Endless "Pastabilities" at Al Dente
by Jen Eastridge, customer
There is something magical when a group of close friends gather 'round a table boasting a bowl of steaming pasta and bottles of corked wine. Spirits rise with sounds of breaking crusty bread and tales of catching up are traded over twisty, forkfuls of flavorful goodness.
Monique Deschaine deeply connects with this very common, French lifestyle way of dining with family over quality cuisine and she clearly intends to perpetuate this perfect tradition of food, family, friends and feasting with the exquisite, small batch pastas and sauces her company, Al Dente, makes nearby in Whitmore Lake. I wanted to know more about this small, family-run company, whose clear bags of colorful pastas fill my Ypsi Food Coop basket on every visit, so I wrote a short email to the owners of Al Dente, without anticipation of what would follow. I was delighted when I received a warm invitation to visit.
Relationships develop serendipitously. After driving up to Al Dente's offices one sunny, October morning, Corinne and I were given a wonderful tour of the pasta plant by Al Dente co-owner, Dennis Deschaine (Monique's husband, who also built the physical plant from the ground up). To my delight, a week later, Monique drove to Ypsilanti and joined me at the YFC's small, round marble table for a cup of coffee and a warm, ginger pear tart from River Street bakery. Instantly, her passion and energy were palpable, and I knew that I was in for a real treat with this viscerally vivacious woman called "Monique." I was right.
(Lisa Bashert, Jen Eastridge, Monique Deschaine, Corinne Sikorski)
Al Dente emerged through a strange path of finding one's way after Monique graduated from the University of Michigan in 1978 with a degree in psychology. Jobs in that field were few and far between and she began to consider other avenues of opportunity. She read an article about a couple of women who started making pasta in Washington D.C., and it "clicked" in Monique's mind..."I could do that" she thought. With no prior experience in pasta making, Monique threw herself into the world feet first, contacting various people which led her to work with Sandy Cooper at Complete Cuisine in Ann Arbor. Cooper introduced her to Italian food legend, Marcella Hazan, who taught Monique how to make pasta with time, love and quality ingredients. This was the beginning of Al Dente in 1981 and the making of the perfect pasta without compromises. Deschaine worked tirelessly, night after night, rolling out pasta dough at a friend's restaurant and praying that it would be dry enough to serve the next day! Even then, she was living by Julia Child’s quote, which today hangs in the entry of Al Dente, "Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." So, with 2011 marking a 30-year anniversary, I'd say those words of wisdom have paid off.
But how does one just "know" his/her destiny after reading an article about two women in D.C.? I asked Deschaine this, and she quickly responded with," I can sense a trend. I just thought, 'Something's going on with pasta.....it's a pasta revolution!" So, this very savvy observation led to a business and a recipe for pasta which has never been moderated. Al Dente's process is exactly the same with folding the dough multiple times through steel rollers before resting the cut pasta on racks in the drying rooms. After a very precise amount of drying time, the pasta is bagged and labeled right in the plant before being boxed and shipped to all 50 states. These consistent steps make for perfectly smooth pasta, which always has an Al Dente signature boiling time of three minutes. That makes a very tempting treat which is even tastier to the cook who's preparing the meal!
Of course, as with all businesses, there are challenges that ebb and flow with the market. A recent issue is the private labeling by retailers (ex. 365 by Whole Foods, etc.) Naturally, those products are taking up more shelf space, so more profit runs back into the retailer, making it more and more challenging for local food businesses like Al Dente to find shelf space of their own. Wisely, Dennis builds attractive displays (such as the green one in the YFC) for retailers, who sometimes happily accept and stock only with Al Dente products. Another way Al Dente intends to reach out to our community soon is local farmers' markets. These markets feed the desires of those who choose sustainable eats and they put money back into our local economy.
Sustainability is also on the minds of Monique and Dennis Deschaine. They actively try to buy local ingredients though after much research, found out that the durum wheat they need for the pasta can't be grown in Michigan, so it comes from a cooperative in North Dakota. There is also discussion of looking into solar power potential for the Al Dente plant. Another sustainable element that Al Dente takes on vigorously is "community." A day at Al Dente varies from one day to the next, but it is always constant with a flow of people and energy. It may mean young groups coming for the "Bus Loads of Kids" tours, where Monique delivers her motivating message of dreams, determination, passion, pasta and persistence. Another day may hold a large group of farmers gathered around the Deschaines's long, lake house table, eating pasta and talking "turkey" with local entrepreneurs. Monique's sense of "connection" not only drives home her business, but also manages to bring talent together like magic. Majoring in psychology in college may have honed her skills for discovering what makes someone "tick," and Monique connects the dots from there, bringing together her creative friends for brainstorming and providing her young, developing, entrepreneur friends and students with resources and precious time to talk about how she can help them succeed in their business and creative pursuits.
This time and devotion to young people may have come naturally to the Deschaines as they raised both of their children in Al Dente's years of developing and are now "official empty nesters," allowing Monique to grab onto Al Dente's reigns with the same zeal and time that she was able to give before she had children. She is constantly thinking of ways to connect with new people, making creative, original ways to prepare her tasty pastas, and she always encourages customers to submit their recipes with photos using Al Dente products. Every bag of Al Dente pasta comes with a recipe on the back, but the possibilities (or should I say, the "pastabilities") are endless! More recipes and Monique's blog, which reflects her on goings and ideas, can be found on their site, AlDentePasta.com. The products, of course, can be found at the Ypsilanti Food Coop!
So, are you thinking, "When do I get to see the Al Dente plant and eat a steaming plate of pasta at the Deschaine's lake house?" Thursday, December 2, 2010 is when we've arranged a little "field trip" exclusively offered to YFC members! We will be meeting at the YFC at 11:00 a.m., where we will carpool to Al Dente in Whitmore Lake. We will be given the factory tour and then proceed up the road to the Deschaine's very own lake house where we will meet Monique for a pasta lunch. There is limited space available for this field trip, so reserve your spot A.S.A.P. by calling (734-483-1354) or emailing Corinne (email@example.com).
What is "HOT" right now at Al Dente? Parpardelle! It is Al Dente's new, Pappardelle pasta, which is just making its way onto shelves and seducing senses with its wide, foldable, tenderness. Monique said that Pappardelle is hot right now and appearing on virtually every major menu in big (and not so big) name restaurants around the country. Try this recipe using Pappardelle, created by our very own Corinne! Those who join us on the tour will get to taste this yummy combination for themselves!