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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cucina Aurora in Salem creates tasty products designed to inspire family table time

By KATHLEEN PALMER

The kitchen witch wants you to sit for a spell.

Dawn Hunt, “a little Italian girl from New York,” opened Cucina Aurora (a play on her name’s meaning) in the non-witch Salem up here. She produces flavor-infused olive oils, seasoning mixes, desserts and risotto, all with one goal: To get people to cook, and to spend time together around the table. ...

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The kitchen witch wants you to sit for a spell.

Dawn Hunt, “a little Italian girl from New York,” opened Cucina Aurora (a play on her name’s meaning) in the non-witch Salem up here. She produces flavor-infused olive oils, seasoning mixes, desserts and risotto, all with one goal: To get people to cook, and to spend time together around the table.

“I want to remind people of the sacred act of cooking,” Hunt said, her enthusiasm for her topic infectious. “I want them to be conscious and present when they’re cooking, and remember the importance of what they’re doing: ‘I’m feeding my family, my friends, myself.’ If you put love in the food, it doesn’t matter if you’re a microwave goddess. Are you rushing to put it on the table? You need to be mindful, whether it’s chicken fingers or beef bourguignon.”

Cucina Aurora’s “semi-automated” production facility is keeping up with a sales demand of 1,000 bottles a week of her flagship product, infused olive oil. “We have some machinery that helps us fill the bottle, but it’s manually operated,” Hunt said. “It’s still me hitting a foot switch that’s filling the bottles with herbs, spices and olive oil.” The oil comes in five varieties: roasted garlic, sun dried tomato/basil; rosemary/oregano; hot pepper; and peppercorn/sage. Twelve-ounce bottles are $14.99.

“The olive oil is imported from Tuscany,” Hunt said, noting it’s “plain old virgin” instead of “extra virgin,” since the former is better for cooking. “And it’s 100 percent olive oil. There’s a lot of speculation around that these days; ‘does it have canola in it?’ The reason we chose that instead of EVOO is it has a high enough burn temperature to cook with. You can make stir fry. And especially for someone like me with food allergies, you often feel deprived. Food doesn’t have any flavor, you don’t know where to start.”

Hunt’s food allergies were the impetus for the creation of her business, albeit in a roundabout way. “I don’t say I decided on it; it decided on me,” she said. “I had, many moons ago, the opportunity to speak on the subject on seasonal eating and cooking at a spring festival in New York. My payment was an exhibit table, but I didn’t have anything to exhibit! My husband said, ‘why don’t you sell that oil you make around the house?’ and it sort of spun out of that.

“Then I found I was allergic to gluten, MSG, nitrates, additives … everything unnatural. So I decided, if I can’t eat it, I’m not going to make it. That added the missing piece, I think. It gave me so much more motivation to make not only healthy, natural food, but also to encourage people to come around the table. I’m just a little Italian girl from Long Island. We grew up with parents that were working, my older sister was a teenager who was much older than me. We all ate at different times. But on Sundays, we all came together. Grandma started making gravy in the morning; time stood still when we came together to eat,” she said.

Hunt incorporated her business in 2008 on Long Island, as a part-time gig, “just farmers markets, festivals, here and there, weekends,” she said. “Then in early 2009, my husband and I suffered a house fire; everything burned to the ground. We’d always wanted to check out New England.”

She and husband Justin, a data analyst, moved up to No. Andover, Mass. “I have a degree in interior design, so I began doing that job up here. Six months into being here, I looked at my husband and said, ‘I think I can do this; I can make this (olive oil business) something. He said, and I quote, ‘Go baby, go. I believe in you.’” Cucina Aurora was off and running.

She now has “a bunch of employees” and 35 new stores that just began selling her products. “If you’d told me even a year ago, I doubt I would have believed it,” she said. Local places to purchase her products include Whole Foods in Andover, Mass. – negotiations are happening for their Portsmouth and pending Nashua stores; WineNot Boutique and Great Harvest Breads in Nashua; Ali Baba in Manchester; at Bedford Fields; and at Lull Farm in Hollis.

She’s now branched out to the seasoning mixes – featuring “epically sourced spices,” meaning, “no slave labor in third-world countries harvesting my parsley. It’s from a grower co-op organization. I was growing and drying my own herbs and spices at first, but now I’m selling 1,000 bottles a week,” Hunt said. There are also gluten-free desserts (“They’re outrageous, and all vegan except for the chocolate,” Hunt said) and the latest addition, a simmer-and-serve, 20-minute risotto. “I’m already moving 400 units in a month I love risotto, and it took a year to bring it to fruition,” Hunt said. The risotto comes in garlic/Italian herb, hearty mushroom, sweet potato/sage, and garden vegetable varieties. From “the best onion dip in the world” to the decadent desserts, she created everything with an eye toward gluten-free living.

While building her epic empire, Hunt even auditioned for television’s “Master Chef” – at their request. “Someone at ‘Master Chef’ had heard of my company, seen my products – we’re nationwide, via our website www.cucinaaurora.com – and somehow somebody associated with that show and their producers called me to invite me to audition. Well, when the universe drops that in your lap, you don’t say no. There were four months of the process, with cooking, camera tests, last-minute trips to Boston … I got the ‘congratulations call’ that I got into the top 100 chefs in America.

“It was intense; it’s rough because I spent two weeks in California, jumping through hoops, and was lucky I got three seconds on film,” Hunt continued. “Some people quit their jobs to be on that show! Honestly, it gave me confidence. We don’t give ourselves enough credit; but this was voted on by people who really know. And I thought, ‘yeah, maybe I really am good at this!’ It was an enlightening experience. It pushed me to be better. I’m only disappointed I couldn’t stay longer and learn. Gordon Ramsay told me I used too much garlic. I’m like hey, I’m Italian!”

And like most Italian cooks, Hunt’s priority is the intangible ingredient she lists as most important. “The first ingredient on my label is love. I truly believe that. You’ve got to put the love in there. I call it ‘spiritual nutrition.’ If you eat a muffin from a supermarket, or one from your grandmother, which is better? Grandma cares. Food shouldn’t just fill our bellies and fuel our bodies. I’m Italian; food is love.”

Hunt keeps her employees able to give love to the products by providing a pretty forward-thinking work environment, with meditation room and mandatory ten-minute meditation/journaling breaks daily; “No cell phones, no electronics in there. Just a safe little womb to chill out in,” she said. The day of this interview, the employees were enjoying an in-office massage therapist session.

“They’re no good to me broken,” Hunt said of her team. “My goal is to have a big-picture company that supports its employees specifically to meet the needs of women. Once we all start having babies … how am I gonna show them I appreciate them? By creating an environment to have love, where you can even bring your baby to work. We spend more time at work than home.”

For now, Hunt is riding the wave of her creation. “I never really think of myself as an entrepreneur,” she said. “I think of myself as someone who works their butt off! I’m self-employed. As (my business) has evolved, I think so have I. Cucina Aurora has a mind of her own,” she said. “She’s growing, and I’m running behind, trying catch up.”

Kathleen Palmer can be reached at 594-6403 or kpalmer@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow her on Twitter (@Telegraph_KathP or
@NHFoodandFun).