We speak to Nomad Caviar founder Jason Cohen on how he's changing our understanding of caviar as a luxury food
For the well-heeled Hongkongers accustomed to nibbling on sparing portions of caviar at fine-dining establishments around the city, it might surprise them to learn that, by some accounts, the coveted black-grey pearls were consumed by the mouthful as recently as the late 1990s in places such as Azerbaijan, when 500 grams could be had for as little as US$50. Going even further back, caviar was eaten as a bar snack in the saloons of 19th-century America, sold for the very agreeable price of a nickel.
While those days are all but gone, one man looking to return at least a semblance of caviar's former status as a food for the everyman is founder of Nomad Caviar, Jason Cohen. Better known as the director of the Ce La Vi Group and the owner’s representative of The Fleming boutique hotel, the Hong Kong native found himself in the caviar business after hosting several dinners for homebound friends in the midst of the pandemic. "We were buying quite a lot from different places, and it got quite expensive. I knew that 75 percent of the world's caviar was now coming out of China and it's all farmed, so we bought from a whole load of farms in China, and then we just started doing blind tasting dinners," he tells Tatler Dining.
Indeed, China is widely perceived as the epicentre of global caviar production today with 54 percent of the world's commercial caviar farms located within its borders. Between 2003 and 2016, the country's caviar production increased tenfold; because of this ballooning supply, wholesale caviar prices have tumbled around the world, with US producers alone reporting a decrease of 58 percent from 2012 to 2018. With its slogan of "caviar for a new generation," Nomad Caviar, it seems, is poised to tap into this monumental shift in the global caviar market.
Having launched the brand just half a year ago, we caught up with Cohen to speak about the journey of launching a caviar business in Hong Kong, the disconnect between the image and the reality of caviar production, and how he is carving a new niche for Nomad in the face of the caviar industry's old guard.
What led to the creation of Nomad Caviar?
I essentially started by accident—I had no real intention of ever getting into this business at all. Covid had just hit, and being in F&B and hospitality, it was a super tough time. But in the meantime, it was kind of nice as well, just to be in Hong Kong, not travelling Monday to Friday, and catching up with lots of friends.
A friend and I started hosting a lot of dinners at his place and my place, and we got into caviar. Eventually we found one farm that had a Kaluga hybrid, and then we also found an Ossetra from another farm, and we rang them up and asked if we could buy directly.
They basically said, sure, why not? But we had to guarantee a minimum order quantity of 10kg. That’s a lot of caviar, but I put the order in and my partner and I emailed several friends, and just like that, 10kg was gone. We placed a second order for 30kg, the next order was 50kg, and then our last order was 70kg. At that point, the owner of the farm rang me and told us we had bought more than their caviar clients this year, and suggested that we start a brand. I was just too busy at the time with Ce La Vi and The Fleming, just hoping to figure out when this all was gonna end and go back to normal.
Eventually due to Covid, we had to close some of our venues for a while, so I thought, you know what, maybe I'll do this! I rang back the farm owner two months after we last spoke and took him up on his offer.
I'll never forget the first day because the product came in on 10pm on October 31st. My birthday is November 1st, and I was having a Halloween dinner when customs rang me and said my caviar had arrived. So from midnight till 3am on the morning of the 1st I was taking delivery and doing all the labelling for tins.
Did you get the impression that you were entering a crowded market already?
It's a very crowded space and it's dominated by the big players like Petrossian Caviar and Caviar House. But from the from the inception of it, I knew that I did not want to build a brand that was focused on elitism and super luxury, and having to earn a million dollars a year to be able to eat it. The reality is caviar is farmed now all over the world; it's not wild, so there's no reason for it to be as expensive as it is. That's how I'm able to offer my pricing— I wanted to create a brand that was modern, more with the times. It didn't need to appeal to someone that drives a Rolls Royce and has a yacht; it could simply be like a group of friends at dinner splitting the cost of a 500g tin.
Why the name Nomad?
I just started thinking about how we normally think of caviar in terms of places—essentially, it originates in the Caspian Sea, Russia, the Amur basin. But the more I researched it and the more I learned about the industry, I realised that there are farms all over the world: Azerbaijan, Iran, Italy, the US, Australia, the UK, Romania, and Vietnam all have farms. Then I got this concept in my mind of travel and this wandering vision. If you go back through time, Russian seamen used to eat caviar because it was in abundance, and because it's filling. It's really high in protein, it's got zinc, magnesium, and selenium, so it gave them the strength to be able to get through these long sea voyages.
It’s all very much on trend with the casualisation of fine dining we’ve seen over the past few years, too.
If you look at a lot of the promotions for a lot of the caviar brands around the world, it's like crystal chandeliers, Dom Perignon, fancy cars, yachts. That's the selling of this lifestyle that for most people is out of reach. Whereas the position of my brand is to eat tonnes of caviar, drink lots of frozen vodka, listen to some good music and have a great time with friends. It doesn't need to be something where you spend HK$20,000 on dinner.
There's a much bigger market for people realising that they can afford it once every couple of months. And it's a really fun thing to do. With this concept, you buy 500g for six to eight people, and they can just go for it. Instead of it being like an appetiser, it can really be the main course.
I've been noticing caviar in real combinations of high and low cuisine: on hash browns, scrambled eggs, and even a potato salad. What's your favourite way of eating caviar?
In the beginning of doing this, the novelty was definitely in scooping caviar with a huge spoon and eating it traditionally with blinis. I personally like it on white toast, with a tiny bit of egg yolk, a little bit of chives and some cream fraiche. But now I've kind of evolved. I really like it with a baked potato, or on mashed potatoes with fresh chives, and then just placing a massive serve of caviar on top.
It also pairs really well with truffles. I've been making a cold angel hair pasta dish with truffle. And if you take a latke, the outside is super crispy, and the inside is quite soft—to have that with caviar, it tastes amazing.
Is there still a stigma around ‘made in China’ caviar? Do you think it’s warranted?
I don't want to name any brands, but none of them ever say that some of their caviar is from China. The reality is, it's pretty much all from China, but they seem to be embarrassed to say that, whereas I'm not embarrassed at all—I've done my homework and research to know that I have one of the best products for that price.
The farms in China that are cleared for international export are accredited with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and held to the highest standards. These farms are pristine; the workers packaging caviar are in hazmat suits—there's not one bit of skin exposed. I would say the farms in China are probably cleaner than a lot of the ones in other places.
The guys that started the first farms in China 30 years ago took risks that involved, essentially, growing fish for six to eight years, investing all that money in these farms, and not knowing if they were actually going to be able to monetize it. They’re really smart people who took big risks. As the farms get bigger, and illegal fishing of sturgeon diminishes even more, what will happen is that the market will become a lot more crowded, but prices will inevitably come down, and it will be a lot more fair.
And more people who want to try caviar will be able to eat it.
It will never be a cheap food, because it's expensive farming these fish over six to 10 years, but it will be more affordable. I'm super excited about that, because my brand fits perfectly into that category. It’s not mainstream, but it's more mainstream.
Nomad Caviar is now available online in various sizes. nomadcaviar.com