When Michaele Musel arrives at Handsome Coffee Roasters 15 minutes late, she comes bearing gifts.
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her hair is still damp, and she tucks a piece behind her ear as she puts in an order for a coffee and takes the seat next to me at the bar. The espresso machine whirs as the corporate chef-turned recipe tester and developer-turned artisan consultant-turned entrepreneur pulls an unmarked jar out of her purse and places it in front of me.
“Oh my gosh, I forgot to ask. You’re not a vegetarian, right?”
I respond with an “absolutely not,” and her worried consideration turns to laughter, which comes easily to the energetic chef.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I requested an interview with Musel. I’d met her while she was helping serve on the Fox Pizza Bus and she mentioned she was working on something of her own. This something, placed in front of me, turned out to be a spread, slightly pink with a heterogeneous texture that looked gooey and crunchy and blended at the same time. I offered a hesitant smile.
“De Vamoré,” Musel says. She leans in. “‘Devilish love.’ This spread brings out the devil in you.”
The concoction is Musel’s labor of love, a bacon and date spread with a recipe that took a year and a half of on-again, off-again work to perfect. It is the sophisticated sister of Devils on Horseback, its former name and the name for the popular party appetizer, bacon-wrapped dates. Unlike its solid form, De Vamoré is refined with ingredients like chopped almonds and chile powder, and most importantly, an easy party favor.
“I’ve always been very keyed into products,” says Musel who worked as the culinary director for a test kitchen in the beef industry, a feather-in-the-hat job for recipe tasting. “Fast forward a few years, and I was making devils on horseback–bacon-wrapped dates–for a party. As I’m making it I’m thinking, this is just a pain in the–” Musel drops her voice to a whisper“–ass to make. No wonder people don’t bring it that often. My brother and I looked at each other and I thought, ‘I can’t believe nobody’s chopped this up.’”
Musel kept the idea in her mind until she finally had the opportunity to test it when a client wanted a clever way to showcase bacon. For the next year and a half, she dabbled with the recipe until it debuted at LA’s Cochon 555 last year, where Musel worked with three different artisans to make the spread with three different bacons. A representative from the Westwood-based Wally’s Wine Shop asked to buy the spread for their store, and Musel started to release the product.
“I slowly launched it, very quietly because I knew that I needed to do a bit more legwork as far as getting it out there and being able to keep up with it,” says Musel.
It was at this point she met her business partner, Stephen Kenneston, who convinced her to move forward at full speed.
You have to be an insider to know about the spread, Musel and Kenneston say, smirking; but though designed that way, it’s unlikely De Vamoré will stay secret for long. Since the two partnered up in February, they’ve worked together to build a business plan which included renaming the spread, creating the company Underworld Syndicate (under which De Vamoré will be released), and branding the product, all things Kenneston pitched when he met Musel for the first time.
Today, he sets an illustration down on the table when he joins us. A woman wearing a chef hat and apron arches her back. Her foot pops up seductively, a tail articulated with an arrowhead curving up from the shadow of her bottom.
“What do you think?” Kenneston asks.
“I love it,” Musel gushes.
“Michaele hasn’t seen this,” Kenneston explains. “She approved the layout, and I actually painted that illustration. I laid it into [the computer], cut it out into the logo … and added the shadow for the body.”
“It completely makes sense,” Musel affirms. “It’s that alter ego. I love it. I’m so excited.”
Immediate praise like this is rare from Musel. Open-minded but a perfectionist, Musel tends to prefer to explore concepts before implementing them, much like sifting and substituting the ingredients of a recipe.
“When you get an ‘I love it’ from Michaele without thought, that’s a good thing,” says Kenneston.
Kenneston is a marketing and communications image consultant for small businesses. He was a fan of Musel’s spread before the two met, back when it was still called Devils on Horseback and when Musel was still wavering on whether or not to move forward with the product.
“I live over in Westwood, and one of our local stomping grounds is Wally’s [Wine and Spirits]. I walk in one day, and I’m having friends over, and as I’m buying cheese, I asked for a fig spread,” Kenneston remembers. “The person behind the counter goes ‘Oh, you gotta try this,’ and grabs [the spread]. At the time, it was Devils on Horseback. I took it home, and [one guest] wanted to jump in the jar.”
On every return visit to Wally’s since, Kenneston has sold a jar of Musel’s spread. The first sale happened right in front of her, unbeknownst to Kenneston at the time.
