A trip to Fustini’s is much more than a shopping experience. This European-style specialty store, tasting room, and culinary school offers gourmet ingredients like pasta, tapenades, and honey, but their main focus is to elevate your cooking and dining experience with just two ingredients: olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Fustini’s website boasts nearly 700 oil and vinegar recipes and their cooking school offers everything from the basics to the most advanced skills for anyone interested in making the most out of cooking with oils and kinds of vinegar. Chef Nikolas Bardt talked with us about his expertise, the reasons why we should be cooking with oils and vinegar, and why anyone who wants to improve their cooking skills would benefit greatly from the classes offered at Fustini’s.
What inspired you to join this industry?
I grew up in a very food-oriented family. Weekends were spent mushroom hunting or going to the local farmers’ markets to find interesting things to cook for dinner! Very early on I understood the importance of food beyond the nutritional aspects, food could bring people together. So naturally, I chose a career where I could make those connections and make people happy. As far as any single person being an influence in my culinary pursuits, I would have to say, my Dad. When I was growing up he was always experimenting with new recipes, making pasta from scratch, sausages, and bread. One of my favorite memories as a kid was watching the pita bread rise in the oven. I was always glued to the oven door!
What is the best part about teaching others how to cook?
I think the best part about teaching others how to cook, is sharing the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over my career. By teaching the science behind specific combinations of ingredients, I can help someone understand food as opposed to just blindly following the recipe. With this knowledge, our freshly empowered guests can start to stray into the creative. That’s when the good times start to roll!
What makes olive oils and balsamic vinegars so versatile and important?
Salt, sugar, and fat. That’s a very simplified version of what we taste for in food. By using olive oil and vinegar in specific combinations, we can achieve all three of those with just two ingredients. Certain single varietal olive oils taste very different from each other. Spicy or peppery notes, to bright, “green” and fresh tasting. When you’re cooking with or tasting our varieties of balsamic vinegar, you have to take the word vinegar out of your mind. I like using the balsamic as accents or sometimes even that “salt” or sugar! Vinegar as a seasoning, who knew!
Why do you think surprises people most about learning to cook with oils and vinegar?
Without giving away any of my secrets, people are most surprised by the sheer variance of flavor combinations that we can get. Using balsamic vinegars and single varietal olive oils in everything from appetizers to desserts, and even cocktails, our guests are always on the edge of their seats!
Which recipes are your students’ favorites?
We have all kinds of participants, but I can say with some certainty that the simple recipes are favorites. Think comfort foods… or grandma’s cooking! New twists on old ideas are always popular.
Which kinds of recipes are your favorite to teach and why?
I love to cook, and I love to tell stories. So, recipes that I’ve picked up, or new foods I discovered on a trip or vacation are always fun to teach. Complex or simple recipes it’s all about the ingredients and using those ingredients to make connections.
What bit of advice would you give someone who can’t cook to save their lives? Asking for a friend.
Tell your friend to come and see me! No in all seriousness, on the journey to becoming a better cook, liking to eat is more than half the battle. Being mindful of what you’re eating, and not always going for convenience, sets you up for seeking out better foods. Start cooking simple dishes with fresh ingredients. It might be more work, but the inherent rewards are always worth it. The natural progression of this mindset is you starting to experiment with ingredients at home!
Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars has four Michigan locations, in Ann Arbor, Holland, Petoskey and Traverse City.
The Ann Arbor shop is located in the Kerrytown Market & Shops at 407 N. 5th Ave. on the 2nd floor. 734-213-1110. fustinis.com