Referred to by esteemed chefs around the world as simply "The Spice Guy," Jing Tio is the man behind many of the distinct flavors found at restaurants like El Bulli, Eleven Madison Park and WD-50. For the past half decade, the Indonesian accountant-turned-spice purveyor has quietly set a new benchmark for quality by tracking down farmers using the best harvesting methods, ultimately leading to insanely fresh and flavorful spices.
Telling CH he "probably knows more about star anise than anybody out there," the San Francisco-based mastermind enjoys working with university professors on research around farming and harvesting. He visits new growers to check out their processes and equipment—particularly the drying and sorting machines—as a way of constantly refining his supply. Having nearly nearly reached the maximum with discovering new spices, Tio is now focused on using his extensive knowledge to create uniquely powerful blends, which he peddles to the public (along with classic ingredients) under the name See Smell Taste.
Although Tio says people are currently more interested in Southeast Asian spice blends, one he's excited about in particular is the French-inspired Indian spice called Vadouvan. Tio's Vadouvan Golden Mix is a potent fusion of onion, garlic, shallot and his special curry blend that works best as an accent seasoning. Thanks to shows like Top Chef, Tio says people are becoming more familiar with exotic spices and are experimenting more when cooking at home.
Tio's tip for at-home chefs is to "have fun with it!" He encourages creativity when cooking by diverging from specific recipes, explaining "The beauty of the spice blend is you have to smell it and use your imagination for what to use it for." If you try to hard to follow strict cooking instructions, you will never cook that dish again.
The spice blends sell online at See Smell Taste and at the Le Sanctuaire San Francisco shop in Mini, Midi and Maxi sizes at varying prices, along with single spices which you can order in bulk. You can also find them at Dean & Deluca in NYC and online at Gilt Taste.