“I’m driving by Wally’s one night with my girlfriend Lisa, and she didn’t want to stop. I almost didn’t stop,” Kenneston says.
Inside, a table was set up with three vendors selling gummy worms, cheese, and Musel’s Devils on Horseback.
“I walk up at the same time as this woman is looking at the product, hemming and hawing at whether or not to buy it. She asks, ‘What is this?’ and I say, ‘Listen, buy it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll pay for it.’ This one,” Kenneston gestures toward Musel, who is chuckling, “starts laughing, and she says ‘thank you’ and I go, ‘you’re the one that made this?’ That’s how we met.”
Moments after leaving, Kenneston walked right back in the store and proposed a partnership to Musel. One month later, they sat at the very same spot in Handsome Coffee Roasters, going over Kenneston’s ideas for a marketing campaign, where he pitched his ideas for a commercial spot, brand positioning, and a name change for the spread. Each played on the devilish theme, from the company name Underworld Syndicate to what became its tagline: “sinfully decadent.” Musel loved it.
The two formed their business relationship based on a number of shared qualities. It’s evident in the way they admirably poke fun of each other throughout our conversation that a sense of humor is one of them. Tenacity and enthusiasm are two others.
“Michaele has such a high energy and receptive personality and such a love for this product it just really came naturally,” Kenneston explains. “I walked away from the table for five minutes and came back and pitched her the idea. A lot of people talk about things. Michaele is a doer.”
Kenneston’s exuberance paired with his background in advertising and entertainment in the realms of photography, cinematography, editing, and directing is a combination of experiences Kenneston believes gives him a greater understanding of storytelling. This appealed to Musel.
“I think what made me excited about Stephen is just he’s … I almost see him as the male version of me. But in a different sense, in his world. I like working with people like Stephen where the first word that comes out of their mouth is never ‘no.’ In the very least, it’s let’s explore this idea. It’s very smart,” says Musel. “I never feel frustrated.”
Kenneston laughs, a giant rumbling sound, “Can you put that in writing?”
Musel giggles and continues, “To me, that’s a big deal. When I moved out here [to California] to pursue a new stage of life … it was really important for me to meet people who are creative, open-minded, and not afraid to take chances.”
Kenneston and Musel’s fledgling business is in the throes of risk-taking right now. The two are in talks with a co-packager for De Vamoré. Once the formula is re-created, the spread will go to the USDA for approval, which takes about a month. Then they’re in for a slew of promotion: writing press releases, selling chains, and sending out samples to get the product on the shelf. They’re hoping to see it happen in four to six months.
“A lot of it is beyond our control,” Kenneston says. “We’re going to start with California first, obviously, then move to more national chains.”
What is in their control is expanding the Underworld Syndicate line in the process, a move Musel has dedicated herself to in crafting new recipes.
“If you ask Michaele, we’re going to have 50; if you ask me we’re going to start here,” Kenneston says.
“I’m just going to make sure we’re prepared to move forward,” Musel adds.
“That means a sh*tload of work for me,” Kenneston counters.
For now, they’ve settled on four other products to complement De Vamoré: a steak sauce marinade, a bite-sized appetizer, a potential salad dressing, and a dessert, “all of which have the same power of expression in a food that resonates with De Vamoré.”
With a flavor profile that combines four distinct elements–sweet, savory, crunchy, and hot–De Vamoré utilizes the principles of umami to make for a decadent twist on the standard hors d’oeuvre.
“It’s addictive. It’s a different taste and sensation as it hits the tongue. The initial sensation is crunchy, then it’s sweet, savory, and finally, hot,” Musel tells me. She beams. “When you put those all together–you’ve heard of umami, right? It’s very high in umami. It pairs well with other ingredients like cheese, burgers, steak, even roasted chicken, which elevate it further with one more element. The history behind umami is that two plus two equals eight. It’s a synergistic reaction so that the more elements you add, the more explosive the flavor profile.”
As for more spreads, Kenneston says, half-jokingly, “If she can make a better spread than this, we’ll let you know. I doubt it, but I’m willing to test her.”
True insiders can pick up De Vamoré at Wally’s during the holiday season. After going home and slathering it on lemon thyme crackers topped with gouda cheese, I can attest it’s a dance with the devil. You’ll be back for seconds.
Photography by Stephen Kenneston