For olive oil en­tre­pre­neur, a taste­ful re­con­nec­tion

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS - By CE­CILY LIU ce­cily.liu@chi­

Chi­nese food has never ceased to fas­ci­nate Natalie Wheen, who was born in Shang­hai and grew up on Chi­nese food but has rarely vis­ited the coun­try since leav­ing for the United King­dom in 1957.

Af­ter a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a ra­dio broad­caster, Wheen has gone through a sig­nif­i­cant ca­reer shift to run an up­mar­ket olive oil busi­ness, Avlaki, and China nat­u­rally be­came a key mar­ket for her busi­ness.

“Good olive oil would nat­u­rally go well with Chi­nese food, be­cause the Chi­nese peo­ple put so much care into mak­ing food that is fresh and fla­vor­some,” she said.

Among the Chi­nese dishes she regularly cooks at home with olive oil are steamed fish, stir-fried meat and veg­eta­bles, soup, and stir-fried rice with veg­eta­bles and eggs. But to con­vince the Chi­nese con­sumer is al­to­gether another mat­ter, be­cause olive oil has been widely avail­able in China only for a few years and the lim­ited sup­ply is mostly com­prised of mass-mar­ket brands.

“I re­ally want to teach Chi­nese con­sumers about the dif­fer­ence be­tween high-qual­ity olive oil and mass-mar­ket brands. I do rec­og­nize not ev­ery­one in China will be able to af­ford it, as it is tar­get­ing a dis­tinct mar­ket, but I be­lieve the po­ten­tial is there,” said Wheen.

Her fam­ily has had a long and deep con­nec­tion with China stretch­ing over gen­er­a­tions, start­ing with her great­grand­fa­ther Ed­ward Wheen, who ar­rived in Shang­hai in 1874 as a busi­ness­man, fo­cus­ing mostly on im­ports.

Many years later, dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, the Wheen com­pany went bank­rupt, and her fa­ther started a ca­reer work­ing for the Bri­tish chem­i­cal com­pany Im­pe­rial Chem­i­cal In­dus­tries in China.

Wheen’s mother’s side of the fam­ily came from Rus­sia. Her un­cle, Colonel Alexan­der Tatari­noff, was mil­i­tary at­tache at the Rus­sian em­bassy in Bei­jing in 1917 and af­ter leav­ing his na­tive coun­try ahead of the revo­lu­tion, spent the rest of his life in China.

Her par­ents mar­ried in Qing­dao in 1937, and Wheen was born in Shang­hai in 1949. Two years later, Wheen’s fam­ily moved to Hong Kong, where they stayed un­til 1957. Dur­ing those years Wheen’s nanny, whom she called by the po­lite term “amah”, cooked a great ar­ray of Chi­nese dishes.

Wheen’s fa­ther was the com­pany sec­re­tary of ICI, so her par­ents spent most evenings at par­ties and left her in her amah’s charge.

“She would al­ways pre­pare some Chi­nese food for me to have with her, so my No 1 com­fort food has al­ways been Chi­nese cook­ing. I think my palate has been trained to the sub­tleties of tastes and tex­tures of Chi­nese food.”

These fond child­hood mem­o­ries of China have cul­ti­vated a sense of be­long­ing for Wheen, and when her fam­ily moved to the UK she ini­tially felt sad. “I hated com­ing to the UK as Fe­bru­ary in Eng­land is cold and wet,” she said.

She said she still has many ob­jects at home to re­mind her of China, which she took when she left the coun­try, in­clud­ing silk fab­rics, cush­ions, a jade tree with green stones as leaves, and a long ta­ble made of dark-col­ored wood in the Chi­nese style.

Af­ter start­ing a new

life in the UK, Wheen stud­ied clas­si­cal mu­sic at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic, and in 1968 started work in the broad­cast­ing in­dus­try. She started by pre­sent­ing pro­grams on clas­si­cal mu­sic and arts, ini­tially at BBC Ra­dio 3 and later at Clas­sic FM.

In 1997, Wheen re­turned to China for the first time since she left to work on a doc­u­men­tary on Chi­nese food. “I was im­me­di­ately at home, in spite of the ex­tra­or­di­nary changes,” she said.

To pre­pare for the pro­gram, she stayed in Hong Kong to un­der­stand how the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion eats nowa­days, how they buy food and cook it. Her love for fresh Chi­nese cui­sine grew.

“What I dis­cov­ered was the love for fresh food in China, be­cause in China peo­ple buy food in the wet mar­kets. If you want a fresh chicken, you can watch it be­ing killed just be­fore you buy it, and you know it is ab­so­lutely fresh,” she said.

“The shop­ping streets are full of fresh­ness. For ex­am­ple, a good Chi­nese house­wife would buy some food to cook for break­fast, and then she would later go to the mar­ket to buy some food to pre­pare for lunch, and then the same for supper.”

She said this con­tin­ual striv­ing for fresh in­gre­di­ents is co­her­ent with the phi­los­o­phy of Avlaki, which makes olive oil by press­ing the olives the day af­ter they are har­vested, and then bot­tling the oil a few weeks later.

De­spite Avlaki’s suc­cess, Wheen said the jour­ney of cre­at­ing this busi­ness was al­most an ac­ci­dent. It started in 1996 when Wheen and her pain­ter friend, Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan, pooled re­sources to buy a small, run-down prop­erty by the sea in Greece as an es­cape from the stress of their pro­fes­sional lives.

“We have been go­ing on hol­i­day in Greece for years, and we then had this idea of buy­ing some land so we can have a place of our own,” Wheen said. But what they did not re­al­ize is that in or­der to have the le­gal rights to re­store the prop­erty, they needed to buy more ad­join­ing land.

They bought sev­eral ad­join­ing parcels, and to­gether the land had about 800 olive trees. This gave the two friends the idea of start­ing up an olive oil busi­ness be­cause they re­al­ized that the un­cul­ti­vated olive trees were a great as­set in them­selves. She said they take con­trol of ev­ery as­pect of pro­duc­tion.

Avlaki’s olive oil is only sold at high-end food stores or online. Even so, things got busy, and a few years ago Wheen made a de­ci­sion to fo­cus full time on her com­pany.

More re­cently, Avlaki started over­seas dis­tri­bu­tion in Fin­land, Ice­land, Dubai, Kuwait, Nor­way, Swe­den, Den­mark, Es­to­nia and other coun­tries, and now ex­ports ac­count for about half of sales.

Re­al­iz­ing that China is a cru­cial mar­ket with great po­ten­tial, Wheen went to Shang­hai last year to ex­hibit the olive oil at the Food and Hos­pi­tal­ity China show for 10 days.

Avlaki has also es­tab­lished a part­ner­ship with Shang­haibased Mao Xi Trad­ing to help dis­trib­ute its olive oil in China.

“We have a qual­ity brand, and we know that dis­cern­ing Chi­nese are well aware of the im­por­tance of buy­ing the best, es­pe­cially where food qual­ity is con­cerned. We be­lieve the Chi­nese mar­ket will ap­pre­ci­ate the qual­ity of what we present,” Wheen said.

Founder of olive oil busi­ness Avlaki

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