This article was originally published in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
Naomi Mobed of Lawrenceville almost missed the deadline for submitting her line of five internationally inspired condiments for the retail food world’s leading award: the sofi, bestowed by the influential Specialty Foods Association.
Luckily, the small band of colleagues behind Le Bon Magot, her two-year-old company (her mother among them) persisted. The upshot? Le Bon Magot garnered five awards at the 2017 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this past January. This included the top honor of best new product. But Le Bon Magot also took home gold for best condiment and best jam or preserve, as well as bronzes for a marmalade and a caponata.
Even within those overly represented categories — think of the shelf after shelf of jams, preserves, and other condiments at supermarkets, specialty grocery stores, and lifestyle companies like Williams-Sonoma — Le Bon Magot manages to stand apart. That best new product and best jam is the company’s spiced raisin marmalata with ras al hanout (a North African spice blend) and smoked cinnamon.
Taking the gold as best condiment is Le Bon Magot tomato and white sultana chutney with ginger and garam masala. Last December the Wall Street Journal included Le Bon Magot’s unique line in its weekly “best food finds” column, and Food & Wine magazine listed the tomato and sultana chutney in its “best gifts under $20” holiday recommendations. (Eight-ounce jars go for $13 at www.lebonmagot.com.)
Closer to home, Le Bon Magot’s jeweled-tone marmalatas, caponata, chutney, and murabba (Indian fruit preserve) can be found at Bon Appetit in Princeton Shopping Center and Olsson’s on Palmer Square, Brick Farm Market in Hopewell, Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, Aston Whyte in Pennington, and Savour Cheese & Gourmet Provisions in Lambertville. She credits both Bill Lettier, owner of Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center, and Michael Lemmerling of Brick Farm Market (and before that Bon Appetit’s longtime cheesemonger) with helping her see the value in her company. “We brought the products to them before we incorporated. If Bill had tried my products and said, ‘Naomi, go back home,’ I would have packed up my bag. I took them to Mr. Lemmerling and he gave us the thumbs up.” Le Bon Magot, which loosely translates from French as “hidden treasure,” has been taken up also by Daniel Boulud’s dining group, DiBruno Bros., and Kalustyan’s, the esteemed New York spice merchant.
“Winning the sofi awards was another big validation and being recognized as having mileage as a company,” Mobed says. “We’ve gotten a ton more orders, yes, but it also helped boost morale internally.” She points out that, other than her paid interns and publicist, the six principals in Le Bon Magot are not yet drawing a regular salary. “We never expected to win in our first year of entering. We are seriously thrilled. It gives visibility and a platform to talk about our product.”
Which Mobed proceeded to do during our interview, while proffering spoonfuls of her current and forthcoming condiments to this reporter. But first and foremost in her conversation was giving credit to her mother and to her deep family roots for spawning a lifelong passion for food. As she spoons out Le Bon Magot white pumpkin and almond murabba (spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and mace), she says, “This all really comes from my mother and my family. If we’re not making food we’re talking about it and talking about how to make it better.”
The line’s signature blending of diverse flavor profiles, culinary traditions, and sensibilities is also a reflection of Mobed’s urbane, globe-trotting childhood followed by a career in international banking and finance. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but her family moved to Tehran, Iran, when she was two. Her late father was a university professor at the time, but his subsequent decades-spanning career in the oil industry eventually took this family of three to Hong Kong, Copenhagen, and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The family finally settled in Lawrenceville in 1985, where Naomi attended Lawrence High for her senior year. She earned a B.A. in politics and international relations from Mount Holyoke and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. For the last 16 years she has worked in international banking and finance, living in Dubai, Johannesburg, London, and New York. Along the way she became proficient in six languages other than English (Farsi, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Spanish, and Urdu).
“Imagine: when we moved from Pakistan to Tehran, my mother began living in a country where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language,” she says. “That set the pattern for how we integrated — it was always through learning about the local food. Whenever we moved to where my father was working, for my mother — who is Type A and always needs to be working — the first few months before her work papers came through must have been hell. So initially, before she got her papers in Tehran, her first job was managing the kitchen of a university.”
Tehran, Mobed says, really was the start of her family’s culinary diversity. Since 1985 Mahrukh Mobed, Naomi’s mother, has worked at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she is associate director of contracts. “She knows food and ingredients very well, but she is an absolute classicist! We clash in a lot of ways when it comes to the kitchen, especially now,” Naomi says with a laugh.
Not only are Le Bon Magot’s recipes based on heirloom family recipes, but they are all made using natural ingredients and have an enduring shelf life even after opened, since only classical techniques of pickling and preserving are used. The white pumpkin-almond preserve, for example, has no pectin in it. While it makes a great spread for, say, toasted sourdough or brioche, the inventive Mobed adds, “We make a simple but killer bread pudding with this. I’ve also done it as a white chocolate bread pudding for a festival. The white chocolate gives it a textural difference.”
That points to one of her company’s key missions. “There’s plenty of ethnic food out on the market,” she acknowledges. “Our objective was to not classify what we make as ethnic food. We need to show these as ingredients that can be used in other ways. There’s no reason you can’t add our marmalatas to a cheese board, just as you might a Greek fig jam,” she says. Like all Le Bon Magot condiments, they are made with fresh or naturally preserved ingredients — never frozen or processed. Spices such as the ras as hanout in the spiced raisin marmalata — here made with rose petals, cinnamon, and cardamom — are custom blended by La Boite in New York, which also smokes the cinnamon.
The tomato and white sultana chutney that took the “best condiment” prize is made with fresh julienned ginger, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and fresh tomatoes. “The tomatoes are not organic,” Mobed admits. “I would love to use organic, but that’s just not reality at this price point. We use a combination of beefsteak and red vine tomatoes. They’re scored, go into the oven, then they’re peeled, sliced, and cooked. It’s pure concentrated tomato flavor. The chutney’s color comes from dried red Kashmiri chilies. A little bit of the heat comes from the ginger, the sweetness from the sultanas, and warmth from the garam masala.”
Among Mobed’s suggestions for utilizing the chutney: dollop it into your morning yogurt, put it on a cheeseboard with cow’s milk gouda and clothbound cheddar, use it as a glaze in the final stages of roasting a chicken, or serve it with cooked yellow lentils.
For Le Bon Magot’s brinjal caponata (purple eggplant with cumin and curry leaves), she envisions swirling some into mashed potatoes or serving it alongside caraway-crusted lamb or vadouvan-crusted sea scallops. “I basically want to shatter those traditional boundaries of how and what ethnic foods like chutney are perceived to be here,” she says.
Foregoing traditional production methods and preprocessed ingredients has meant that Mobed has had to look outside of New Jersey for a production facility. Le Bon Magot’s condiments are made in a facility on Long Island’s North Fork.
“When we started this company, we didn’t want to go to Long Island or anywhere else to produce our products. It’s a drag. We wanted to be in New Jersey. We wanted a facility in a location close to home, where you can run in and out as necessary. We couldn’t find one! Yes, we have commercial kitchens. Yes, we have huge manufacturing facilities. Trying to find something in between is an enormous challenge.” She recently looked into one in Lancaster, PA. “But they want to use fresh-frozen, not fresh product. I won’t compromise. Will this commitment limit my upward growth? Perhaps. But it’s a call I made a long time ago.”
In fact, Mobed has new products and new product lines in the works. These include Asian pear and espresso chutney with nigella seeds, and an Indian savory trail mix called chivda. “We want to promote these same flavors in snack items and, ultimately, ice cream and dairy,” she says.