08 April 2020
Tomasu & Big Green Egg
How things started for both of them
They both boarded a flight to America, which became a defining moment. The lives of Wessel Buddingh of Big Green Egg Europe and Thomas Uljee of Tomasu are full of coincidences. In addition to that, they also have a lot in common. More than enough reason to talk to this enthusiastic duo about time, cultivation, top chefs and their partnership, which was also the result of a coincidence.
Wessel, why did you decide to bring Big Green Egg to the Netherlands?
Wessel:“It was a coincidence. I worked in the fireplace and heater industry at the time, so I already worked with ceramics, but I discovered the Big Green Egg through a friend whose parents-in-law lived in Atlanta. It was clearly more than just a BBQ, but what was it exactly? From the beginning, I had a gut feeling that it had potential. I boarded a plane to America and ordered a container of EGGs. I sold them within a month, but the second proved to be a lot more difficult. I went to so many garden fairs, gave endless demonstrations. Every time I would hear: ‘What a nice wonder pot you have there, what can you do with it?’ So then I hired a great chef, Robert Lobensteijn. At one point, he went to dinner at his great hero’s: Jonnie Boer from De Librije ***. And what do you know, Jonnie had just decided that he wanted to introduce BBQing as a cooking technique on the menu. Then it went crazy. Start with the leading restaurants. This formula also appears to work in every country, from Russia to Portugal, but it’s a long road.”
And Thomas, how was Tomasu created?
Thomas:“I’m the son of a baker and I love the craft, but I don’t think it gets the stage it deserves. I’ve also always been fascinated by raw materials. And lastly, I was, albeit subconsciously, looking for an exceptional product. Time was always my enemy when I was a baker, but now it’s my friend.” Turns to Wessel: Look, if you had never met Jonnie, you would’ve met someone else. Nice things, unique things always find a way. He continues. “So one Sunday morning, I’m watching a show on Discovery Channel about Matt Jamy and his micro-brewery in soy sauce, fermented on bourbon barrels. That was an eye-opener. I boarded a plane to America the next morning. With typical Rotterdam bravura, I said to Matt that I wanted to do that for Europe, too. ‘Welcome to Kentucky’ were his magical words.”
Thomas:“Then the long road of production started. My 3 partners and I are fervent champions of the holistic ideology and want to do everything ourselves: soil, seeds, cultivation. In the Hoeksche Waard. We spent more than 4 years working on our soy sauce in secret. When we tested it on Christmas day with our families in 2017, Edwin Klaasen (baker and copartner at Desemenzo) had already had Edwin Vinke try it, the chef of De Kromme Watergang **. He was blown away, posted about it on social media, and then it exploded. Tomasu was born, and we didn’t even have a business model yet!”
What is your mission?
Wessel: “Making sure that people have a good time. Spending quality time with like-minded people, friends, family, igniting the EGG, adding nice ingredients, preferably local ones, in season. Making beautiful memories with each other.”
Thomas:“Ensuring that soy sauce starts to play a bigger role in Western cuisine in the coming 10 years.” We are four dudes with the same philosophy: if you take care of nature, nature will take care of you. And that results in extra flavourful products. We want to share the results of this search for flavour with the rest of the world.”
How did you two meet?
Thomas:“First off, I’d just like to say that I have tremendous respect for the company that Wessel has built. He is 20 years ahead of us. I’ve only been on this rollercoaster for a year and a half.”
Wessel:“Michèl Lambermon, Executive Chef at Big Green Egg Europe and Marinus Noordenbos of Hokkai Kitchen visited the Tomasu brewery and were very enthusiastic about it. He said: “Try this, isn’t it insane?” He had put a piece of salmon on a piece of wood that came from a used whisky barrel, brushed it with Tomasu and thrown it into the EGG. He said: “We need to do something with this.” His enthusiasm kickstarted it all.”
Thomas: “Michèl is simply a great guy.”
Wessel: “We receive a lot of requests from companies who want to work with us, but we deliberately choose smaller companies in the same niche. Like-mindedness and a connection with the person behind a company are the most important things. We’re not interested in the short term.”
Thomas:“For every partnership, I wonder: “Would I want to have a beer with this man? Is it fun?” Besides, as soon as you walk in here (into the high-end, sustainable office of Big Green Egg Europe), you know everything you need to know.”
What is the first coproduction?
Wessel: “A limited edition box of Big Green Egg and Tomasu. Developed specially for our loyal fans, the food fanatics who are open to the best ingredients, new flavours and uncharted culinary waters. There are only 500 of them.
The barrels in which the soy ferments are repurposed in the form of the wood chips in this box. The box also contains a cedarwood grilling plank, a bottle of Tomasu Soy Sauce, a pouring spout, a wooden brush and a wonderful recipe book to get started with your EGG. The recipes were specially developed by our chef to bring the soy, the wood chips and the EGG together in harmony.”
Thomas: “I think it would be awesome if, for Father’s Day in four years, we could add to the box a premium brand whisky that was also in those barrels. It’s all about good partnerships. Our glass bottles are from Italy for good reason and the salt is from Guérande.”
You are deliberately choosing limited editions and exclusivity...
Wessel: “It has to be a great deal for the aficionado – the Big Green Egg fanatic who is open to other great ingredients.”
Thomas: “The editions are also small for practical reasons. 1 or 2 barrels are released every week. And I don’t sell bullshit. So when we’re sold out, that’s it. The fermentation process takes three years, after all.”
