On today’s show, I interview my dear friend Tony Fiasche of Nduja Artisans. We talk about his journey growing up in the restaurant world of his parents, developing and finding out that he’s a 5th generation salumi maker and he has taken this to the next level. We had some technical issues with this one so a bit of the beginning was cut off – but all of the good stuff is still there. We talk about what Nduja is because I’m sure most of you are confused about the term.
We dig deeper on what it’s like to scale and grow a company fast, some of the pressures and tribulations that go into doing that quickly.
Enjoy the show,
Antonio Fiasche is the son of an Italian immigrant family that has been curing salumi for five generations, and his mom and dad still work the line each night at their restaurant in the Chicago suburbs. Fiasche grew up bussing tables and easily fell into kitchen life. He joined the team at Publican Quality Meats as a private events cook and worked there for almost two years.
When he was ready to go out on his own, he partnered with his Calabrian father, Agostino, to open ’Nduja Artisans, producing traditional Italian charcuterie using Berkshire pork and recipes that are true to their roots. What started with a few hundred pounds of ’nduja and a prayer is
now a 30,000-pound-a-month curing operation.
In early 2018, Fiasche expanded his range and offerings at Tempesta Market, which includes an expansive variety of house salumi sought after by some of the best chefs in the country. The market also draws crowds for their superlative sandwiches (and meat cones!), which The Chicago Tribune called “joyously unhinged,” “playfully devious,” and “uber-luscious” in a twostar review—not bad for a deli. For Fiasche, Tempesta is the beginning of an expansion plan that will introduce consumers, locally and across the country, to the glories of cured meats and Calabrian chiles.
Interview with 2018 Chicago Rising Star Artisan Antonio Fiasche
Caroline Hatchett: It’s been a few years since we’ve caught up. What’s happening?
Antonio Fiasche: Our wholesale production is four times greater. There’s been a great response to the product, and we’re sticking to our values. We’re sourcing from the farmers we want to work with and using the ingredients we want to source. The retail shop has been in the back of my mind for the last few years, and we finally opened [Tempesta Market] December 1. We’ll be rebranding [from ’Nduja Artisans] to Tempesta Artisan Salumi. ‘Nduja is still our number one seller. Hot soppressata is popular too; we sell it to pizza restaurants. We sell a ton of guanciale. I think it has more flavor, compared to commodity pancetta that’s cured quickly. Our guanciale ages three months, and cheek meat is tastier anyway.
CH: Why go into retail?
AF: My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy. The idea is to have a place to showcase our products to chefs from out of town, and to have our distributors bring people here—like a showroom of sorts. We do tests—cooked products, patés, etc.—to get direct customer feedback on our products. Deep down, I love the restaurant business as much as I hate it. My dad and I are partners in this; we pieced it together. We jumped in 100 percent on a lease in a new food hall called Well St. Market. They needed an Italian concept, so we’ll have a 120 square foot location when it opens in either May or June. We’ll sell salumi, cheese boards, and four sandwiches. Even if we only break even, that place will be our billboard.
CH: You’ve expanded your repertoire considerably since the early days of ’Nduja Artisans. Tell us about some of your newer products.
AF: We developed sobrasata for Jaleo in Las Vegas. I walked into the restaurant and the chef said, “I love your ’nudja!” We got to talking about sobrasata, a cousin to ’nudja from Majorca. It’s smokier, leaner, and milder, and it’s made with Ibérico and lots of garlic. José [Andres] told his chef that he wouldn’t use sobrasata made anywhere other than Spain. I said, “Challenge accepted.”
We’re also working on wagyu beef pastrami and want to take it wholesale soon. We sneaked in a little sweet Calabrian chile along with black pepper and coriander. We cold smoke it, chill it, add another layer of seasoning, and then cook it in the oven. We also have a pork liver mousse with Asian flavors—sambal, sriracha, and soy sauce—in it.
CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your business?
Finding enough hours in the day. Finding the right people is also hard. Mike is our chef and Darren is our manager. We’re blessed to have them. Our production manager has been with me for two years. It’s about finding people with passion.
CH: What’s your five-year plan?
AF: This started with me and my dad making ’nduja. We cured 200 pounds of pork, and it took me forever to sell it. I friended every chef on Facebook to try and get it done. Now we process 30,000 pounds a month. We sell a lot in New York, Florida, California and the Midwest.
