f you truly believe that variety is the spice of life, there’s probably no better place for you to shop than Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices at Findlay Market. For 10 years, Colonel De Stewart — yes, he’s an actual Kentucky Colonel — has been tantalizing taste buds with more than 500 herbs, spices, rubs and blends.
And if his current inventory wasn’t enough, the Colonel will soon be adding a line of barbecue sauces, marinades and hot sauces, which will be produced in his new facility in Fort Thomas. The space will consist of a production area (awaiting FDA inspection and due to open any day) and a retail space and teaching area, which are due to open in late April. There are also Colonel De locations at the Friendly Market in Florence, Ky. and the Jungle Jim’s in Eastgate.
We recently had the chance to sit down with “the man, the myth, the mustache,” as he’s affectionately known by his customers, to find out how in just a decade this former IT guy and his wife Susan went from peddling 15 items on two card tables at a handful of farmers markets to becoming the spice experts for both local chefs and home cooks alike.CityBeat : How the heck did this all happen?
Colonel De Stewart: The folks at the local Northern Kentucky cable access channel ICN 6 knew me from my business career. With the popularity of the newly starting Food Network, I suggested more frequent food programming. They called me, “The Businessman Chef.” I foolishly thought I would teach people how to put combinations of spices together to make their food taste better, and I would have friends on who were chefs or restaurateurs. We would talk about different spices and so on, and what I learned is that every time I came off the set, instead of saying thank you for teaching me how to make mayonnaise or mustard or whatever, people were saying ‘Hey, where can I buy that?’ I was already looking for a way to get out of IT. The rest is history.
When we opened at Findlay, we had 100 items and I thought, “Oh my gosh, we have every spice in the world.” Boy was I wrong. Every day someone would ask for something we didn’t have.
CB: What exactly is a Kentucky Colonel?
CDS: People forget that the state of Kentucky, or the Commonwealth, as we like to call it, was actually the Mason-Dixon Line. We are the birthplace of both presidents. Jefferson Davis was born in Fairview, and Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, so literally both presidents during the Confederate uprising were from here — so, honestly, families were totally torn apart.
Once the altercation was over, the then-governor (of Kentucky) Isaac Shelby, who was slightly a Northern leaner, was afraid that the good old boys were going to come home all upset because they had lost the war and were going to try to take over the Commonwealth. So he sent out a notice to all of his friends who had been in the war on the side of the North that said, “If I contact you, will you come to the aid of the Governor? If you will, I will bestow upon you the order of the honorable Kentucky Colonel,” something that he made up and thought sounded really cool.
Well, it became apparent over the next couple of years that the good old boys were as tired of war as the Northerners were and there wasn’t going to be an uprising, so it changed from coming to the aid of the governor to good deeds, and today good deeds are what the colonels are all about. It is in our mission statement that every year the Kentucky Colonel organization will do a good deed. That might be to build a library, or set up food service for the elderly. There’s no telling what it will be, but there will be a good deed done in every county in the Commonwealth.CB : Why should people buy their herbs and spices from Colonel De as opposed to the grocery store?
CDS: Well, there are two things that make us unique. First, and most important, is the age. I buy from the same sources as the big box stores do, but what happens is that they bought it a long time ago. It takes almost 18 months to go from source to the grocery-store shelf. And then you take it home. Really, spices and herbs should be consumed within 18 months from the time they’re harvested. The second thing is that we don’t dictate how much you get. If you say, “Hey, I’m trying a new recipe and I don’t know if my family is going to eat this or not and I only need a teaspoon of xyz,” a teaspoon is all you have to get. I don’t tell you that you have to get a 2-ounce container, put it on your shelf and watch it grow old. I want you to get what you’re going to use.
CB: Which herb/spice history fascinates you the most?
CDS: That’s a hard one because they each are so darn unique. I think, in general, the fact that the Greeks and the Romans were using the spice routes, because then when the Dark Ages came, we as Europeans forgot where the damn things came from. So then, during the Age of Discovery, during the times of Columbus and Magellan, that’s when we had to rediscover how to get through all of these different channels to get where the spices came from.CB : What’s the most unusual item you carry?
CDS: There’s a couple, and it’s because of the attacks they make on your olfactory sense. One would be Asafetida; it’s also called Hing. It’s from Africa and it has a very strong sulfur content, and if you have a fresh piece of it, people 30-40 feet away from you are going to turn their heads to see who died and is rotting in the streets, it’s that potent. But once it’s dried and ground into a powder, you still have vestiges of that sulfur but it’s not as strong. When heat is applied to it, the sulfur turns sweet and it tastes somewhere between roasted garlic and caramelized onion. There are a lot of folks who are allergic to the allium family, which is what onion and garlic are, but you can put Asafetida in a dish and it’s not going to affect those people.
COLONEL DE GOURMET HERBS & SPICES is located at 1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, in Findlay Market. More info: 513-421-4800, colonelde.com.