.
SI: Aside from Umami Burger, any other restaurants carrying these?
BK: Space X, Elon Musk's rocket company. My friend is the chef there, he feeds about 4,000 people a day and they're my biggest customers. Kitchen 24 is using them on a burger, and Farmshop is not only selling them in the case but they're also putting them on sandwiches; Seoul Sausage is also using the Kimchi, of all things. I have the Korean sign-off on the Kimchi, they're starting to sell it tonight!
SI: A weird anecdote, but in a football game over the weekend, someone was cramping, and people pulled the guy off the field onto the sidelines and made him drink pickle juice out of the jar for the cramps.
BK: That's funny, I just got some info about. We were talking about it yesterday at Clover Juice with some of the girls who do yoga: the vinegar breaks down the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles which is what causes cramps.
SI: So it IS a health food.
BK: I'm thinking about a sports drink.
BK: I'm dead serious. With the vinegar and the products we're using, our brine is very clean. It's not intense and salty — it's very clean. You can drink almost all the brines.
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