My main dream is to own my own USDA-certified plant. We technically co-pack, but I have my own processing team. When it’s your own, you do what you need to. I’d have to take on an investor—I’m losing sleep over it. Maybe one day we’d franchise this place. Ultimately, we want to be able to do things the right way and put out good food. We’re always trying to elevate our products and make them tastier.
Antonio Tony Fiasche FB
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Angelo: You’ve been in the restaurant and food industry.
Tony: Since I was two.
Angelo: Basically your entire life working at your parent’s restaurant. You’ve worked just about every role as possible there?
Tony: Pretty much, yeah.
Angelo: How was it working for your parents?
Tony: Very trying. Sometimes it was great, but having your own family there it was difficult. For a lot of, especially in my teenage I was not a very good employee. Being that I was working for my parents I’d come in late, I’d leave early. That never transferred into the way I was an employee for other people because I was always the first one there and the last one to leave. I think being that you are working for your parents you feel like you have the right or that you can just get away with that.
I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best place to really learn. I think it’s very good to go out there and work for someone else and experience those trials, and to really shape the way you are going to be as a worker, as a boss and just as a person.
Angelo: What’s one thing that you’ve learned from your parents? I know you mentioned like your dad not to yell, but what’s something that you’ve learned from seeing them that you want to have in your business, and what’s one thing that you’ve learned that you don’t want to carry forward anymore?
Tony: I would say my dad is definitely a people person, I don’t know if he would be ever able to sell that restaurant because Agostino wouldn’t be there and even though the food might still be the same it wouldn’t be the same experience. I think building that atmosphere and that community in your businesses with your customers, whether it’d be in my salumi company, with a distributor, or just a regular sales rep that can call me all the time that has questions to the owner of the company, and I treat them the same, I think that’s what really helped us grow because they are going to push our products and if there is an issue they can just call me.
The atmosphere that we create for our customers at Tempesta, I think we have great food. I think people come for the food but they come back for the service and for the experience. If they had bad food one time but they were treated really well and you tried to overcompensate they are going to come back. But even if you had good food and they were treated like shit and they felt like they were ignored or whatever the case might be, in a true case, sometimes you are always going to have an on heavy customer, it happens, but they are not going to give you another chance.
Why are they going to come spend their money there if they didn’t feel important? Being in the service industry we need to make people feel important, we are there to feed them and make sure that they are happy whether they are there for those 15, 30 minutes, hour, whatever it is. I definitely learned that from my parents. Things I would want to take on: my dad is very unorganized though I still have those traits, what I try to do, I try to find people that are smarter or more apt to doing things that I am not good at. I try to not be egotistical and acknowledge my weaknesses and find people that are better than me in those tasks and delegate those tasks so I can focus on my strengths.
Angelo: I like that. Those are good questions. I see it in me sometimes, that some of the things that, not that you dislike, but if you really had to choose that you wouldn’t take from your parents…
Tony: You have them.
Angelo: You take them, and most of the time you are unconscious to it and it just happens and then there is that one moment when you go, oh shit, I am just like this. It’s crazy.
Tony: For me, my grandfather or my dad, calling someone different names, like he’ll call me Laura, Rosanna, Anna, and I do the same thing, and my sister has started doing now. Some things are just genetically ingrained.
Angelo: Yeah, I guess so. So you were working at your parents’ restaurant and you had just gotten a little bit of trouble and you had to go away for a little while, and you came back and you started working for Publican, and when you came back—from the time I’ve known you, I’ve known you for 20 years at this point, it seems you were much more focused, much more deliberate with what you were trying to do, and in my opinion didn’t allow a lot of distractions in your life.
Tony: When I first came back I started working by my parents’ restaurant and I started doing some Staging, which is basically working for the Stages , working for free in the restaurant seeing if you like it. I was very unhappy working at my parents’ restaurant. I had different ideas of what I wanted to do. I didn’t like that the menu was always the same even though you can do specials. My now brother-in-law was working for Publican and he got me the Stage there and got me the foot at the door and I liked it, I liked that it was different. I liked the way that they cooked and the way they incorporated ingredients. Though I still loved cooking I think it reinvigorated my passion for cooking to go work someone for $10 an hour happily. Then I would serve tables at the weekends for my parents.
Angelo: What was some of the things that you learned at Publican besides being different and creative, how did you decide that you were going to create Nduja?
