It’s often a long 20-hour drive from Los Angeles, California to Portland, Oregon. But for Lani Raider, founder and creator of NOBULL Specialty Foods, the journey took twenty years.
Lani was a small child when she first helped prepare the family meals in her grandmother’s kitchen in Los Angeles. Cutting, chopping, and slicing were all part of her initiation to her life’s passion of creating locally sourced, healthy and delicious food. This started the journey toward creating NOBULL Specialty Foods.
Three of her four grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, and they brought their cooking traditions with them. Preparing food was always at the center of family get-togethers, holidays, Shabbat, etc. As Los Angeles lacked any noticeable seasonal changes, holidays marked the transitions others would find in a colder climate.
The kitchen wasn’t just for preparing food; it was a secret place where the grandmothers told stories without male interruption or correction. Perceptive and intelligent, Lani loved the kitchen and recognized it as a sanctuary for her to hear their authentic voices.
Lani learned to prepare family meals at an early age. But she also had an entrepreneurial leaning. As early as high school, she started her first business selling homemade cookies. Following her senior year, she spent a year in Israel, living on a kibbutz.
She was a practicing vegetarian and soon became the vegetarian cook on the kibbutz. This was the first time she had cooked for so many people. Lani found the same deep connection with the people she served that she had experienced in her grandmother’s kitchen.
Wanting to continue her education, at the end of the year, Lani returned to the states and attended the University of Santa Cruz. While pursuing her degree, she continued her passion for preparing food for others. Lani’s cooking became a cornerstone of student gatherings. People put money in the till, and Lani’s talent would transform the contributions into meals inspired by local ingredients. She even worked on an organic farm at the base of the campus. It all seemed to fit with her core values of growing healthy food and taking care of the planet. Though she loved preparing healthy, vibrant food for others, it still never occurred to her that cooking professionally could be a career.
After graduating from college, Lani’s journey took her to Asia for a year: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal and Bali. She wasn’t the typical tourist who liked sitting on the beaches all day. Too boring, especially when there was such inspiring food and farming to explore. Living with a local family, the grandmothers brought her into their kitchen and immersed her in Balinese cooking. Lani jumped at the opportunity to help them harvest rice. In return, she found deep meaning in the simplicity of their lives and the generosity of their hearts.
She returned to California after leaving Bali. Working hand-in-hand with her Balinese family, the love she had for the earth, and the desire to have fresh ingredients for her cooking, Lani gravitated toward farming.
But first, she interned at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and was exposed to Alice Waters’ concept of farm-to-table cooking. Though she loved the practice of bringing fresh, locally-grown food to everyone, she still wasn’t ready to dive into a culinary career.
Pursuing the idea that farming was her calling, Lani interned at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, north of Sacramento. Since 1985, Full Belly Farm has grown organic produce, and in the process helped define the organic farming standards. Even though Lani wanted to farm, the magic of the kitchen pulled her closer to her sanctuary. Once again, she just wanted to cook freshly harvested vegetables and fruits for everyone. She found herself in the kitchen preparing meals for the entire team of interns and staff. Her passion for cooking was obvious, but it was hard to see how to incorporate her passion into a career.
The next stop was Harvard Divinity School. Okay, you are probably wondering how does someone combine the ingredients of a natural-born chef with the rigor of divinity school? She went into a two-year theology program. This choice wasn’t to learn about the religious concepts of God but to understand the spirit that moves people to put love into the food they prepare. Lani was seeking answers.
How do some people make a delightful cup of coffee that overwhelms the senses and creates a connection with the earth while others fail to achieve this mastery? Why does farming and cooking food create a connection with people’s spirits? How does what we eat show up as a marker of identity and culture? How are values and culture passed on through food? What makes people eat or not eat certain foods? Lani just wanted to explore the cosmology of food and culture.
This was a special time for Lani, and she wanted to fully savor each experience of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The two-year program soon turned into three. During this time, she became the head caterer for Harvard, often feeding 2,000 people at a time. Serendipitously, Julia Childs had a garden immediately behind the school. Lani began helping the famous chef in her garden. The three years sped by, and it seemed like a great idea to get a Ph.D.
Lani looked around and realized that she would need funding, and a lot of it, to pursue higher education. To save money for the next stage of her education, she returned to California. And even though cooking was her passion, and she worked as an event caterer, she still wasn’t convinced that being a chef was her destiny.
But destiny was calling. When her brother, his wife, and their child moved to Albany, New York, she planned a visit. It then occurred to her that it might be fun to do an informational interview at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA). However, she didn’t expect them to want to hire her and was very surprised when they introduced her to other staff members as a potential faculty member.
