It all started with Zoe, a pit bull, her rash and hot spots.
Nancy Liao, who lives in Park Slope and was a designer for the cosmetic company Fresh, was frustrated that her pup, who she refers to as “the beast,” was still covered with a skin rash after visits to the veterinarian, rounds of antibiotics, shampoo and other medicines.
During yet another trip to the vet, the doctor said that Zoe’s skin aliment might have something to do with her diet, which has been Kibble dry food for her entire life.
Liao devoured books on canine nutrition, like Dr. Pitcairn’s “Natural Health for Dogs” and other resources. She soon formulated recipes for a well-balanced meal and made Zoe a bowl full of human-grade chicken with sweet potatoes, millet and peas. The skin rash went away and she never gave the beast Kibble again.
“Once you see the benefits from your dog doing well on high-quality food, you just can’t go back,” Liao said during an interview in her shared commercial kitchen in Sunset Park.
That was five years ago and now, going on a year-and-a-half, she is a dog food chef and owns her own human-grade dog food company, Zoe’s Premium. Her entire line includes: Chicken with Sweet Potatoes, Millet and Peas, Turkey Cassoulet with Squash and White Beans and Steak and Lentils with Pearl Barley and Kale.
The seven-ounce frozen packs of food can be found online and at 22 locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, including the Park Slope Food Coop, on Fifth Avenue and near 15th Street.
But becoming a dog food chef, who only serves 100 percent human grade ingredients, wasn’t easy.
After getting her Masters of Architecture from MIT in 2001, she was an architect for Delson or Sherman, and then was a designer for Fresh, but she gradually started to lose interest in her projects at work.
“I decided I wanted to turn this passion of mine, to give my dog a well-balanced complete meal that made her healthy again, into a full-time job,” Liao said of her decision to quit her job at Fresh almost two years ago to start her own company. “I decided to be brave about it and be fearless. I felt more passionate about this than any other project I was working on.”
She was dedicated to finding those ingredients that improve a dog’s quality of life. Aside from USDA-grade meats, Zoe’s Premium food is packed with phytonutrients and contains organic raw honey, organic flax seed oil, and organic raw apple cider vinegar in each formula.
In the beginning, she experimented with different ingredient and asked questions like, “What are the benefits of a dog eating kale? What about raw honey?"
She found that the ingredients in Zoe’s dog food positively affected a dog’s behavior, skin, energy levels and mood. The ingredients also boost a dog’s immune system, and promote digestive health. Her line of food is also antibiotic and hormone free, contains no salt, no sugar or preservatives. The flavor relies on only dried herbs.
When she launched her company, she distributed 5,000 individual samples at the , to people at the dog run and dog walkers.
The reaction was positive:
“Chicken and Sweet Potatoes, ‘Wow, that’s better than what I eat,’” Liao recounted people saying when they first read her food’s ingredients.
But giving you pup Zoe’s Premium isn’t about being a snooty, pretentious dog owner who treats their dog like a human, but rather treating dogs how they should be treated, like carnivores who need a balanced diet of meats, grains and vegetables.
“My whole approach is to make food for dogs that is as tasty as what you would make for yourself,” she explained. “We won’t buy anything that isn’t safe for human consumption, we don’t see it as human food, we don’t see it as dog food, we see it as food."
And being a chef Liao must taste her recipes from time to time. She said she has to ensure that the taste and texture is just right.
One time she was with her friend, a cupcake chef in her kitchen, while she was frying up a batch of Steak and Lentils with butter. Her friend asked for some, so Liao gave it to him without mentioning that it was in fact dog food. After he ate it all up she asked him how he liked it.
“That is some damn good hash!” he said.
And Liao replied, “That’s dog food, dude.’”