Twenty years ago, Teri Gelber made her first foray into the food world, working the floor at award-winning chef Nancy Silverton’s Campanile in Los Angeles.
She catapulted through the ranks and went on to co-author Silverton’s Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book. Through the years she’s championed many others, including cookbooks and columns for chef celebrities Suzanne Goin and Wolfgang Puck (not to mention coauthoring The Mighty Gastropolis with our very own Karen Brooks).
Now Gelber is diving headfirst into Portland’s tea scene, determined to convert the city’s historically coffee-oriented drinkers into tea obsessives with impeccable ingredients, finely tuned concoctions, and beautiful packaging.
Eat Beat: Why tea? Why now?
Teri Gelber: I was a tea drinker starting from a young age. In high school, I would get my paycheck and walk straight to this British teahouse in the Santa Monica mall, the Tutor House, and treat myself to proper tea. Later in life, backpacking around the world, I always hit the tea stores, whether it was the top-tier Mariage Frères tea company in Paris or just observing tea-drinking habits in Vietnam. It’s always been a passion, but I started seriously checking out the tea vendors and attending tea tastings in Portland after I quit drinking coffee for health reasons. I named it T Project, after my son, Theo.
Coffee is king in Portland. Is there room for tea on the throne?
Portland could be ground zero for a new tea revolution. America’s tea culture started here with Stephen Lee and Steven Smith (now the tea baron behind top-tier Steve Smith Teamaker brand) launching Stash, 35 years ago. Then they started Tazo, which was like the go-to for tea drinkers who liked tea, but didn’t have the level of sophistication yet. Now you’ve got places like Tao of Tea, Foxfire, and Jasmine Pearl helping people explore tea, just like Stumptown did with coffee 10 years ago. The real tea nerds find their own single-origin, “first flush” stuff. On the other end of the spectrum you have Starbucks in Seattle who just bought Tazo and Teavana. It’s a growing scene. Just look outside—this is a tea-drinking climate.
Steep competition. How is T Project going to make its mark?
I’m bringing my palate and refining these teas like a chef does with a sauce, or a soup. It’s also very personal, handcrafted. All my teas are named after songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, pre-technology. Back then, drinking tea meant “come over, I’ll make you a pot and we’ll forget about what’s happening in the world.” It’s about taking that pause. I’ve got varieties like “Shine on Brightly” and “A Good Year for the Roses.” For example, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” reminds me of learning that famous bass line during a very intense adolescent stage, so the tea is deep and smoky—a Lapsang souchong smoked over pine with some malva flowers.
Not all of us coffee drinkers can pick up the nuances of a good tea. Can you put tea tasting in layman’s terms?
Tasting tea is like tasting wine. When you go to tea tastings with the bigwigs, you slurp with a spoon, and do that silliness that wine people are always doing. Just like with wine, flavor profile has to do with the soil and the process. It’s all the same plant, Camellia sinesis, with lots of different varieties, like grapes. Variety—green, black, oolong—all depends on how they get oxidized after they are picked. Are they pan-roasted? Steamed? Like with anything else, people have preferences. You might think smoky tea is too dirty and earthy, and want something floral, or oceanic, or maybe you only drink Japanese green tea because you love grass and seaweed notes.
Where can we find T Project tea?
Little T Bakery [westside, inside Union Way], Pastaworks, and Alder & Co. I’m also making special blends for restaurants. I’ve done a private alpine blend for Grüner with chamomile, elderflower, rose hips, and blackberry leaf and an iced one for Boke Bowl with Assam and Darjeeling, dried ginger, lychee-scented tea, lemon myrtle, and some secret spices. I’m also working with local designers on our packaging, local ceramists on T Project cups and bowls, and am currently looking for a metalsmith to create a beautiful strainer.
T Project Smokey Simple Syrup
Per Gelber: “These days it seems that smoke is on the menu of every mixologist. Here’s an easy way to 'smokify' any of your favorite cocktails. Try this simple syrup in a Negroni, Manhattan, Hot Toddy and more!”
In a small saucepan, steep 1 heaping tbsp “Smoke on the Water” in 1 1/2 cups 210-degree water for 4 minutes. Strain out the tea leaves and return the tea to the pan. Add 3/4 cup organic palm sugar and simmer for about 10 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and the syrup is slightly thickened. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.