With her head spinning from the interview, she headed back to California. But this wasn’t the end of it. They called and asked her to do a couple of lectures. Her lectures on food preferences and aversions to the undergrads went better than she expected, and Lani was offered a full-time position on faculty. She anticipated it would only be a year. In October 1999, Lani started her new career.
She fell in love with the Hudson Valley, her amazing colleagues, and her work. She spent her time at CIA teaching about gastronomy, food cultures, and sustainability. She brought her passion and zeal to her career, teaching people about food and wine or food and beer pairings. Outside of her faculty work, she was instrumental in working with local farmers to help bring local products into the storeroom. She was the faculty advisor for a student group called the Chefs Sustaining Agriculture (CSA) and was the co-convivium leader for Slow Food Hudson Valley. Lani also co-created a new food, wine, and agriculture class, taking students on local and international field trips. But after eleven years, she was ready for a change.
Lani knew it was time to find a different way to make an impact on the environment and peoples’ health. Friends and family circumstances supported her decision to return to California. Returning to Berkeley, CA, she again found an internship at Chez Panisse. But Lani had changed, and California felt different. The Hudson Valley had changed her, and there was no going back.
While she was helping her ill uncle in LA, she became concerned with the food served in the hospital. She talked to chefs in other industrialized kitchens and discovered that powdered bouillon and bases, loaded with allergens and fillers, were commonly used in institutional cooking. Lani sought out solutions for schools and hospitals that were healthy, rich in flavor, made from local fresh ingredients, had a reasonable shelf life, low sodium, and was very easy to use. But there just wasn’t anything on the market.
It was time to leave California, and she began searching for a new home. Portland, Oregon offered great possibilities. Her brother, sister-in-law and their kids, as well as a couple of dear friends, had moved to Portland.
Energized by what Portland offered with the access to fresh, local ingredients, culinary curiosity, and a depth of commitment to healthy food, a vibrant community and the natural beauty, Lani moved to her new city, and the beginning of a new life—twenty years after leaving LA.
Founded in 2014, NOBULL Specialty Foods creates scratch starters made with fresh, locally sourced vegetables, herbs, and sea salt—with half the sodium of most commercial bases and bouillons. She developed a special process that allows the vibrantly flavored product to be frozen—yet remain soft in the freezer.
NOBULL’s starters provide rich, full flavor worthy of being showcased in farm to table cuisine. These instant flavor bombs (available in 5 distinct flavors) are a tasty intersection between old-world cooking and new world technology (the freezer). Anyone can use and eat NOBULL scratch food starters: gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, and void of allergens.
As the product started gaining interest, Lani soon concluded that expanding the company required more than a hairdryer to seal the tamper-resistant packaging. A co-packer that was an expert in packaging raw, fresh ingredients using sustainable packaging was needed. Finding the right co-packer took some time, and sales began in 2016.
While working through the long process of getting institutions to adopt the product, Lani also connected with local chefs. They loved the product and were excited to use the flavor bombs in their home kitchens. Their interest required that the products had to be available not just for institutions but for retail. During the cold, winter market a little over a year ago NOBULL became available at the Hollywood Farmers Market.
Lani says the Hollywood Farmers Market feels like her people, and the connection with the staff, vendors, and volunteers has been extremely positive. NOBULL is a great offering at the market because its customers place a lot of importance on having real food that is clean, fresh, flavorful, and sustainable. Chefs are now coming for different areas around Portland to the market to get their NOBULL starters.
NOBULL is available in 5 flavors: Umami, Mushroom, Veggie (Original), Mediterranean, Carrot-Ginger, and the recently added Ramen. Use them in soups, stews, for roasting vegetables, as a quick and easy pasta sauce, in salad dressings, eggs, potato salad, and countless other ways. On a personal note, I love to cook greens in a little oil and the Veggie or cook rice using the Umami Mushroom. Make a quick pasta sauce with olive oil and the Mediterranean. Try out the Carrot-Ginger with oil and a little honey for a great marinade over yams or fall squash varieties. And for more inspiration, visit the website for recipes that are updated frequently to capture the best seasonal ingredients.
Moving is always a challenge. There are times Lani misses the familiarity, community, work, and her colleagues at The Culinary Institute of America, but she loves the rich and dynamic Portland food experience. When visiting the Hollywood Farmers Market, be sure to stop by Lani’s booth. Say hi, and try out some of Lani’s sample dishes prepared using NOBULL’s wonder flavor bombs.
by Susan Gibson, HFM volunteer