Last Friday morning I joined Seed + Mill Co-Founder and CEO, Rachel Simons in the Chelsea Market shop via Zoom. Surrounded by jars of the brands signature tahini and the early morning sounds of the market around her, Rachel shared about how she met her fellow founders Lisa Mendelson and Monica Molenaar along with and inside look into the brand itself and the origins of halva and tahini.
While you will be spoiled for choice on which flavor of halva to try while in the brick and mortar location in New York City, the most popular flavors are pistachio and tahini, it’s worth giving some of the more fun and flavorful combinations such as Chocolate Orange or Cardamom a try if you’re feeling more adventurous.
Curious about recipes you can use Seed + Mill’s signature products in? There’s a whole collection of delicious recipes featured on the website that Rachel has tried herself, including her personal favorite, the tahini swirl brownies that are the perfect combination of savory and sweet.
How did the three of you meet?
I’m Australian and I moved to New York with my family in 2014. I had a whole other career prior to moving to the states, having practiced law in Sydney. So I decided when we moved to New York that I wanted a year away from the law. At that stage we weren’t sure how long we were going to stay in the US.
I sent my kids to school on the Upper West Side and one of the first families I met was Lisa (Mendelson) who is one of the co-founders of Seed + Mill. She has children of a similar age to mine and she was also a ex-lawyer. We were both migrants, Lisa is from Israel, and in the beginning we were both not quite sure what our next career move would be.
We really connected over food. She’s an amazing cook and I love to cook as well. We both love to host and entertain and we came from other parts of the world and we both have lived all over the world. So what really attracted me to the business that we ended up starting was being centered around these global flavors and introducing and connecting people through food.
So that’s how Lisa and I met, and Lisa had already met Monica (Molenaar) our third partner. Monica is very similar to Lisa and I in the fact that we just love to talk about food. We would cook, share recipes, talk about our travel experiences and it was just a natural chemistry because we were at a similar stage in our lives and we had that entrepreneurial drive to start a business.
At what point during your friendship did you decide that you wanted to found a brand together?
It was pretty quick. Lisa and I were friends long before we started Seed + Mill in fact we were sharing a summer house together for a month in the summer of 2015. It was about 3 months later that we decided to get the business started.
Lisa and Monica were already friends before we met, and I feel like my friendship really grew with Monica after we started the business together. It was one of the moments when you realize that we had so much in common and there was an immediate chemistry.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
The mission of our brand is to bring joy to people through delicious, creative global food. The global aspect of our food is both relevant from a historical perspective and also from a sourcing perspective.
Our two main products are halva and tahini. Most people might not know what halva or tahini are. Tahini comes from the Middle East and there’s evidence that tahini and halva have been made for thousands of years.
We source our sesame seeds in Ethiopia, we then bring the sesame seeds to Israel and we process most of our products in Israel. The reason for that is there is huge history of artisans who have been making these products for generations and have thousands of years of history.
Tahini means “to grind” and comes from an Arabic word ṭaḥīna. So just like you grind up nuts to make a nut butter, we grind up seeds to make seed butter. So ṭaḥīna became tahini.
Our other product, Halva, is made out of tahini and sugar. Halva is also an Arabic word ḥalwá and it’s the Arabic word for “sweet”.
Sourcing wise there are many cultures and religions who have a connection to what we make and our goal is to really become a global leader in our category and really own that space with a quality products and ingredients.
What are some of the health benefits of sesame seeds?
Sesame is a really rich source of calcium. That’s probably the most important health benefit of sesame. It’s a richer source of calcium than dairy or green vegetables, so for elderly people or anyone with any sort of bone density issues it’s a really good source of calcium.
It’s also a good source of protein, minerals and antioxidants such as zinc. It’s also a good fat. Typically people think of olive oil and avocados and other sources of fats as good ingredients to keep your insides moisturized and smooth. Sesame also falls into that category. It’s very clean and there are no artificial ingredients. It’s a very natural product that’s good for you.
For those unfamiliar with Halva, what are some of the ingredients you use in the halva featured on your online shop and your physical shop in Chelsea Market?