Wessel:“The added value lies in that exclusivity – it suits us. It has to be accessible, but mainly desirable for the aficionados.”
Thomas: “Loyal customers first, just like Ferrari.”
What makes this the perfect time for your products?
Thomas: “The world continues to spin faster, which is great, but I feel that the future lies in craftsmanship, in traditions. As long as it’s in its purest form. Engaging people, opening up, telling the story behind it. The question of these times is: “Do we want a lot, or do we want to do one thing well?” And then taking the time to really enjoy it.”
Wessel: “Being aware of what you buy. Fake EGGs often break down quickly. If you buy a fake every year, you end up with a load of garbage. We offer a lifetime guarantee, so it really doesn’t compare. Do you see what I mean?”
Thomas: “We don’t even have any waste. Everything is used, everything is processed. We don’t have to throw anything away any more.”
How to get your rest as an entrepreneur?
Thomas: “I’m very grateful when I’m in the barrel room.
It does something to me, it gives me peace. The world spins around me, and I’m living in slow motion. Just like in that Radiohead song, Street Spirit.
Wessel: “Rest is important, cooking on my EGG or going for a walk through the forest.”
Thomas: “Rest and simplicity are so underrated.”
What are the ingredients for the perfect food moment?
Wessel: “Good company.”
Thomas: “Food is the purest form of love. I don’t want to make anything I wouldn’t give to my children. It has to be pure.”
Wessel: “It’s all about emotion. If you are enjoying yourself, it determines 40% of the flavour. That is why the atmosphere in restaurants is so important.”
“There are four basic flavours, umami being the fifth, but emotion is the sixth flavour. We think it may be the most important one, and a good story helps with that. That’s how it works.”
“Emotion is the sixth flavour and perhaps the most important one.” Thomas Uljee
Products with a story...
Both of your stories are wonderful. Big Green Egg is the brainchild of ancient Japanese traditions, innovative NASA technology and Mexican ceramics. Tomasu is also the product of an ancient Japanese tradition, mixed with Scottish whisky barrels and Dutch soil.
Thomas: “I like to call it retro-innovative.”
Wessel: “I need to think about that one. <two seconds later> Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Thomas: “Our story starts with soil-based thinking. We are the first to do that. According to Wageningen University, our cultivation method is even a solution to the CO2 issue. Isn’t that wonderful? That is why we’re opening our doors and sharing our knowledge. If 400 farmers do things our way, we have impact.”
How far do you go in terms of aiming for perfection and autonomy?
Thomas: “We test everything in the lab, every factor has its impact. We want to learn how the flavour comes about. What if we use a barrel from this brewery, or that wheat variety, that soil… that is our search for flavour. It’s all about serenity and subtlety.”
Wessel: “Words come so easy to him, right?”
Are there still new flavours to be discovered?
Thomas: “If you put Michèl, Executive Chef at Big Green Egg Europe, and me in the same room, you’d start hyperventilating. The possibilities are endless.”
Wessel: “I’m not worried about that at all.”
Thomas: “After a period of faster and cheaper, we’re now transitioning towards pure.
Wessel: “After all of the flat American flavours, we’ve reached a turning point. Especially among young people. And you can say what you want about those twenty-somethings with their hipster looks and tattoos, but they know a thing or two about flavour. So our products fit right in.“
The ultimate flavour?
Wessel: “Take chef IJsbrant Wilbrenninck of Lake House Rotterdam. A primeval man. The way he prepares a côte de boeuf on the EGG, fully authentic with just some good olive oil and some great herbs. But if you take a bite, it rocks your world.”
Thomas: “Less is more. Creating the ultimate flavour moment with as little as possible. The dishes that Michèl prepares on the Big Green Egg look like science fiction, but the flavour is out of this world. That is what we’re going for. I just realised that we need to make a Big Green Egg edition of Tomasu in the future.”
What else does the future hold?
Thomas: “One more thing I’d like to say is that we’re very curious. We just got out of the egg – that learning process, those ups and downs, that’s going to take a while. I want to believe in miracles, just like Peter Pan. Looking beyond that horizon, where happiness lies.”
Wessel: “You always have to be open to new impulses. Allow people to be creative. That’s why we work with top chefs, but this also applies to other disciplines. I asked our architect to provide input about a fair booth and display material, for example. The end result is something unique. There is only one factory in Italy that makes this.”
How do you see each other?
Thomas: “Big Green Egg has a paved road, which we can learn from. Meeting people like Michèl and Hidde de Brabander is also a thrill. I hope that one day I can achieve something like this. I deeply admire that perfectionism.”
Wessel: “That passion, the enthusiasm and the longing for depth are very inspiring to me.”
Thomas: “Whichever way you look at Tomasu’s story, the results are good. It’s healthy, sustainably produced and delicious. If you find something which is three-dimensionally awesome, you can be satisfied.”
Wessel: “I couldn’t agree more. I feel the same way about Big Green Egg. It all feels right. All of the people around it. The EGG is truly different, we are the odd one out.”
Thomas: “Imagine if we hadn’t both gotten on a plane to America?”
If you’d like to receive the most delicious recipes by email, register for our newsletter ‘Inspiration Today’ and add more flavour to your inbox. That’s all you have to do to receive the latest news about events, recipes especially for your EGG, practical tips and much, much more!
Order the limited edition box
Curious about the limited edition box form Big Green Egg and Tomasu?