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"Every few years, I get sick of my office job and jump back into food," Jon Orren explained a few days after throwing a launch party for his company, Wheelhouse Pickles. Orren, who lives in Park Slope, has had short stints cooking in a few nearby restaurants, including Rosewater and Franny's, but it seems his entrepreneurial instinct might finally and permanently win out over life in a cubicle. The party took place in the back room of the Prospect Heights bar Freddy's, which was packed almost immediately. Orren was shocked when people began arriving before the space was even set up. "I've never seen a more punctual audience in New York," he said.
For most of the night, the young pickler, in a navy blue T-shirt that read WHEELHOUSE in white block letters (à la John Belushi's COLLEGE shirt in Animal House), frantically played host to almost 200 pickle enthusiasts. A launch party for a small, unknown business might yield enthusiastic relatives and supportive friends, but Orren estimated he knew only about a third of the revelers.
In addition to samples of all eight varieties in his current pickle line-up (rhubarb will appear this summer), there was a magic show performed by a clown and music by a country jug band, The Flanks.
But judging from the fast-emptying trays and sold-out jars, the party was evidence of one thing: People love pickles. This is good news for Orren, 29, an avid home pickler who toyed with the idea of starting a business for years but, as he put it, "never had the balls to execute it." When Rick Field started Rick's Picks a few years ago out of his apartment in Prospect Heights, Orren admits he was consumed with envy. He even vowed never to speak to Field, but didn't stick to it for long. Field was selling his popular wasabi wax beans and other creations (which are now available in many of the city's gourmet shops) at the Union Square Greenmarket when Orren introduced himself. The picklers have a lot in common, including Boston upbringings, and Orren's Red Sox cap broke the ice.
Far from an enemy, Field became something of a mentor to Orren, who worked for him for about five months, starting late last summer. "He was really gracious about showing me almost every aspect of his operations," Orren said. A lull between jobs allowed him to branch out on his own. Orren formulates his recipes at home but has begun renting a commercial kitchen in Long Island City, which will qualify him to get the necessary permits to sell his briny goods at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket by summer. "It's time to start making pickle money," he declared.
Wheelhouse has already taken two prizes at the Rosendale International Pickle Festival in Hudson Valley. His Top Shelf Beets took first place in the beet category, and Irma's Pears won best fruit. The beet recipe was inspired by classic salad pairings, and includes watercress juice, sherry vinegar, orange juice, tarragon, and crunchy shards of fennel, dyed deep magenta. The pears were born out of sheer experimentation. Irma is the grandmother of a friend of Orren's. She once convinced him to take home a load of pears from the Bosc tree in her backyard, which would otherwise have gone to waste. Back in Brooklyn, Orren set about preserving the pears, and somehow ended up with a Japanese-inflected brine using mirin, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce, black sesame seeds, scallions, and tangerine segments.
Orren can veer into practical business talk, brainstorming about an idea to cross-promote his Horseradish Spiked Wax Beans with Bloody Mary mixes, or describing an analogy between picklers and microbrewers. But he is most animated when talking about the process of tinkering in his kitchen. As a kid, Orren could devour an entire jar of pickles in one sitting. On these occasions, his mother refused to feed his gluttony with still more pickles, beg as he might. Finally, she suggested that if he wanted more, he should make them himself by cutting up cucumbers and putting them in the jar with the leftover liquid. This lesson forced the boy to be patient, but it also planted the seed for a lifelong fascination with the process. He was amazed when the cucumbers, with time, morphed into more pickles. "That's when I realized," he said, "it was all about the brine."