2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Artisan Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair

2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Artisan Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair
February 2014

Scott Witherow didn’t immediately dive into the sweet deep-end of chocolate production, but began more broadly in food. Working in the industry since he was 14, Witherow nurtured a prosaic love of food culture. After getting his bachelors of science from Middle Tennessee State University, Witherow earned Le Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu London.

Where the road would lead, Witherow wasn’t entirely sure. But he thought about it while working at various restaurants in London (The Fat Duck), Nashville, and Chicago (Alinea). Witherow realized how much chocolate he was ordering as a pastry chef, and eventually decided he should be on the other end of that equation. In late 2007, he began oven-roasting and hand-cranking cacao beans and separating the nibs from the shells with the help of a hair dryer and a chinois.

Just two years later, Olive and Sinclair was born, a bean-to-bar operation that produces Southern artisan chocolate and collaborates with other Tennessee businesses (the two current most popular bars are Bourbon Nib Brittle and Smoked Nib Brittle, made with Pritchard’s and Allan Benton, respectively). With a product this good, Olive and Sinclair is now distributed in 200 Whole Foods stores and 48 states, as well as in Singapore and Selfridges in London.

I Support: Blood: Water Mission


Why: We want to give back to the countries that we work with and that are a part of Olive and Sinclair. Blood Water Mission allows us to give back to them and their families.

Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Artisan Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair Chocolates – Nashville, TN

Meha Desai: How did you get into the food industry?
Scott Witherow:
I’ve been in restaurants since I 15. My first job in the food industry, I started as a busboy and worked my way up. I kept working through high school and college. I wanted to go culinary school but my parents said would help with college, so went to college instead. But I worked in restaurants through college as well. I applied to schools all over the US and was looking at moving to Charleston. But it didn’t feel right. I had been reading about the food industry in England, and I so moved there. I worked several jobs in different pubs and stayed in kitchens. I ate what I could when I could. And eventually, went to Cordon Bleu in London. I trained in pastry and French cuisine. But from a professional standpoint, I am more likely to be found on the pastry side if things. But at home, I never do anything sweet.

 MD: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
I worked as a commis at Nobu. When I returned to Nashville, I worked at Ascots for quite a while. I staged at Alinea, and went back to England to stage at St. Johns and Fat Duck. To be quite candid, all that made me miss the South a lot. I came back here and continued to work at other restaurants.

MD: How did you get in to chocolate?
I was buying chocolates for pastry programs I was working in. I was trying to find different chocolates and from everywhere and I started wondering if I could make it myself. My mind was starting to work at a molecular level, thinking about how things were made? How could I do it myself? And so I started roasting cacao beans in the oven at home. I would clean and winnow the beans using a tamis and hairdryer. I started with 5 to 10 pounds at a time. Most of it was terrible. But it kept me going. At the time nobody in the South was making chocolate. I’ve always gone to my dad for advice especially for business. He helped me to realize that this was a good concept. He also gave me a bit of a loan and I got a line of credit from the bank. I started small—instead of doing it all at the same time and having 18 partners, I took it one step at a time and on my own.

MD: What’s your chocolate philosophy?
I want to make chocolate that’s inherently southern. I want to take Southern flavors and methods and make them applicable to the chocolate world. Using brown sugar and buttermilk comes naturally to me. Our chocolate is defined in the same realm as southern cuisine defines itself: same ingredients and methods.

MD: How much chocolate a year do you currently produce?
 We produce close to 60,000 pounds of chocolate per year. We also supply to restaurants around. We do all chocolate for McCradys and Husk, City House and several people like that. Occasionally someone will request nibs but less frequently. We work with a lot of brewers and distillers in an attempt to use the whole bean and the whole pod.

MD: What is the most important part of chocolate making?
Each part of the process is equally important. If the sourcing of the bean and fermenting is not done properly, it throws off our roasting. It doesn’t allow us to produce what we want to. Particle size sets in the flavor, so every single step is very important and needs to be thought out. In my opinion even the design of the package plays an important role.

MD: Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them?
 My father has taught me work ethic and business sense.

 MD: If you weren't a chocolate maker, what would you be doing?
 I’d be doing something else with my hands either brewing or bee keeping. I’m an avid junk collector as well.

MD: Where will we find you in 5 years?
Lord willing, I’ll still be here making chocolate. We just moved in to a new building an old grocery store from 1890. Whatever we’re doing, it seems to be working—we’re in the US, UK, Singapore, and Japan. We’ve got pretty good distribution at the moment.

MD: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
I really enjoy our barrel aged bourbon brittle. We’re about to release 2 new products—a Duck Fat Caramel, and a Sea Salt and Vinegar Caramel.

MD: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? 
SW: I’d like to do a tour around the South. Hopefully hitting some good Southern mainstays would be my preference. So many people are doing so many good things in my backyard, and I would like to see what these people are up to.

MD: What advice do you have for chocolate makers who are just getting started?
Follow your gut and be ready for more stress than you think you’ll get. It’s not a restaurant where you can fill up every evening and make money. In a factory, there’s a lot to think about—whether or not to do things by hand, to automate or not. There are lots of details, so think about everything.