By Jennifer Crain
Mel Bilodeau’s kitchen is a tidy, workable space with a set of barstools for lunching and sunlight from a corner window. On the day I visited her she welcomed me in from a spray of an afternoon rainfall and, while I perched on a seat, she started to heat up a pot of soup on the stove.
It only took a few minutes. The soup was her soup, which is to say that the steaming Greens and Garlic soup was not only her recipe but one of the products she sells through Mel O’Soup, the business she launched about a year ago.
The convenience of it – pulling a jar of soup from the refrigerator and emptying it into a pot over a gentle flame – is what led her to turn her passion for soup making into a business in the first place.
“I knew how convenient it was to open a jar of amazing food and heat it up and have a really great meal,” she says.
Tagging her product with such a description is no act of vanity. The swirling green and white mixture in my bowl was flavorful and filling, far from the watery compounds I’ve been served in restaurants or ended up making at home. Hers is comfort cooking that sloughs off the chill and glides over the tongue’s receptors, a creamy all-encompassing meal.
The satisfying flavor is no accident. Bilodeau is careful to create a holistic balance in her soup flavors, blending contrasting flavors.
She did restaurant work for years, working many of them as a server before cross-training in the kitchen. Then she took a position at an ale house where she acted as chief soup maker. Using that experience, and incorporating tips gleaned from chefs and other food pros she’s known over the years, Bilodeau says she’s come to understand what people like in a soup.
“You’ve got to have at least the three flavors, and that’s sweet, salty, and a little bit of sour to balance the sweet,” she says. “Some people include the fourth, which is spicy.”
As I slurped the garlicky greens and listened to her tick off a list of the ingredients, I began to taste the individual elements. Onions and celery form the flavor base. Yam and lacinato kale add sweetness. Lemon juice gives it a bite. Despite the fact that she avoids adding spice outright, the garlic and ginger give it a little punch. A base of coconut milk (from BPA-free cans) provides a rounding quality that makes a bowl of her soup a meal.
Salt, that mainstay of the well-seasoned dish, is notably absent from her list. The intentional omission is one of many. All her soups are bound by a list of forbidden allergans. Bilodeau pushes the concept of convenient, delicious, organic soups to the limit, aiming to make them so for anyone on almost any diet. Her soups contain no gluten, corn, soy, dairy, salt, meat, nuts or nightshades. It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially considering that the latter group includes potatoes and tomatoes, two traditional soup anchors (peppers are also nightshades, one reason Bilodeau avoids spice).
Her theory of creating a satisfying flavor without salt could serve as a macro theory for soup making: “I think fats are important. When blended with the sweet and the sour, I often hear, ‘Oh, this doesn’t need salt.’ And so maybe that means we’re evolving into [eating] foods that aren’t over salted. And that is really encouraging,” she says. “I mean, I love salt. I love to salt things. I love to make it pop. But it’s nice when I have the choice.”
Despite her imposed restrictions, or perhaps because of them, Bilodeau has achieved a kind of inclusivity that can make a business hum. Almost anyone can eat her soup and they’re so tempting, anyone would want to. That doesn’t stop her from evolving her products to include even more people. For those who avoid coconut (all her current soups contain coconut milk), she’s developing a new recipe centered on toasted sesame oil.
As she noted near the beginning of our conversation, Bilodeau sees herself as the neighborhood soup maker, an adversary of the soup-denying sadist of Seinfeld fame (“No soup for you!”).
Bilodeau’s soup is, in contrast, “Soup for you!”
Her business idea became a reality after she went through Enterprise for Equity’s program for new entrepreneurs. The group gave her a micro-loan and helped her hammer out a framework.
Bilodeau makes her soups at a downtown commercial kitchen and operates almost completely petroleum free (she delivers products by bike). She uses as much locally sourced produce as possible, creating income not only for herself but for local farmers.
Mel O’Soup is sold at the West Olympia Farmers’ Market, the Olympia Food Co-op, Olympia Local Foods, Breathe, Capitol Florist, and the Food Nook at Fertile Ground Guesthouse. Her soups are also available for advance order or through her soup CSA.
Current flavors are Garlic and Greens, Diane’s Borscht, Bodacious Coconut Curry and Sprouted Lentil. She also has a loosely defined jar deposit system: return your jars and she’ll give you a discount on your next order.