Joel Devalcourt had been trying to perfect his chili sauce recipe when serendipity led him to a bottle of nut oil. More specifically, it was some La Tourangelle walnut oil that Joel and his wife Yvette found in the pantry of a Berkeley home where they were house sitting. A Santa Cruz native with French-via-Louisiana heritage, Joel is a passionate home cook. And even though his father hails from the home of Tabasco (New Iberia, Louisiana), Joel was on a personal quest to make a chili sauce without the vinegar that’s so prominent in Tabasco. He craved a spicy sauce that would taste great with just about anything; one, as he puts it, “that’s as good on pizza as it is on ramen.”
A restaurant server by night, Joel had observed chefs preparing sauces with chili peppers, olive oil, and salt to spice up various foods they made for themselves during breaks. He was playing with these flavors in 2012 when he tasted the nut oil in the pantry. It turned out to be the missing flavor he had been seeking. “Then the experimentation really took off,” says Yvette. The result was The Abyss, the first and spiciest variety of Dark Heart Chili Sauce.
Reluctant to Start a Food Biz
At first, the Devalcourts had no desire to start a food business. Employed by day at the nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance, Joel was building a career around protecting agricultural lands and promoting local farming. He was also moonlighting as a server at Oakland’s Boot & Shoe Service. Yvette is a painter who has also studied conservation biology, sung opera, and taught art and yoga. She grew up within a famous family business, the beloved New Orleans praline shop Aunt Sally’s, founded by her great-grandparents in the French Quarter in 1935. Working in the shop gave Yvette a feel for customer service, evident at the Kensington Farmers’ Market, where she greets shoppers with a big smile and the query, “Would y’all like to try some chili sauce?” But she’s also acutely aware of the intense demands of a family business.
In spite of the couple’s ambivalence, the business evolved: Joel sold his first jars to his coworkers at Boot & Shoe, and just before the December 2013 holidays the couple tested the public response at a Kitchener Oakland pop-up market and a booth at the Kensington Farmers’ Market.
Because The Abyss was too hot for Yvette, Joel developed savory flavors built around both spicy and mild chilies, and he continued his explorations with various nut oils and butters. The Kensington Farmers’ Market offered a chance for market testing. “[It was] low key and supportive,” says Joel, who tweaked the spice levels based on customer feedback.
Connecting with La Tourangelle
It was also at the market that the Devalcourts learned that Matthieu Kohlmeyer, CEO of La Tourangelle, was a neighbor. Kohlmeyer, whose family runs a small artisan nut oil mill along the Loire River in France, came to California with the idea that he could duplicate his family’s product in the Sacramento Valley’s nut-growing region. The Kohlmeyer children, ages 8 and 10, were eager to try vending the family nut oils with a one-time booth at the Kensington Farmers’ Market, and that’s where the Kohlmeyers found the Devalcourts.
“Here they are, two booths down from us, using our product,” says Kohlmeyer. “It was very cool to be able to connect like that.”
Francophiles by way of their heritage, the Devalcourts grace their chili sauces with French names like Purgatoire des Amandes and Le Diable Cacao. And the French connection, via La Tourangelle’s nut oils, is one of the defining characteristics of Joel’s recipes: The name Dark Heart represents the dark color of the nut-oil-roasted chilies.
That dark richness begins in the flavor of La Tourangelle’s oils, which results from a traditional roasting process dating back to the Middle Ages. “What’s specific,” says Kohlmeyer, “is that the roasting is done with a gas burner and cast-iron kettles and the pressing with a hydraulic press.”
Kohlmeyer was only 23 back in 2002 when he arrived in California, bringing the traditional roasting equipment his family uses in France. He built a manufacturing facility in Woodland that uses nuts grown in nearby Central Valley orchards.
“The challenge at the time was that few people were aware of this product,” says Kohlmeyer, adding that the rare consumer buying walnut oil then was getting a refined supermarket product that lacked a true walnut flavor or smell. “We had to teach consumers that they should expect walnut flavor in the walnut oil,” he says. They were also educating consumers about omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and other health benefits of their product. The business gradually became successful as food co-ops, natural food stores, and gourmet markets started to carry the oils.
Last winter, La Tourangelle’s Gourmande Roasted Hazelnut Oil was honored with a Good Food Award. The limited-edition batch submitted for the competition was made using a refurbished cast-iron press that came to the company out of the blue. “We get a call about once a year [when] a farmer retires or passes away,” says Kohlmeyer. In this case, the farmer’s son had found two presses from around 1910 in the back of his father’s barn. The 4,000-pound presses were shipped to La Tourangelle’s Woodland mill, where they’re used to make what Kohlmeyer regards as “the really perfect batch.”
A Community of Helping Hands
In addition to the walnut oil, Joel uses La Tourangelle’s hazelnut, almond, and pecan oils, and he’s created both savory and sweet flavors with a range of spice levels. Libre, made with a sweet and earthy chili pepper called Senise, has almost no heat. “We’re trying to reframe spicy food in a way that’s approachable for everybody,” says Joel. In his sweet sauces, he might complement the spice with tastes of cacao, dates, dried cherries, cardamom, or, in a tribute to Yvette’s New Orleans roots, candied pecans.
Dark Heart now sells nine sauces at their twice-monthly market booth and at retail markets. “The way we’re growing is very piecemeal because we had a baby in the midst of all of this,” says Yvette. With babysitting help from Joel’s parents and a Kensington neighbor, she finds time for Dark Heart marketing and social media. The operation remains small and ultra-local, at least for now, and Joel switched his moonlighting to Kensington’s Benchmark Pizzeria, where he also rents affordable late-night kitchen space to cook the chili sauce. Kohlmeyer has helped them out by facilitating their purchase of the nut oils as needed. Even the midwife who delivered the Devalcourt’s son has volunteered as a kitchen helper. “We hand fill each jar lovingly with a spoon,” says Yvette. “It’s all very personal.”
Contributing editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, gardens, and cooking as tools for social change. She also contributes to Oakland and Alameda magazines and The East Bay Monthly. You can view her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com and contact her at rachel(at)edibleeastbay.com.