The Food History Project had the pleasure of touring one of the most famous and oldest family run business in Paso Robles. Cook Flavorings is celebrating their 100th Anniversary as the foremost innovator of pure vanilla extract and other premium flavor extracts.
On September 8th, 30 members of the Food History Project gathered at the factory for a presentation on the history of Vanilla by food historian, Sarah Lohman, and a tour of the facility by the owners, Don Schmidt and his family. Don began by describing the plantations in Madagascar from which they source vanilla beans and the methods used to produce vanilla extracts right here in Paso Robles which Cook Flavoring sells to retail and industrial businesses worldwide.
Vanilla beans are the fruit of an orchid plant which is native to Central America. Sarah Lohman had made the long and difficult journey to visit a plantation in Mexico. She described the Mayans as the first civilization to grow vanilla as a crop and enjoy it in their hot chocolate. The Aztecs preferred to drink their chocolate as a cold beverage but they also spiked it with vanilla. Sarah described the plant as an ancient one and stated that there are at least 110 species of the orchid genus, Vanilloid, native to four continents. This indicates that the plant evolved before the continents divided and separated.
Don Schmidt and Josephine Lochhead, third generation, operate this fascinating business. Cook Flavoring Company was founded in 1918 by Angus Lochhead in St. Louis, Missouri. Angus sold vanilla. His son Raymond R. Lochhead, who studied chemical and mechanical engineering at Caltech in Pasadena, explored the chemistry and formulated the manufacture of vanilla extract. He began his studies in the 1930s but was interrupted by World War II. After the War, Ray returned to the family business.
Ray Lochhead and his family moved to Paso Robles to expand the company. The vanilla beans were sourced from remote islands in the South Pacific and off the coast of Africa. It was important for Cook Flavorings to be close to major ports in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ray was a maverick in the vanilla industry. He travelled the world in search of the highest quality vanilla beans which require hand pollination and sun-curing by the independent farmers who raise them. Ray experimented to find the perfect balance for the pure vanilla extract he was producing.
During the 1970’s, Ray set up vanilla curing operations in Fiji, Bali, Tonga and Madagascar. In 2000 Ray’s daughter Josephine and son-in-law, Donald Schmidt, expanded the Cook Flavoring Operations. Their daughter, Margaret works in the laboratory and niece Susannah works with sourcing the finest vanilla beans from grower; both have joined the family business. The vanilla beans are personally selected from independent farmers. This is what we know as Fair Trade. Don Schmidt shared many stories on the impact of weather and seasonal storms which have affected the production and local economies of vanilla bean producers. The price of vanilla continues to rise in today’s markets because of a shortage of vanilla beans.
In addition to vanilla, Cook Flavorings has a full line of food flavorings.
The Wine History Project and the Food History Project send their warm congratulations on the 100th Anniversary of Cook Flavorings.
Don shared an amazing flavor fact with us: there are only two aromas that the human brain universally recognizes: one is the flavor of vanilla and the other is the smell of a skunk. We’ll take Vanilla anytime!
Thank you Don for an amazing tour!