KENNEWICK -- Jason LaBarge repeatedly says, "I don't want to be known as a spice salesman."
And yet, the seasoned Tri-City chef is starting to make a name for himself with LaBarge Gourmet Spices.
Throughout his career, the graduate of Kamiakin High School and Portland's Western Culinary Institute worked in kitchens where the staff would create meat rubs. But the idea for his spice rub business only came to him a couple of years ago when he was executive chef at Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland.
"For tournaments, we would do these blends for different roasts we were grilling, and I would get emails from people asking for the recipes," he said. "It was great because I loved the membership so much. I was very open with the recipes and emailed them.
"After a good year of doing that, I said, 'Wait a minute. What are we doing here?' " LaBarge said with a smile. "We had a product that I was confident with, so I went through the process of opening the business under my name."
A local credit union approved his application for a business loan within an hour, LaBarge said, which gave him more optimism. He recently has grown the lineup to 10 blends designed for home cooking, and boasts of using only natural herbs and spices.
"The goal is to highlight the food and not cover the food," he said. "There is sodium, but there's a lot less than some of our competitors."
LaBarge, 37, runs trials in the kitchen at Veritas Restaurant in Kennewick and collaborates with R.L. Schreiber Inc., a food service company in Pompano Beach, Fla.
"They will send me Sample A, and I'll work with that," he said. "I've gone all the way to Sample O before I've found one that's right. Once I do all the paperwork, they will do all the blending and send it to me in 50-pound increments."
Kennewick attorney Coke Roth, a member at Meadow Springs who became acquainted with LaBarge's cuisine at the Richland club, is considered one of the region's top amateur chefs and creates his own spice blends.
And yet Roth is a regular buyer of LaBarge's rubs. Ingredients range from beet powder, chipotle, porcini mushroom, sumac powder and juniper berries.
"His spice blends are very creative; they don't rely upon salt as the major ingredient, and they are very tasty," Roth said. "He's a pretty unique guy, and I've loved his food because as a chef there's not an overindulgence in any one area."
While the base spices LaBarge works with are not grown locally, he blends them in the Tri-Cities, and they are standing items at The Northwest Regional Food Hub in Richland.
His approach seems a natural fit for the store that partners with ShopTheNorthwest.com.
"When you look at some of the other spice blends out there, they have things like MSG, a lot of smoke, HVP -- which is hydrolyzed vegetable protein," LaBarge said. "They will rely on chemicals that will boost the flavors of their product without having to use so much whole spice.
"That's where all the cost is because the spice market really fluctuates," he continued. "The price of dried basil can go from 25 cents a pound and the next month be up to 75 cents a pound. That's an herb, but spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and mace, they really jump up there."
There are several reasons why Roth is happy to pay extra for LaBarge's blends, which start at $6.50.
"Take a look at the more institutional stuff and you see that salt and pepper are the No. 1, 2 and 3 ingredients," Roth said. "Salt and pepper are cheap. With his blends, he is dealing with more expensive spices and giving you a broader range of flavors in your mouth. I'm really a fan of his spices.
"Besides," Roth adds, "grab one of those little bottles you get at the grocery store for $4 and they don't even fill the palm of your hand."
LaBarge points out, "If you like a certain spice rub a lot, and it only costs you $3.99, and it wasn't on sale, there's a good chance they are using some of those chemicals."
His business seems to be growing liberally, thanks in part to the creation of the LaBarge Gourmet Spice Club, which costs $12 per month and includes one blend and a recipe for that blend.
LaBarge Gourmet Spices are sold at Country Mercantile in Pasco, Mirage Pool 'n' Spa in Kennewick, Print Plus in Kennewick, Ranch & Home in Kennewick, Templeman's Country Market, Yoke's Fresh Market in Kennewick and two wineries -- Barnard Griffin and Powers.
The Chicken Rub is his No. 1 seller, and at Barnard Griffin, his rubs are sold alongside those from famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas.
"There is name recognition," said Elise Barnard Griffin, marketing director at her parents' winery in Richland. "A lot of people are really familiar with Chef Jason when he was at Meadow Springs, so they recognize his name first, then the spices."
LaBarge's product sheet includes many pairing ideas. Some offer spice blend, entre and wine suggestions. For example, the combination of pork loin with his Rib Rub and a medium-bodied Northwest pinot noir will win over many wine lovers.
Last summer, Barnard Griffin Winery played host to one of LaBarge's "spice club" parties, and one pairing produced stunning results during the al fresco dinner.
"He used the Wild Game Blend, which includes juniper berry, and he paired it with our Port," Elise Barnard Griffin said. "It was shocking, and it was delicious. It was a really, really great pairing."
That dessert dish featured chocolate-covered bacon, which is included in his new cookbook. And the base for the Port-style wine is syrah.
LaBarge said with a chuckle, "When I impressed Elise with a pairing, I felt pretty good."
The Wild Game Blend also is Roth's favorite.
"I think it's his best utility spice, and you can use it on virtually anything," Roth said. "I've put it on beef, lamb, steak, on chicken very successfully, fish like basa and salmon, and of course, wild game."
Success for the past-President of the American Culinary Federation's Northwest Wine Country Chapter goes beyond the cash register.
"The son of our friend at Print Plus used our Chicken Rub for a company picnic with 700 people. He entered a contest and won first place with it," LaBarge said. "I thought it was great. It's always neat to hear that people are using them successfully."
For more information, call 509-591-1680, go to ShopTheNorthwest.com or look for LaBarge Gourmet Spices on Facebook.