About Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
Probably the first question people ask when they find out I work as an olive oil consultant is, “How on earth did you end up doing that?” A very reasonable question; the more pointed question of course is “Why did you end up doing that?” but that is for another day.
It would be nice to claim Mediterranean heritage and a childhood dripping with olive oil, but I can’t. My mother is a great cook, and used olive oil for cooking Italian food, but it was mostly “spaghetti and meatballs” and salad dressing back then. Although the family heritage is Ukrainian and Austrian—hardly a wellspring of olive oil—there is a Mediterranean hookup; my sister has lived in Italy for over three decades. The olive oil connection goes back thirty-plus years to a stay with my sister in the suburbs of Rome. It was there that the importance of olive oil as a flavoring—as a condiment—not just as a cooking medium or salad dressing ingredient became clear. I learned that putting olive oil on, well, almost anything, made it taste better. That sensibility came back to the States with me, and things have never been the same since.
Currently, I divide my time between olive oil consulting for private clients and educational and promotional efforts on behalf of the industry. With Australian Paul Miller, I founded the international non-profit association Extra Virgin Alliance to improve the value of extra virgin olive oil for everyone in the chain from producer to consumer. In 2014 I wrote a pocket olive oil reference called Olive Oil: A Field Guide, designed to be a quick reference for retail staff, olive oil buyers and passionate consumers. It’s available at some olive oil specialty stores and through the publisher, the American Oil Chemists’ Society.
I also work advising and judging olive oil competitions at home and abroad, including California State Fair, Olive Japan, Athena International, Napa Valley, Yolo County and Central Coast Competitions.
Writing and academic stuff
My work with olive oil (and yes, this is my day job) began with a position at the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Sonoma County. Although initially hired to work in the field of consumer education on reducing pesticide usage, I quickly gravitated to working on olive oil research and outreach. Some of the writing work from the UC days includes two chapters of the Organic Olive Production Manual from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Publications, and several research papers in the field of olive oil production, processing and evaluation.
As the originating editor and staff writer for the UCCE’s First Press: Newsletter of Olive Oil Production and Evaluation, producing concise, readable technical information for growers and producers was the objective. Numerous educational handouts, presentations and posters on olive pest management, olive cultural practices and sensory evaluation of olive oil produced with my involvement during that period are available on the olive publications page of the UCCE Sonoma County. My work as a collaborator with the university continued with an article about sensory analysis of olive oil in California Agriculture magazine (Jan–Mar 2011). Being a member of the advisory board of the UC Davis Olive Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences, allows me to contribute to the ongoing UC support of the California olive oil industry.
Other olive-related writing work includes articles for Edible Silicon Valley, On Trend, Mercacei, Hobby Farms, Olive Oil Times and Zester Daily and an olive oil training manual for the Culinary Institute of America, as well as various brochures and informational pieces for sundry clients.
I currently do workshops and classes in all aspects of olive oil for retailers, consumers and producers. I have taught at Olive Oil Sommelier School of Japan, California State Fair, Culinary Institute of America, Paso Robles Olive Festival, Olive Japan seminars, Copia Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, UC Davis Olive Center, New York International Olive Oil Competition Seminar, International Olive Oil School (online), UCD Extension, UCCE and for numerous private clients. I also taught a 4-week in-depth course “Olive Oil Production, Processing and Evaluation” at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Working with EVA I have organized and participated in numerous olive oil tasting workshops, ranging from educational luncheons to 2-day courses on olive oil tasting for the trade.
In 2003, passing the admissions test allowed me to join the UCCE/California Olive Oil Council Taste Panel. I was one of the members of the UC Davis panel while it was in operation, and still taste with the UCCE research panel.
Conferences and organizations
My involvement with the Beyond Extra Virgin (BEV) Olive Oil Conference began at UC Davis in May 2007 with a presentation of olive oil processing research. At BEV III in Davis, BEV IV in Verona and BEV V in Cordoba, it continued with appearances as a panelist, moderator and presenter, focusing on communication, marketing and quality assurance.
In January 2010, for the first US symposium dedicated specifically to the marketing and language of olive oil for the UC Davis Olive Center, I brought together speakers from various parts of the specialty food and wine world to address the challenge of selling good olive oil at a fair price. Also for the Olive Center, I participated as a panelist and/or presenter at numerous other events and symposia, including “Medium Density Olive Production,” “Keys to Quality,” and “Flavor, Quality and American Menus” (sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America).
As the California coordinator for Association 3E (previously Association TRE-E), an organization dedicated to promoting excellence in olive oil, I was responsible for assessing the production practices of olive oil producers to determine whether they conform to the strict quality standards of Association 3E.