Welcome to Kitchn's series Follow Her, where we highlight some of the coolest, most inspiring women in food you need to know about right now.
When was the last time you really thought about your olive oil? Sure, maybe you take a few minutes to scan the many options in the grocery aisle before selecting one (usually the one on sale, if you're me) — but do you ever pause to truly consider how that olive oil made it into your hands?
With consumers' growing interest in knowing where their food comes from, it's surprising that an ingredient as ubiquitous as olive oil isn't given the same scrupulous attention. But Aishwarya Iyer is out to change all that.
In 2015 Iyer realized that the subpar supermarket olive oil she was buying was making her feel ... well, subpar. That led her on a dizzying, eye-opening quest to learn more about the olive oil industry and eventually drew her out west, where she partnered with a single-estate California farm and founded Brightland.
Now she makes traceable, high-quality olive oil she trusts (in beautifully designed, protective powder-coated bottles) — and she wants to share it with the world.
What sparked your interest in olive oil?
In early 2015, when my partner and I lived in New York City, we made a commitment to cook more at home and be more thoughtful about the ingredients we were using. But after eating we'd have these uncomfortable stomachaches and feel slightly nauseous. So we tried cutting out bread, and then cutting out cheese, but nothing helped.
One day I was dipping bread into olive oil and I was like, "Omg I think it's the olive oil!" I started Googling and was just really blown away and shocked at what I found out: that the majority of the olive oil Americans consume is either rotten, rancid, or adulterated.
How did you decide to pursue a career in the olive oil industry?
I was working at an early stage venture capital firm in New York City, and I saw these amazing founders pitching ideas and building businesses, all based on some sort of problem that they were trying to create a solution for. I learned there that if you see something that people aren't talking about, you have to start a conversation.
At the time a lot of people were talking about introducing consumers to things like turmeric and ashwagandha, but I realized we were forgetting olive oil — something we use all the time that had essentially been wholly forgotten.
Why did you choose California as the home for your business?
I ended up moving for other reasons to California, but shortly after moving I learned about the California olive oil industry. I was very intrigued because, unlike in other countries, in California the traceability — knowing where the olives are cultivated, milled, and packed — is really clear.
I took a course at the UC Davis Olive Center, which is dedicated to the study and research of extra-virgin olive oil. Through the course I was able to compile a great checklist for quality standards and what I wanted out of a farm partner. I talked to 30 farms and ultimately chose the farm we're working with in the Central Coast of California. They have a certified organic mill on site and a certified master miller, and they do two custom blends for Brightland.
What do you most want people to understand about olive oil?
At the UC Davis Center I learned that when you consume rotten olive oil you're not getting the health benefits that you think you are. You're going out of your way to buy the best kale, tomato, bread, cheese, etc., but then you're dousing it with really subpar-quality olive oil. It's so frustrating!
Also, another surprising thing I learned is that if it's authentic extra-virgin olive oil, then it does have a high smoke point of 420°F at the time of harvest.
How can consumers find out if they're buying high-quality olive oil?
Look for a harvest date on the bottle (versus a best-by date). With a harvest date, you have a benchmark of when the olive oil was made, and you can count forward to now to calculate how old it is.
Also, one of the best indicators of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is when you consume it, you'll feel a sharp peppery sensation at the back of your throat. (Editor's note: This happened to me when I tried Brightland!) There's a receptor for oleocanthal, a phenolic compound found in extra-virgin olive oil, in the back of the throat, which is why you feel that distinctive sting when you eat it.
What's been the most challenging aspect of your business so far?
There's no playbook — everything's unwritten. I'm so fortunate to have amazing fellow business owners to lean on and ask for help; I wouldn't be here if it weren't for people so generously sharing knowledge and being there for me. But ultimately it's the Brightland novel and no one else can write it; no one knows what will happen, including me.
It's also a slew of decision making. Being able to just make decisions (big or small), and live with them and move on, is really challenging.
What's a part of your daily routine you can't live without?
Every single evening before going to sleep, my partner and I say three things we're grateful for. It can be as big as I'm grateful that I have lungs to breathe with, to as small as I'm grateful for this person who lit up my day today. It's amazing how much perspective saying those three things gives us and how it immediately puts things into place.
I also have to eat a little something sweet every day. Lately it's stone fruit, dark chocolate, Brightland, and sea salt.
Do you have a go-to entertaining dish?
I make a big pot of black rice, a big pot of quinoa, a heap of roasted veggies, hummus, and pesto; set out Rao's marinara and tons of Brightland; and let people make their own bowls. It's very cozy and comforting, and kinda healthy. The veggies change based on season, and there's always lots of red wine.
Dessert is vanilla bean ice cream, Brightland, sea salt, and blueberries.
What do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
For music it's Cole Porter, Corinne Bailey Rae, Justin Townes Earle, and Fleetwood Mac. For podcasts, I'm into The Bowery Boys (New York City history; makes me feel like I'm still close to the city), Monocle, and Oprah's Super Soul Conversations.
Where you do draw inspiration from?
I'm really inspired by anyone taking risks to live their fullest, greatest life; people who are comfortable with the uncomfortable, whether it's big or small stuff. That's what pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves.
I also learned last year that my ancestors were salt farmers in South India in the early 1800s. I didn't know that entrepreneurial spirit was in my DNA — that I had a connection to food in that deep-rooted way. It's funny how much we don't know about our own history. We're always looking forward, but connecting the dots from the past into the future is nice too.
What's next for Brightland?
I think one of the key indicators of a good leader or founder is that not only can they be a visionary, but they can also listen. My job right now is to listen to our customers' feedback and apply those learnings.
I would also love to have some sort of showroom for Brightland; I don't know what that could look like. I get a lot of inspiration from the fashion, beauty, and skincare world; they push boundaries constantly in customer and brand experience. I think there are principles to take from there and apply to Brightland.
Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.