With an American father and French mother (and thus the lucky holder of two passports), food in Michelle Lewis’ childhood home was all-important. So important that it was quotidien, not exactly an afterthought, but certainly a given. When it came time for her to go away to school, it never occurred to her that food was something to study or pursue professionally. Lewis pursued her interest in Asian languages, which, after college, lead her to live abroad for more than 6 years in China and then Japan (perhaps the inspiration for her drop-dead perfect sesame caramel?) Upon her return, she enrolled in art school in Philadelphia before finally taking a gallery job and settling in NYC in 1999.
“I worked there for 13 years, but the gallery was a block from ground zero, and after 9/11 it was gone. Creative positions like that were gone. I had to completely shift gears.” A long-time dog lover, she edged her way towards the food business by starting a small dog food company focused on fresh dog foods. “I guess I was a little ahead of my time. It was prior to pet stores having fridges, so it just flatlined for the 5 years that I ran it, but i learned so much.”
In 2010, she found herself inspired to make the leap into people food. A batch of caramel sauce made for friends at Christmas was all it took. “I was giving it as gifts and it just sort of made sense to me – there weren’t many good, pure, salty caramel sauces. The market was there.”
Super hot sugar is a tricky thing and in the months that followed, Michelle weathered her share of burns and mishaps. In addition to the flavors she’s perfected so far, she dreams of creating a terrific fruit-infused caramel but that testing process has been tricky – apricot too sweet, citrus too strong and best balanced by a hint of black pepper.
She recently hired two fabulous helpers and feels nearly ready to grow. “We work out of a commercial kitchen in Sunset Park right now - weekend shifts, 8 hour days, 15 cases in a shift. My long-term dream would be to have my own kitchen, to make the production side completely my own. I want to stay in Brooklyn, and I’d like to build up a great core team of people around me because I’m not good at everything.”
Michelle knows she has found the work she is meant to do. “I don’t always know what drives me, but I know that I need to be doing this. It’s the daily learning, the challenges, not knowing what I’m going to have to do tomorrow. To say ‘Yeah! I’m in those stores!’ Stretching myself everyday.”