We have so many flavors in our shop in Chelsea Market, but online we have more of a limited number. If you go into our store in Chelsea Market you get the full halva experience where you can try thirty flavors.
Halva is essentially made by combining tahini and sugar. We heat the sugar up into a really hot syrup, then we combine it with tahini and start folding in layers of nuts or salt or other ingredients. It has a very flaky, unique texture and it’s the texture of halva that makes it different from anything else. You want halva to melt in your mouth and it shouldn’t be sticky and chewy like fudge and it shouldn’t be like a cake because it doesn’t have that glutenous type of texture. It’s more of a confection. Halva should delicately flake apart and melt in your mouth.
You currently offer quite a few ‘flavor’ options, what is your personal favorite and which one would you suggest to someone trying Halva for the first time?
The most popular flavor is the pistachio. It outsells everything and for one reason or another everyone seems to love pistachio nuts. So if you want to try the classic, best-selling flavor go for the pistachio.
Personally I like to be more out of the box and tend to go for the more interesting flavors like ginger, chocolate and orange or cardamom. I like all of the spicy more interesting flavors. I think cardamom is one of my favorites.
I always surprises me how people tend to go for the more plain flavors. For example I’m not a vanilla ice cream kind of person, but a lot of people just want vanilla. Our sesame flavor doesn’t have an extra flavors added to it and it’s one of our bestsellers.
In addition to Tahini and Halva, you also sell spice blends. What is your favorite dish to use the Sesame & Za’atar spice blend?
Our Za’atar is just a mix of herbs, salt, bit of extra sesame, but the primary herbs are thyme and sumac with a little bit of oregano. It’s a very popular blend in the Middle East.
If you’re unfamiliar with sumac it’s a berry that has a beautiful kind tangy, citrusy flavor and then we’ve combined with other herby spices. I like to put it on scrambled eggs in the morning, on Greek salad (or any other salad for that matter), on ricotta toast, or on a piece of fish either before or after I’ve cooked it. The Sesame & Za’atar blend can definitely be used as a finishing spice.
So, it’s not a question of what you do put it on, it’s a question of what you don’t. It’s very versatile!
I love that you feature recipes on the Seed + Mill website and I’m definitely planning to make the Dark Chocolate, Tahini, and Halva Brioche Babka and Spinach Feta Pie. What are some of the featured recipes that you’ve tried?
Every recipe that we put up on the website is usually something that I’ve made, photographed and written up the recipe for. I would say I’ve tried every recipe on the website. Out of all of them, the Babka is amazing, but it definitely takes some time to make.
The recipe that I made the most is the Tahini Swirled Brownies. I love brownies and they are such an easy, classic treat to make and adding the Tahini and Halva to a recipe is what takes it from ordinary to extraordinary. The Tahini has a nutty, deep flavor that bring a balance to the sweetness. Plus the swirl on the top just looks cool and it’s visually really interesting.
I’ve also made a skillet brownie and I just put the brownie mix in the skillet, add my swirl of tahini, put in the oven and then we enjoy it as a family. It’s just a really fun sharing dish where everyone can get a scoop. You can also make the brownie batter in advance and then just put in the oven for twenty minutes before you’re about to eat dinner.
Seed + Mill has been featured in notable publications such as Bon Appetit, The New York Times, Martha Stewart, Saveur. What was it like seeing your products in print for the first time?
It still blows my mind that anyone wants to interview me about our brand. We just started as a small business in Chelsea Market and we’re selling these really weird, unusual, hard to pronounce products and I honestly thought we would stay as a small shop with just a couple of customers a day. So to see that people wanted to buy our products, were interested in learning more about the brand and want to write about it, it’s a thrill every time!
Do you plan on releasing more products in 2021?
Yes, definitely. We’re launching a Za’atar Tahini, some new flavors for our Halva and continuing our mission to create and innovate our flavors and products over time. Be sure to keep an eye on our social media and website for upcoming product releases!
Rachel Simons, Lisa Mendelson, and Monica Molenaar
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All images in this post provided by Seed + Mill