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COVID-19, a chance friendship and common goal has resulted in condiments and a community. Kim Berry talks to Danny Ronin and Elijah Holland about their successful side hustle, Ronin Culinary Labs. This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Food and Drink Business.

Danny Ronin was a video producer, working with artists, musicians, and other clients on creative projects. And then COVID-19 arrived, stopping his work in its tracks. But in his downtime, Ronin had been making – and perfecting – his own chilli oil. 

With each batch he would share jars with family and friends, reflecting his core values about radical gifting, being an active participant, and creating things. 

“I’ve been going to Burning Man in the US for a while and have adopted some of its principles as my own,” Ronin says. 

The chilli oil has as much crunch as it does heat and spice. Made with onion, garlic, spring onions, chilli, soy, sesame, and peanuts it has a depth of flavour from mushroom powder, Sichuan peppercorns, cassia bark, ginger and star anise. 

It is one of those condiments people become attached to and then use on everything, he says. 

Ronin Culinary Labs founder Danny Ronin.
Ronin Culinary Labs founder Danny Ronin.

It was his own radical gifting at the local post office that shifted the chilli oil from something he was doing as a hobby into a business. 

“I was sending jars off to some friends and had one left over, so I gave it to Arthur behind the desk. The next time I went in he asked if he could buy ten jars and it has basically grown from there,” Ronin says. 

From the outset, Ronin has run the business purely online and offered a subscription service. It ties into his active participant philosophy. 

“This is about creating something where people aren’t just passive consumers. Our mantra is ‘the most important ingredient is you’, because without them the brand doesn’t exist. It is about their participation in buying it, using it, sharing their experience on social channels as well as with in person, and feeling like they are a part of something,” he says. 

From a few jars for family to using a ghost kitchen to turn out hundreds of jars per batch, the business is all online. 

Ronin says they’re still trying to “find our fit” in terms of a business model. “At the moment we’re one hundred per cent digitally native and vertically integrated, and that has been important for the consumer experience. There are enough people using the internet for us to be fully based online,” he says. 

Its subscription model means fans never run out while also building brand loyalty.

A chance meeting

Before COVID-19 arrived, Ronin was filming in Melbourne’s restaurant Lûmé and met head chef and chief forager, Elijah Holland. The restaurant’s philosophy is one of foraging, using the endemic and naturalised species found in the surrounds of Melbourne and Victoria. 

For Ronin, connecting with Holland took everything to another level. 

One of the key ingredients in Ronin Kelp is wild bull kelp, harvested from beaches after storms and big seas. 
One of the key ingredients in Ronin Kelp is wild bull kelp, harvested from beaches after storms and big seas. 

When Food & Drink Business caught up with Holland, the two had only been working together for around six weeks. 

“We go diving and spear fishing together and had been talking about doing a joint project. We were considering everything and looking for a gap in the market. Soy sauce is something we all use a lot, but there is virtually no variation in the market in terms of flavour,” Holland says. 

Holland specialises in creating wild food from proteins to seafoods, plants and botanicals. He works with the Biodiversity Atlas of Victoria on Australian edible species, so people learn about native ingredients and how to forage for them correctly. 

“Sustainability is very important to both of us, our motivation was to create something that was interesting, organic and a bit special,” he says. 

The result is Ronin Kelp.  

With a base of tamari, the sauce is made from wild bull kelp, harvested from beaches along the Great Ocean Road when washed up after storms and rough seas, wild garlic and pink peppercorns. 

“It is a lengthy process, but it’s fun when we get to the bottling stage and see the complexity of flavours increase,” Holland says. 

The result is a condiment with myriad applications. 

It is inspired by shoyu tare, tamari and soy sauce but delivers a product that is simultaneously briny, with notes of dark salted caramel, coffee, chocolate and hazelnut and a lingering umami. The pair say it is a sauce to replace all other seasonings. 

This is about creating something where people aren’t just passive consumers. Our mantra is ‘the most important ingredient is you’, because without them the brand doesn’t exist.

The obvious include sashimi, tartare, and dumplings, but it can also be used in salad dressings, replacing Worcestershire

Chef Elijah Holland.
Chef Elijah Holland.

sauce, and as a marinade. 

“We’re in the process of shooting and creating cooking videos and recipes to show how versatile it is,” Holland says. 

The production process is like that of soy sauce, with brewing, fermentation and then pasteurisation. The kelp is collected, washed in the ocean, and then taken back to the commercial kitchen, where it is roasted until dry and then ground into a powder. 

“It is a remarkable ingredient,” Holland says, “It starts out thick and rubbery like a leather and ends up a fine powder with amazing coffee and cacao aromas.” 

The pair are committed to sustainability, participation, and inclusion. Their motivation is founded in creating food that means something, that connects with consumers and brings enjoyment and positivity to their lives. 

It just so happens their chilli oil and kelp sauce combined with a strong online presence are doing just that.

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