NOT YOUR EVERYDAY CANDLE GUY

BY ELIZABETH MINNELLA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CLAIRE HARRIS MATSON

 

Here are a few things you will soon learn about Levi Austin: he’s worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. He's a millennial entrepreneur. He holds a dual degree in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. In his free time, helps his friends re-design their spaces. Oh - and most of the furniture in his living room he built himself. 


 

 

“My mother always said I was born to create... it just took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to make.” Levi Austin is a 26-year-old New York City based entrepreneur, so the term “awhile” is certainly relative when you consider the career accomplishments of his millennial contemporaries. 

While most early twenty-somethings are slogging through desk jobs or living at home trying to nurture a more creative route, Austin has spent the last nine years cultivating his passion at warp speed. 

After earning an Ivy League education and a culinary degree from the CIA, Austin trained at Per Se (arguably the country’s greatest restaurant,) staged at restaurant Noma in Copenhagen (arguably the world’s greatest restaurant,) managed food and beverage operations at a five-star hotel in NYC and launched his own successful luxury candle business. 

“I didn’t want to wait for something to happen to me. I wanted to make it happen.” We sat down with Austin in his Lower East Side apartment to find out how he “made it happen.”

 

 

“Growing up, I was sure I would be an architect. My father worked in residential development and I was obsessed with building. I love the idea of making something out of nothing.” 

As the youngest of five children, Austin loved the way his creations moved people. 

“I always wanted to impress my older siblings; I wanted to make something that they would notice, that would put them in awe.” 

He quickly found the easiest way to wow people was through food. 

“I started with baking and cake decorating for birthdays and celebrations. I loved seeing how happy a custom cake would make the guest of honor gleam, how something that I made could elevate someone’s special day -  it could bring a smile to their face.” 

Austin was always seeking to outdo himself and keep his audience on their toes. “It was always my mission to do something interesting, seasonal and a little outlandish.” When he ran out of celebrations he found new ones to cook for. “One year I made a 10-inch chocolate dipped fortune cookie for the Chinese New Year. Being raised with parents from Trinidad, to my surprise, everyone loved it!” Austin continued to share how Trinidad, being the southernmost island in the Caribbean in the West Indies, is a cultural melting pot. Hence why he took a DIY ancestral DNA test - which to his surprise revealed genetic markings from South Asia, China, North and West Africa – with traces from Poland, Europe and the Pacific Islands. 

"It made perfect sense, people always ask what my favorite cuisine is or what my favorite dish is. Honestly, I've always liked to take the best flavors and ingredients from international cuisines and apply them in an approachable way."

His talents proved to extend well beyond baking and earned him a spot in the dual-degree program with the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

“It opened up the entire world for me. I felt that I could go anywhere in the world and reach people. Learn from them, excite them (and) collaborate with them.” After graduation, he did just that. Unbeknownst to him the experiences he acquired would be the foundation for an entirely different type of creative expression. 

Austin secured a highly-coveted stage position at Per Se.

“Per Se was all about precision and attention to detail. It was a purist’s approach to cooking and exactness was key. At times, I felt like it hindered my creativity but there you must earn your creative seat over time. Besides hard work and discipline, I learned that creating something incredible is worthless if you’re unable to recreate it exactly the same way hundreds of times. This is essential in my candle making, once I nail down a  scent “recipe” I need to make sure I can create the exact same scent blend over and over.”

At Per Se, Austin was privileged to work directly alongside chefs including Matt Orlando, now Chef and Owner of Amass in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Today Austin still considers Orlando to be a mentor of sorts to his early culinary career as he consciously explained the best practices to Austin. Orlando later opened up Austin's opportunity for staging at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.

Noma on the other hand nurtured a more free spirited side of Austin. “It was all about cultivation, harvesting and preservation of ingredients. To make the best food, you need to start with the best ingredients the world has to offer. Even something as simple as parsley was especially procured. One of Noma‘s farmers grows all his produce on a lake bed that dried up years ago. The mineral rich soil produces the most multifaceted flavor profile in the parsley - that’s also where I fell in love with lemon verbena which you can find in our Signature Savory candle.” 

 “So, I just took the same approach, I sourced the best ingredients (fragrances) and put them together in such a way that would let each element shine” Austin explains as he gestures to shelves containing hundreds of perfectly organized fragrance oils.

 

 

“Where did the idea to make candles come from?” I asked.  He said “I actually fell into it; a date took me to a custom candle workshop. It was a small boutique with almost a hundred single-variety fragrances to choose from, the craftsmen suggested you select two or three oils and blend it with one type of wax.” A pause hung in the air until Austin smirked. “I picked seven oils and just found the right ratio.” His candle had the entire shop talking. "It was this sensual and complex fragrance and when I got it home – it filled the entire room.”

Austin knew he was on to something. 

He spent months burning top selling luxury candles and researching the science between candle wax and fragrance oils. 

His researched focused on how he could make the candle last longer - something he consistently had trouble finding. He experimented with almost every type of candle wax until he came up with the ideal ratio. He found that his candles would last almost four times longer than some candles of the same size.

He combed through over 700 fragrances including some bizarre scents like bacon, gunpowder, and burnt rubber. (What was his first scent? I thought. Austin later shared that his candle boasted leather and firewood with undertones of hyacinth, mahogany and cedar.)

“I just knew there was a hole in the market. I felt like people are paying for candles that either don’t smell as good as they should, don’t fill or a room well or don’t last as long as you’d like.” He drew on his culinary background and was soon creating an entire line of seasonally driven fragrances. 

“I never set out to create just a scent, home fragrances should be a transportive experience.” he says, explaining one of his biggest drivers behind his line. “I don’t want people to say ‘that smells like a Christmas tree,’ I want them to say, ‘that smells like the perfect Holiday scent, the fresh cut tree, hints of fancy perfume, the smell of the fireplace' – and for those with a discerning olfactory they'll detect undertones of bourbon expressed with an orange twist." As he explains his natural, albeit, atypical journey to creating Avant Candle, it seems that somehow this was written in the stars for Austin. "From there the rest will be their own narrative.” 

 

 

“A friend calls me a ‘jack of all trades’ and I love that term, because I feel like my interests and talents constantly intersect and build on each other. I still love to cook and my creations in the kitchen influence me to try new scent combinations for an upcoming season. I still love building things, lately I’m really into landscape architecture and home decor. The materials, the plants, the flowers, a water feature, an outdoor fire pit, are stirring my imagination - and now it gets me thinking ‘how can I capture this with feeling with scent."

With an excited glint in his eye Austin says “we recently launched our Summer Collection and it’s magnificent. I’m so proud of it. I had a customer tell me, through teary eyes, that our Summer Savory candle took her back to her Grandfather’s garden in Italy. She hadn’t been there over twenty years since he passed away, but with just a whiff, she was eight years old again, picking basil with her Nono.”

Creating a consumer product allows Austin to reach a broader audience than he can with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “If I had a restaurant empire, there would be a finite number of people we'd serve each night. Scent is such a powerful sense, it evokes so much emotion, and this lets me reach more people.”

He remains grounded by his childhood experiences and his yearning to amaze and delight. “When I was a kid, if something I made wasn’t near perfect, I’d work harder until it was.” That tenacity and attention to detail is the driving force behind Avant Candle. 

“Every part of the experience had to be better than the best product out there” he says as he picks up one of the sleek black cubes resting on his reclaimed wood coffee table. “The box, the packaging, and most importantly the quality of the product, they all had to elevate the existing consumer experience, it has to move people.”

Oh, and the coffee table, he made it himself.


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