Making the Rounds With Mr. Recipe

A certain lore has built up around the city’s most prominent spice peddler, due only in part to the superiority of his products. A cultivated eccentric with a trademark pointed mustache, bald head and urban-safari-style khaki uniform, complete with a wide-brimmed hat, he’d fit right in on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or as the host of his own kids’ show. Children would either love him or run screaming. Most chefs fall into the first camp.

Aaron Isaacson, a 1983 graduate of the CIA and a veteran of such kitchens as La Côte Basque and the Russian Tea Room, originally conceived his image for the television. “A television executive [once] said, ‘You’re a great chef, but there are a thousand great chefs. You need a persona.'”

So he found one, but it took a couple of tries. Early concepts didn’t make it past the drawing board—like “Father Food, I pictured a guy in a white robe with a long white beard and a heavenly mist around him.” The one that did struck Isaacson like a revelation: “One day, I was sitting around in my living room and I screamed. My wife asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘I have it. The word mister is common abroad, and so is recipe—Herr Rezept, Señor Receta, Recipe San—how can you find a name so international?'”

Talking to Isaacson—er, Mr. Recipe—can be a bit distracting. His mustache resides on a well-trained lip that can make the hornlike hairs move in unexpected ways. When Isaacson puckers his mouth, the mustache goes due north; if it were any longer, it could poke him in the eye. “I shape it differently every day,” shares Isaacson, who achieves his look with a German wax called Brother’s Love. “Sometimes I do a real point. Sometimes I do it Wild West style, more like Clint Eastwood in the OK Corral.”

So that explains the mustache. But how did Aaron Isaacson go from aspiring TV chef to self-styled king of spices?

About 25 years ago, while trying to create the perfect cheesecake, Isaacson couldn’t source a vanilla extract that suited his standards. A friend said, “Well, you’re a chef, maybe you can make your own.” What began as a sarcastic suggestion became a consuming mission. After two years of research and experimentation, Isaacson came up with a formula of vanilla from five islands (Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Flores and Madagascar) that would catapult him to spice greatness—eventually.

After a brief stint selling the stuff on QVC (New Yorkers can now buy it at Fairway), Isaacson discovered that America wasn’t as cuckoo for premium spices as he was. “People don’t want to open a box and have the greatest vanilla they ever had,” Isaacson says. “They want the best chocolate chip cookies.”

The prominence Mr. Recipe sought with home shoppers, he found in professional kitchens in and around New York City. His clientele, which he built through word of mouth, features some of the area’s most promising talents. They include chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto, pastry chef Alex Grunert of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and chef Chris Lee, formerly of Gilt. Isaacson says he services roughly 100 kitchens in the city.

Vanilla was just the beginning. “I knew from vanilla that there were great spices out there that people weren’t getting,” he recalls. And while he’s still best known in chef circles for his vanilla, black pepper and cinnamon, today he sells a repertoire of more than 800 volatile oils, mostly used by pastry chefs for scenting and flavoring sweets (34 of them are lemon—12 of those from California, with distinctions like “from inland fruit,” “Italian type” and “winter crop”). He carries even more spices and spice blends—87 different dried chilis alone, “whole, kibbled and powdered”—from Madagascar, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Italy, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Grenada, Brazil and beyond.

According to Isaacson, what distinguishes a good spice from the rest, what determines the intensity of its flavor, is V.O.C: volatile oil content.

“Madagascar black pepper,” he says, “is probably one of the best in the world, because it is high in oil content.” Isaacson urges me eat a whole peppercorn; the heat that pops with the initial crunch radiates and intensifies in my mouth. The burn, Isaacson explains, comes courtesy of a resin called “chavicine,” while the flavor comes from the alkaloid piperine. “I send the pepper I buy to the lab [to get the oil content measured]. People I buy from know what oil I want. I buy the best of the best.”

Isaacson’s best-selling cinnamon, made from Vietnamese cassia bark, is moist, not powdery, and smells of Atomic Fireballs. His vanilla pods glisten like shiny black licorice, his dried Peruvian ají amarillo peppers are pliant like fruit rolls and his grenadine nutmeg is shot through with chocolate-brown squiggles. “If the veins in the nutmeg are really dark,” explains Isaacson, “it means the oil is there in all its glory.”

Trying to visualize Isaacson’s spice-gathering missions brings to mind an intrepid explorer who scours the earth for the finest exotic aromatics. And while he has not personally visited all of his sources, he has seen his share—Mexico, Madagascar, Spain, Italy, Kenya, Morocco, Cameroon—and plans to visit India and Tahiti this year.

Isaacson keeps his bounty in three separate warehouses—”You can’t keep vanilla, pepper and paprika in one place”—and says his secrets lie in storing as much as in sourcing. His stock in trade waits in vapor-barrier containers, which allow a minimum of air to come into contact with his spices, keeping them oil-rich. He rails against the common practice of selling spices in glass bottles. “They’re clear and porous, and the spice is on a road to disaster. What they should do is put spices in a little vapor-barrier bag and put it in a jar. Will they do that? No. They want people to throw them out and buy more.”

But the quality comes at a price. A pound of Isaacson’s Madagascar vanilla beans goes for around $250, while average vanilla beans go from $60–$100 for the same amount. “It’s like comparing a Rolls to a Chevy,” says Isaacson. “It’s not that the Chevy won’t get you there, but there are better means to arrive. If a chef tries my vanilla, he or she will never go back.” One disciple is Pichet Ong, chef-owner of the restaurant p*ong and the bakery Batch, and a return customer for such Isaacson ingredients as ground vanilla, vanilla extract, tomato powder, oregano, Saigon cinnamon and madras curry. “I buy four or five things,” says Ong. “While the products cost me a bit, they are also well worth it.”

According to chef Ryan Skeen of Irving Mill, a fan of the vanilla, chilis and green, pink and black peppercorns, “It’s like going through a small boutique farm instead of a huge commodity farm.”

Though Isaacson fills most of his orders through the mail, he visits clients, too, usually toting a new product for them to try. In simpler terms, he’s a traveling salesman. (Says Ryan Skeen: “I would be the first to tell you if he were full of shit. He is very good at pitching himself but he has a good product to back it up.”)

One Saturday afternoon, I joined him to do the rounds. The inside of his car (an Infiniti FX35, aka the “Spicemobile”) smells like—what else?—a spice cabinet, and carries an assortment assembled with the day’s customers in mind. One of them is Johnny Iuzzini, the pastry chef at Jean Georges who once described Isaacson as a pusher who brings his best stuff to your door. Once we park, Isaacson rummages in his pockets for quarters to feed the meter, moaning, “I spend nearly $2,000 a year on parking tickets.”

Inside the bustling pastry kitchen, he offers Iuzzini a sun-dried grain of paradise (or malagueta pepper) from Cameroon, a spice he’s only been carrying about three months that tastes like ginger, black pepper, cardamom, juniper and je ne sais quoi.

Iuzzini crunches a kernel between his teeth. “Pretty good.”

Despite the poker face, Iuzzini manages to convince Isaacson to leave behind the container, about $100 worth of merchandise. Isaacson doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the transaction, but casts it as part of the plan. “I looked in Johnny’s eyes and I knew he was on fire. He wanted it. When that thrill occurs, it results in more sales.”

Soon, Isaacson says, he is going to give mere mortals another chance, this time with his black pepper, which he’s developing for the mass market.

“I think my star is going to rise because of the pepper project I’m working on,” he says. When I ask for details, he turns coy, almost ghoulish. “Oh, you’ll see. It’s for me to know and for everyone to find out. It’ll give McCormick a run for their money!”

Photo credit: Jacob Pritchard