In a commercial kitchen tucked into the volunteer fire department in the little town of Plumsteadville, Pennsylvania, Gregory Benjamin Conocchioli spends his days crafting world-class preserves and marmalade, using only the finest, peak-season produce from neighboring communities. His products, sold under the name Gregory Benjamin Preserves & Marmalade, have received heaps of critical acclaim, ranging from prestigious awards, like medals from The World’s Original Marmalade Awards based in Dalemain Mansion & Gardens in Cumbria, England, to mentions in Cooking Light and The New York Times.
Though making preserves is his current passion, the 63-year-old Conocchioli has had a long and winding career path. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, he worked at the “Holy Trinity” of fashion in Philadelphia at the time: Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor, before turning to the culinary arts. After working briefly as a restaurant server, Conocchioli opened his own catering business, What’s Cooking Catering, which he ran from 1984 to 1993. His business became well-known among the city’s movers and shakers and, in 1984, his peanut & peanut butter chocolate chip cookie won a “Best of Philly” award from Philadelphia magazine.
In the mid-’90s he closed up the catering biz, moved to New Hope and opened Varieté, a little boutique across the river in Frenchtown, New Jersey. After some adventures in retail and real estate, and a brief move to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, Conocchioli sold the shop in 2007 and started a handyman business. In autumn of 2012, after making 150 jars of jam as favors for his niece’s wedding, he decided to move on to his next chapter and turn his hobby of preserving fruit into a company.
We were able to grab a few minutes with Conocchioli while he drove around making deliveries, and we talked about his history with making preserves, his journey through the culinary arts and more.
PA Eats: So, you’ve done quite a few things for work over the years. Did you make career choices intentionally, or just follow your whims?
Gregory Benjamin Conocchioli: I’ve always done what I’ve loved, and I’ve loved a lot of things. I wake up every morning ready to put my feet on the floor and start the day. At the risk of sounding conceited, I have a lot of talents and I’ve tried to use all of the talents I’ve been inherently given to create a very full life. The preserves I’ve been making since I was eight years old … I’ve always loved it and even when I was doing other things, I would make preserves to give as gifts.
What it is about making preserves that you enjoy?
It’s something that really relaxes me. I’m right in the pot, paying attention to it. It’s kind of a great escape because you have to really pay attention to time, ingredients, the whole process.
I still love being at the stove, creating new flavors and wrestling with the process. The process is very much about chemistry, and so it’s important when you add things, when you take it off the heat, when you get it jarred. Sometimes, the business part makes me a little tense.
You said you’ve been making preserves since you were eight. How did you learn?
I grew up on Staten Island, and we had blueberry bushes, two pear trees, peach trees, cherry, apple and apricot trees, and every summer there was a harvest. Also, during the summers, I would collect newspapers on Saturday mornings from my neighbors and sell them to the junk man at the end of the season. My neighbors who lived next door used to make preserves every Saturday, and I would stand at their kitchen door watching them. An eight-year-old doesn’t think that people make their own preserves; you think you get it out of a jar at the grocery store. But I would watch and watch, and one Saturday I asked to help. I got to wash and sterilize the jars, and they taught me how to peel the fruit and how to process it. By the end of the summer, I had made my own batch of spiced peach preserves from the peaches from our trees, and it remains, to this day, my favorite flavor.
They were exceptional people, my neighbors. It was a different time … I’m 64 years old now, and there’s really not a day that I don’t think about them and what they taught me. Who would’ve ever thought that this is how I would spend my golden years in retirement, making preserves? It’s kind of astounding to me, but it’s something I’ve carried with me all my life.
What makes your preserves better than what someone might find at the supermarket?
Mass production allows for a less expensive final product, because of the automation and because of the [inexpensive] ingredients. In my products, there’s no filler, no fructose corn syrup, it’s strictly fruit that’s been picked at the peak of perfection. Sometimes, the fruit is flash frozen for us, so we can use peaches that have been picked locally all year long. In terms of quality, my name is on the jar. And so I am acutely aware of that I have a responsibility to live up to, what I have said my product is. And, like everything in life, you get what you pay for.
We do a honey-roasted tomato and hatch green chile preserve, and the tomatoes are all from a local farm in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and our peaches come from a local farm that’s 13 minutes away from our kitchen. It’s not unusual for me to go pick up 500 pounds of peaches.
You’ve gotten some impressive media attention for your preserves. What kind of feedback resonates with you?
I’m always astounded by the comments I get from people. I’ll go into one of these stores where I deliver to and I’ll watch people buying my product. It gives me a high, like, “Oh my god, they really do sell it!” I have people who I meet in the grocery store who know me and say, “I was given a gift of the preserves, they’re the best I’ve ever had,” and it’s a real ego boost.”
Sometimes you get actual feedback from people, like, “I wish you’d make a pepper jam.” There are so many fine pepper jams out there on the market, no one needs one from me. But they do look to my brand for interesting combinations of flavors, so I said okay, I’ll do this with roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic and I’m going to create my own level of satisfaction.
What other new creations have you made lately?
I made Manhattan preserves with Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey. I got hooked up with them through a publicist who represented Dad’s Hat. They said, “Can you do a cocktail marmalade?” And I said, “Sure, I can do anything.”
It was a whole thing; I had to figure out, how am I getting to get the most out of the ingredients? I spend so much time mentally thinking about how I’m going to make things and how I want the finished product to taste. I’ll often make a batch as an experiment and, because there’s so much thought put into it, I usually get what I was after. I do a lot of experimenting in my mind, and I’ve never made something that was awful.
Was making a cocktail preserve out of step with what you usually do?
A lot of traditional marmalade is made with whiskey, so mine is just a twist on that. I like to make things that are familiar flavors with a little twist. Like, I’m experimenting in my mind with doing a fig, artichoke and black olive conserve. I don’t want to make a plain fig preserve, there’s a lot of nice ones already out there. I want to push the envelope … that’s what I do.
How long do you think you’ll run Gregory Benjamin Preserves & Marmalade?
I plan to work until I can no longer work. This is a really nice, relaxing way to make a living. I’m never going to sit around, I’m always going to be occupied and busy, so I might as well be occupied and busy doing something that I really love.
Look for Gregory Benjamin products at fine food shops and restaurants across Pennsylvania, like River Cat Cafe in New Hope, The Larder in Doylestown, and Valley Forge Flowers in Wayne. You can also shop online, and find recipes and inspiration all on the Gregory Benjamin website.
- Photos: Gregory Benjamin Preserves