Tony: Besides all that I had a great chef when I was there Paul Kahan is big good chef, but he wasn’t really the chef that was there and he is still a very good friend of mine. I learned a lot from him, his name is Chris. Besides different flavor profiles and vinegars I learned a lot ingredient wise that I was never really open to, because when you have an Italian restaurant you do things a certain way and you your basil and you have your tomatoes and a variety of ingredients, anything goes, any cuisine goes, so we’d be getting all kinds of spices and ingredients and something I’ve never really experienced, maybe I ate them before but never experienced working with them. I think that was really big.
One thing that was huge for me was them buying the best quality products, pork, whatever it might be, and charging whatever the hell they want it for and people were just gobbling that up. I loved it. Standing behind what you do, obviously it’s got to be good, you are not selling bullshit, I make this it’s the best you can find, but this is what you’ve got to pay for and not have to compromise. That was a big thing. The actual company started towards the end of 2013. I did a less project for a one-off, they were opening a restaurant and a hotel called Nico Osteria and I did some catering for them. I told them it was going to be my last project, they needed the help so I didn’t want to just abandon them. That was a trial- we were waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to cook breakfast at a hotel.
Angelo: What was the moment that you decided that you were going to do this?
Tony: It goes back a little bit. I give credit to my dad, he is the one that wanted to do the Nduja because a customer came in, brought some Nduja he purchased online excitedly for my dad knowing that they were from his area. My dad tried it and he is like, “this is not Nduja”. He goes, “how much are they charging for this?” That’s what really sparked us making it in a large scale building and a curing fridge above our restaurant, spending our day off making sausage. Then we found a [inaudible 00:09:30] to work out of and I said, okay, this is what I want to focus, I just fell in love with curing meats.
I love baking and I love baking because to me it’s very systematic, and I felt like curing meats was similar- once you create your recipe and your system you can tweak things and change it a little bit. But I like the system and order of it. We made our first batch in the end of 2013, 200 pounds of Nduja.
00:10:02 It took my forever to try and sell it, the first year they get a little discouraged, maybe 100,000 in sales, I gave so much product away. Then when I started making new products, like our fennel salami which now we’ve won three awards for, we just recently won a gold SOFI Award which is like the Oscars of the specialty food world. That’s when things started turning around, because even to this day people don’t understand what Nduja is.
Angelo: Why don’t you explain it?
Tony: Right. It’s a spicy spreadable of salume. I like to explain to people, it’s like a spicy pork butter. It’s made like any other salumi, it’s still fermented, it’s dry, but it’s got a much higher fat content, sweetened up pepper so when it dries “it’s like butter”, in the sense where if it’s refrigerated it’s more firm, but if it’s set out it’s very spreadable and it has so much flavored umami, I like to call it the Italian fish sauce because you can add a little bit to a dish and it brings so much depth of flavor.
Of course I’m still working on educating people on this product, but as we have expanded into more traditional products and kept them at a [inaudible 00:11:17] high quality of the type of meat that we use, the farmers that we work with, the ingredients that we source, that’s what took us to the next level because those products sell at a much higher rate because people recognize soppressata, salami, fennel salami, coppa, whatever you want to call it. I think that was a turning point as far as to get us to the point where we are right now.
Angelo: When did you realize that you needed to start making more products and how many products are you making right now?
Tony: It wasn’t more so when did we decide to make products—the research, the development, that’s the fun part. This week we are probably making 20,000 pounds of various products. The organizing I love that. We are recipe testing right now for Jose Andres- I don’t know if you guys know who that is he is one of the best Spanish chefs in the world. He just won a James Beard Award for being a humanitarian. He’s served over a million meals in Puerto Rico when no one was trying to help them.
Angelo: I just saw that.
Tony: The guy is amazing besides being a very great cook. I’m developing recipes, he is opening an Italy like concept in New York, and here I am an Italian kid working on Spanish recipes for the top Spanish chef in the world. I’m not making any money but I don’t care, I think it’s cool as shit. His chef that works for him is like, “you know Tony, we might not buy anything”, I’m like, I don’t care, I’m enjoying the process, I will sell it to someone else.
