Richardson Chef Gets Salty
Longtime Richardson resident Chef Milton Aschner admits that he “pretty much hated” the food business. Growing up, his parents ran a restaurant, and he witnessed all of the headaches that came with it. Ironically, after a successful career in graphic design and sales, he’s spent most of his “retirement” working with food. These days, his primary focus is a line of 21 gourmet salts that are flying off the shelves faster than he ever could have imagined.
“The salt business has taken over my life,” he joked.
Aschner began his foray into the retail food business hawking specialty nuts. While still working in print sales, he’d started going to culinary school. A self-described “life-long foodie,” he slowly progressed toward his degree at night as he continued working his day job. When it was time to move on from sales, he was nearing graduation and quickly transitioned into a personal chef.
The new job required him to cook for lavish dinner parties. He almost always started guests off with chili-honey roasted nuts. They would be followed by more appetizers, and dishes like soufflé, beef Wellington, specialty salmon and fancy desserts.
As his personal chef business grew through word-of-mouth, guests started requesting additional nuts, especially around Christmastime.
“The next thing I know, people are calling saying, ‘I want these,’” Aschner recalled. “It blew me away.”
Making chili-honey roasted nuts is a time-consuming process. His signature mix consists of pecans, almonds and cashews. Aschner cooks them separately in a big wok with honey and spices. After that, each nut variety is spread out on a baking sheet and put in the oven. When they are done, they are rolled in sugar, still piping hot. The nuts are then left to cool and dry before being mixed together.
Because of the positive response, Aschner decided to try selling them at local farmer’s markets. After some initial hiccups, sales increased and he picked up some regular clients. Then a few summers ago, sales plummeted during an intense heat wave. Desperate to improve his bottom line, he decided to sell some of his own gourmet salt on a whim.
Back in his personal chef days, partygoers seemed to enjoy the unique blend he concocted, often asking him to leave some behind.
“When I got out of culinary school, every chef wanted to have their own thing,” Aschner said. “This is mine.”
He makes the blend by smoking salt and four different kinds of peppercorns. They are then ground and combined to create his smoked Atlantic sea salt and pepper mélange.
Aschner initially brought 20 bottles of salt to the White Rock Farmers’ Market and sold out within 30 minutes. At the same time, he had a friend take an additional 20 bottles to a Frisco farmers market. They sold in less then 45 minutes. The next week, they each took 50 bottles and both sold out within half an hour. Then the number became 120 bottles.
Since then, Aschner had expanded his line to include a wide variety of flavors. He thoroughly enjoys tinkering with different ingredients for months until settling on the perfect blend.
“I’ll just put a pinch of something in there and see if it works,” he said.
Chef Milton’s gourmet salts can now be found at all Central Markets in Texas. They are also on the shelves of Market Street and Whole Foods, as well as local stores like Deep Cuts Dallas, Jimmy’s Food Store, Local Yocal in McKinney and, most recently, Premiere Grilling.
His flavors include include a garlic butter salt, four varieties with hatch chilies and a truffle salt that he said was the hardest one to perfect. There is also the original salt, which remains his biggest seller. Currently Aschner is developing a salad-topper that will likely include lots of veggies.
“I’ve been collecting for about a year now because I have something that’s going to work, but I have to find the right components,” he said.
All of the Atlantic sea salts are made with Brazilian sea salt that is shipped into Oregon. While his freight costs are enormous, he pays them because he wants a high quality product that doesn’t contain additives, preservatives or MSG. With the exception of his garlic butter salt that includes dehydrated butter, all of his products are also vegan-friendly and suitable for those who are lactose or gluten intolerant.
Aschner still intends to make chili-honey roasted nuts on a limited basis, particularly around the holidays. However, the soaring demand for salts has necessitated increased attention there. He recently received an unsolicited order from an Oklahoma store and may soon be on the shelves at another retailer in South Dakota.
He has also been presented with opportunities for larger scale production that would require additional equipment and employees. Even his kids have suggested modernizing the process. However, Aschner said he intends to continue on as a home-based business with the assistance of his wife, Wendy. Together they do their own bookkeeping, ordering, packaging and labeling.
“There are machines that will do all that, but I don’t want to go that route,” he said. “I’m retired. I’m not going to tie up my retirement in something like that—what if it goes bust? And besides that, this is fun for me.”
Joshua Baethge is a freelance writer who has lived in the DFW area for nearly two decades. A University of North Texas graduate and married father of two, he loves writing, music, reading, traveling and trying to make the most out of life.