Chefs Making Soap

The mind works in amazing ways. Every now and then, the down-the-rabbit hole thoughts that run through our heads as we’re doing our daily work end up leading to a great idea. Such is the case with the chefs at Southall, and it all started with steak trimming in a commercial kitchen.

Executive Chef Andrew Klamar and Chef Nate Leonard have worked together for years, collaborating on the Rambling at Southall and, through the pandemic, on the Southall family meals. The many hours spent in the kitchen together presented an opportunity to experiment with something Nate had been researching extensively: the art of soapmaking.

“As chefs, we’re always looking for ways to maximize product – using vegetable scraps in soup is one example, or frying French fries in duck fat – but as we’re processing sides of beef, we’re ending up with a lot of fat that we paid for. That’s where the idea first came from,” Klamar says. Leonard connected with nearby Bear Creek Farm to secure a steady supply of cow’s leaf fat – a narrow tube that protects the inner organs – that he found would melt down into very pure, clean, hard tallow, perfect for soapmaking.

They experimented with additions like almond, sunflower and coconut oils, shea butter and more to find the perfect base that, when combined with lye, would yield a product that would cleanse and moisturize.

“There’s a battle there – anti-bacterial soap is actually very hard on your skin, so you want that balance, along with good lather. It’s near and dear to our hearts, working in a commercial kitchen and washing our hands constantly. You want to be able to cut grease without tearing up your hands,” Leonard says.

Once they mastered the delicate process of saponification, the chemical reaction that occurs with the combination of a precise formula of liquefied fat, lye crystals and cold water, they started adding fragrance and particulates that served specific functions. Leonard notes that there is a narrow window of opportunity, when both the lye-water mixture and the melted fat cool to around 110 degrees, to blend them into the soap base. Once it becomes the consistency of thin pancake batter, it’s time to create the finished product.

“From a culinary standpoint, we have a level of creativity that easily translates to soap – we can do just about anything aesthetically, aromatically, and functionally,” he says. “There’s no limit to the combinations of organic oils and particulates we can combine for texture. Pink salt, lavender flowers, oats, activated charcoal… these are beautiful, but they also serve a purpose.”

Together, they developed four blends, each with a distinct personality and diverse application. The beef fat bar, where it all started, is jet black with activated charcoal and the right amount of lather to clean up from the dirty work of a farm or kitchen. Lemon and tea tree oils are more masculine in scent, making the finished soap something familiar to the burly men who created it.

Then they branched out into a rose clay bar with pink salt and geranium, a great exfoliator, and then a lavender oatmeal bar. Bees play an integral role at Southall, so naturally the chefs found a way to incorporate products from the hive, such as honey, beeswax, and propolis, a natural anti-bacterial agent the drones create to protect themselves. Those experiments led not only to the bee bar, but also to a lemongrass lip balm, and a series of beeswax-based candles.

In many instances, it’s as much science as art.

“If you’re making soup, you keep tasting and adding. With soap, you have to document very aggressively, because once you’re done there’s no turning back, no refinement. You’re going to pour it into the mold, wait 24 hours, then cut it and let it cure for 30 days before you really know what you’re working with.”

With 325 acres of wild and cultivated treasures available from the farm, and a world of resources beyond, the chefs know there’s no limit to what they can dream up, tinker with and ultimately develop into a line of products to share with guests at Southall.

Note: Working with lye can be extremely dangerous. Please be certain to take appropriate safety precautions if you choose to try soapmaking at home.