That development and the camaraderie, I don’t know if I said that word right, I enjoy the learning. Trying new stuff and making something—when they are like, Tony, this product that you just made is way better than anything that the Spanish are importing, I’m like, fuck yeah. You can’t be any more proud than that. Our Soppressata is being served in all these restaurants, the chef Jose Andres said he will not serve an imported or domestic Soppressata because none of them are good. That’s how they started, a year and a half ago I was in a restaurant doing sales and I was teasing the chef, he was, “oh, I love Nduja”, I go, “yeah, just put it on your menu, Soppressata”, because Soppressata is a Spanish spreadable salami originally from the island of Majorca, it’s not as spicy but it’s a very similar product to Nduja.
He’s like, “no, chef is very traditional he won’t do it”. I go, “let me try making that for you”, he was, “okay”, back and forth, recipes back and forth till we nailed it. To be an Italian making a Spanish product that this guy said is good enough to serve at his restaurants that no other product was before to me that’s an achievement. Maybe it’s not out there, it’s not recognized, but personal achievement that’s part of things that drive me.
Angelo: That’s great. It sounds to me like one of the appeals of what you do is that it’s a gain that seems like it will never end.
Tony: I think so. When it comes to food you are always going to have to eat, and I think there is always going to be other things that you can try. Right now we are working on lamb salami. Most people that make lamb products they are mixed with pork or whatever, we want to create a product that maybe for people that don’t eat pork. I think the creative process is what really drives me.
00:15:03 Sure, making money is great, but I’m always paying my people more, as we make more money I want to take care of my people. So it’s not like I’m running home to the bank and just looking at my bank account just swelling up. For me it’s definitely all about the creative process.
Angelo: How much time do you spend in R&D, like a week?
Tony: It’s hard to really say. But we are constantly having products in R&D, different varieties. I think if I didn’t do R&D we would be way more profitable, but that’s neither here nor there.
Angelo: Besides your stores, where could people find Nduja and other products? Think too that this might be listened to by people not just in Chicago.
Tony: We are in a lot of specialty stores across the country. In Chicago we are in Mariano’s. People have found and eaten our products in restaurants; we are in a lot of high end restaurants. We are very strong in restaurant food service, but it’s hard to say, but we are not in whole foods yet or any of these very large big buck stores. Then again we are still a small player, it’s been four years and I think we have covered a lot of ground.
Angelo: So you are an eataly?
Tony: We are an eataly, yes.
Angelo: What are some well-known restaurants that your products are served in?
Tony: We are served in Jose Andres, we are in all the Jaleo restaurants, we are in Julian Serrano in Las Vegas, Carbone, the salami that you had at Carbone in New York or Las Vegas is ours, all the RPMs, Italian, a lot of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants, we are at Giada De Laurentiis in Las Vegas, a lot of Fabio Viviani’s places we sell products to him.
Angelo: How does it feel like that millions of people have eaten your products at this point?
Tony: It’s awesome. That’s why I think I still love doing the trade shows to see a person’s honest reaction, because people you can talk to them on the phone and they can try to blow smoke, but you are right in front of them, you give them a piece of product or whatever they grab and you see the pure enjoyment and their initial facial reaction. They haven’t even said anything, but you know that what you are doing is good, and they are enjoying it. At the end of the day that’s what really matters.
I see mediocre products out there, whatever it is, but it’s’ nice to know that we are doing something the way my grandfather did it, maybe things are a little bit different, but we are always about sourcing the best ingredients, and I think people when they taste that even if it’s for the first time and you are part of that experience it’s pretty fulfilling.
Angelo: I like it. You mentioned this a couple of times about your products and the quality of it, so being an artisan what does that really mean to you, and especially since you’ve been in this industry and you’ve seen people start being artisans and then maybe veer off that path, what about that for you?
Tony: I respect the craft, and I really enjoy working with and supporting a lot of these small farmers, and what that means most of the time is that I’m paying a much higher premium for these world rate products. I’m able to translate that price wise for food service, but it’s hard when it comes to retail because they only want to pay so much and they have their margins and even though you want to get out there and try to promote these products it’s difficult sometimes because how much is someone really going to pay for a salami in a store, maybe to really be able to support this farmer nets, really small, maybe they’ve got to pay 15 bucks for a little 5 ounce piece which sounds kind of crazy when you can go get another product for twice the size for half the price. I enjoy working with these products because it’s what I want to eat, so that’s the way I want to make the product. I don’t know other than that.
