Interview: Bridget Meagher of Catbird
How long have you been making the Catbird line?
2 ½ years.
What got you interested in making these products?
As you probably know by now Jon, I’m not a newbie. I moved to Virginia from New Orleans in the late 70’s and opened one of the first “new cuisine” restaurants in VA in an abandoned building on the Roanoke City Market called Alexander’s. I was a recent grad of the CIA in Hyde Park in addition to apprenticeships in kitchens in New Orleans and NYC. Making sauces for my business is part of my daily life and I’ve developed my own culinary “palate” that has been tested and approved by the public, my customers, for decades. In making sauces for Catbird I have the privilege and opportunity to bottle those flavors and deliver them to a wider audience.
You grow your own ingredients?
The guy I married is a Virginian who grew up gardening and he’s always grown veggies, fruits, and herbs for my restaurant. When we found this old, abandoned place just west of Charlottesville (yep, I have an “abandoned place” life theme) he expanded growing to “farmette” status and we put in an orchard. We named it Catbird Hill. He grows the habaneros, jalapeños, tomatoes, and herbs that I use in my sauces. And by the way, we received “Certified Naturally Grown” approval a few years ago. That is like the Brooklyn alternative to Certified Organic for smaller producers.
How do you manage to juggle all of these activities?
Juggling activities is in my blood and brings creativity and energy to my life. And I can also go from 80 mph to zero in a flash so free time is part of my routine. I admit that it is a luxury that I’ve enjoyed later in my career after getting my restaurant established. But then what did I go and do? I started a sauce company!
For relaxation I do yoga, walk, paddle-board on the nearby reservoir, hang out with friends and family, and travel when possible. I own an abandoned place in a ghost town in Mexico but I don’t get there as often as I’d like. I’m always cooking good food and a great book on tape in my car is a must! Right now I’m reading Calypso by David Sedaris and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.
What makes your Worcestershire Sauce different from others: our customers rave about it?
I love hearing that people rave about our Worcestershire Sauce! What makes it different besides the fact that it is plant based (no anchovy) is that it’s a real sauce. Part of my motivation to do this sauce biz is to take everyday condiments that have become ho-hum versions, industrialized by mega food corporations and scale them back to their original, artisan, delicious versions made with pure ingredients.
My daughter studied in the UK and while visiting her I got to taste the original, British version of Worcestershire that was made by two chemists Lea and Perrin in 1837 in the town of Worcester. The version that is made in the US today by Kraft Foods has none of the deep, nuanced flavors of the original sauce. I’m making a sauce that delivers layers of nuanced flavor to your food and drinks and I’ve created the essential umami flavor using Japanese miso instead of anchovy.
Any cooking tips for your hot sauce or BBQ sauce?
My three core sauces, the Vahotcha Hot Sauce, BBQ, and Worcestershire are all multistep sauces which gives them a deeper, richer flavor. So, when you use these sauces that have components that have been fermented, then aged using great ingredients, you are getting a complete seasoning sauce. People who use the Vahotcha Hot Sauce as part of their daily seasoning know that a small amount will enhance the flavor of any savory food. The same goes for the BBQ sauce. The BBQ is a pure foods alternative to ketchup in addition to being something to brush on a grilled item and it’s really good on a burger.
Actually, what's a good tip for making good BBQ?
You caught me there—my favorite BBQ is Eastern Carolina style which is mopped with the simplest vinegar with spices. But in general, for BBQ, keep it simple—a good spice rub, attention to time and temperature, final finish brush with Catbird Vahotcha BBQ.
I notice your focus on savory but you also make some sweet things? What took you in that direction?
I had to bottle the Double Chocolate Caramel Sauce; it’s a combo of the two most popular dessert sauces at my restaurant and as the label says, we’ve made tons of it over the years. The challenge and success of that sauce was in making it shelf stable without preservatives and I succeeded. And although it tastes sinfully rich it’s only 65 calories per tablespoon- half the calories of olive oil.
Any plans in the works for the future?
Nothing firm but I am talking about collaborating on some new products with other Virginia makers. Stay Tuned. I am finishing construction on my small batch kitchen and fermentation room at Catbird Hill- my Catalier. It will be my small batch processing kitchen, demo kitchen, teaching space, office, and hang out. My gardens and orchard are just outside the door and my paddle-board spot is right down the hill. Heaven!