Angelo: That’s great. It sounds like that’s something you are really passionate about and you are going to continue moving forward no matter what. That’s awesome. What is your goal for the company Nduja Artisans in five years? Where would you like it to be?
Tony: I’d like to just keep growing.
Angelo: Do you have an idea of…
Tony: Are we talking about monetary?
Angelo: No, it doesn’t have to be monetary, how bigger in size, your own plan—where do you see it going as a company? Where would you like it to go?
Tony: I’d like to be able to grow as large as we can without compromising our beliefs. I think it goes hand in hand, I like to be able to open more Tempesta markets. Even if it comes to a point where maybe I can only sell so much products wholesale but I could just sell these top quality awesome products at my delis and be able to reach a bunch of people that way—we came up with a pastrami that’s so freaking good, Wagyu beef pastrami it melts in your mouth. Now we started that at the deli. The deli is cool because it’s becoming like our little R&D lab, we let people taste products and if they like it maybe we will make it for wholesale. Just to continue to create as long as we can move forward doing what we do today in a larger scale, whatever that might be. I’d be happy with that. Keep hiring people that have the same vision that they can work and do something that they love to do, that they are passionate about.
Angelo: That’s awesome. For you, do you have a particular role that you are working towards?
Tony: I juggle a lot right now.
Angelo: That’s why I asked.
Tony: Honestly I do enjoy it, I don’t know if I want to be able to just not do anything because I like the energy of constantly being on the move. If I can keep finding people that can do things better than I can then I’m going to keep letting go and see what else my role is going to evolve into. Like right now I’ve been spending a lot of time at the deli, we are opening the second deli in the food hall, my production manager has been taking a lot of roles, we have hired someone else to do the shipping and I have someone doing our administrative stuff. For me I’d like to just keep growing our businesses in whoever direction it might be still being part of the creative process 100%, and finding people that want to grow this business and then mentor them, just keeping it going.
Angelo: Building your own culture.
Tony: Building a culture yeah, not just trying to have someone to hire someone at Tempesta and the factory to stuff salami just because they want to make a few bucks. Hopefully we can find people that they like and just love stuffing salami and pay them well enough that they are happy to do that as a job and not just because they lost whatever job and now they need to make some money to pay rent. That’s the eventual goal, to be able to have people in every position, even the crappiest positions like washing stuff. Maybe they don’t mind the wash stuff, but they are respected for being in that position and that they are being paid well enough.
That would be awesome, to have everyone that works for you actually be happy to be working there, because there are always people that hate their jobs and hate their life, and that sucks to be around, you can feel that energy. I don’t know how I’m going to do that because obviously it involves making a certain amount of money to be able to sustain that and also be a profitable company. I think that would be a pretty awesome goal to just walk into a place it’s morning time, and everyone is freaking happy to be there. Obviously there’s other stuff that happens in life that could cause you to be sad, but not because they are at work and they just hate it and they are on whatever job site looking for something else to do because they are miserable. I think that’s a pretty awesome goal to look forward to.
Angelo: That’s awesome man. That’s such a good idea, especially everybody enjoying what they do. How many people go home and say how much they fucking hate what they do? I love it. For you, where could people find Nduja, where could people find the markets, everything like that?
Tony: Ndujaartisans.com is our website. We also have an online store we ship all across the country. If you happen to be in Taipei, we sell a lot of products Taiwan, to a lot of the top restaurants. There is a lot of different specialty stores throughout, if someone really wants to try our product just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to either sell you some stuff online or try to find you a place that you can pick it up depending on where you live.
Angelo: What’s the address for the markets?
Tony: 1372 West Grand Avenue, in Chicago is our flagship Tempesta Market, number two in a food hall in Well Street Market it’s 205 West Wacker in Chicago that’s going to be opening up towards the end of next month, which is around June 20th 2018.
Angelo: A lot of excitement around that place.
Tony: I’m excited, it should be great. There is a lot of great chefs and restaurants in there, I think it’s going to be— it’s a very, very busy part of Chicago. I think it will be great.
Angelo: Alright. One question and we are going to wrap up. If you had one word, just one word you wanted to be remembered by what would it be?
Angelo: Whoa, you thought of that quick.
Tony: I think it’s the way that I live, to be driven towards whatever your goals are. You can’t get anywhere in life by being lazy.
Angelo: I like it. Thanks for coming over and doing this with me today brother.
Tony: Thanks for having me.
Angelo: My pleasure.