Return to the Index

GP 23 November 2005: New York: Chacun A Son Gout

Google Can’t Do It. You can find just about everything in New York City if you just put your mind to it.  Chances are that it will be quite a hunt, calling for some old-fashioned detective work, much beyond the capabilities of your computer’s search engine.

In the Murray Hill District you will uncover a technical wizard who can revive and retrofit your old Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 2000 sound system, a job that simply can’t get done in the hinterland and, in fact, one that B & O itself will not tackle.  Even before the 10 a.m. conventional opening, you can visit a Viennese coffee house at a 5th Avenue museum that serves a placid, satisfying breakfast.  Behind the Waldorf you will find a longtime Japanese restaurant that was first in this country to legally serve fugu, the poisonous blowfish specialty.  Way down on the Lower East Side in the remains of the Pickle District, you can discover some Ivy Leaguers now putting out their own gourmet ultra dills.

The chase for the perfect and the elusive in Manhattan is a great deal of fun, leavened by the knowledge that sooner or later you will find something worth having.  Rarely do you hit a dead end.  We had 3 good finds in the waning days of October.

Korin.  (See our entry in Best of Class.)  The resplendent samurai armor in the window of this Tribeca knife emporium is a sure tip off: This is not your mother’s restaurant supply shop.  No, Korin is a chef’s paradise.  On display in glass cases are nearly 400 extraordinary knives, razor sharp blades gleaming, beautifully balanced, with handles of snakewood and other rare materials, ranging in price from $4,500 to $45.   About half are traditional Japanese knives, half are Western-style.  Most are handmade or hand-finished by master craftsmen in the province of Sakai, a metal craft center, using centuries-old Japanese sword-making techniques.  The possibilities are boggling, yet there is a knife for every task and, we daresay, for every cook.  An ebony-handled Ao-ko Honyaki mirror-finished yanagi is “the type of knife every professional chef dreams of owning,” while we could imagine using a more modest Suisin gyotu chef’s knife made for Westerners with a high carbon steel alloy blade.

Late on a blustery Friday afternoon, Saori Kawano, Korin’s soft spoken president, came dashing in the front door, clad in a smart red jacket and black pleated skirt, fresh from a parent-teacher conference.  Although she was about to give a reception for a visiting Japanese knife-maker, she graciously sat down over tea to tell us her story.

Korin, as the French say, is un succes fou—chefs are besotted with Korin’s knives--but only after a 23-year struggle.  Kawano came to New York in 1978, with her husband of two months, carrying a backpack and tape recorder, and not much more.  While her husband pursued music studies and washed dishes, she waited on tables in a Japanese restaurant.  A daughter was born, but the marriage foundered and she began to cast around for a way to support herself and her baby.  “What to do?  I was 28, I had no money, I could not speak English and I was not educated here,” she recalls.  But she did have a vision.  “My dream was to teach traditional Japanese culture to Americans—flower arranging, tea ceremony, kimono-wearing.” 

Since she was a waitress, she struggled to find something that Japanese restaurants needed.  After false starts and mounting debt—a $2,000 (saved from tips) purchase of Japanese dishes initially went unsold—she convinced a Japanese supplier to make her a two-year $20,000 loan at 7 percent.  With her baby in a stroller, she visited chefs to find out what they really wanted to buy.  She became an importer of elegant, high-end tableware, acquired a warehouse and wound up $800,000 in debt when her business was hit by the recession in 1991.  It wasn’t until 1994 that she had the idea to import Japanese knives.  “I went back to my original dream of bringing traditional Japanese culture to America.”

Kawano’s dream dovetailed neatly with increasing interest of restaurant chefs in high quality Japanese knives.  Her first 16-page catalogue included an interview with Jean-Georges Vongerichten.  Other chefs followed and today her customers include David Bouley, Wolfgang Puck, and restaurant luminaries from Tokyo to Toulouse.  When she decided to tackle the market in France, Vongerichten introduced her to his family.  When a superintendent in New York refused to rent her office space, a customer who ate every day at the restaurant where she worked agreed to intercede as her “president.”  She persevered, never allowing what seemed like insurmountable obstacles—language, money, being a single mother and woman whom some would not take seriously—to deter her from her dream.  Informal partnerships and reaching a niche market of high-end chefs with a high-end, indispensable product are the keys to her success. 

The knives, by the way, are not to be purchased lightly.  Although many have blades that are stain-resistant, none are stainless and you must commit to learning how to care for and sharpen them.  This is harder than you might think.  Kawano’s husband, Chiharu Sugai, who is now the firm’s “house sharpening master,” repeatedly journeyed to Sakai just to learn the techniques.  We watched him give a young chef a meticulous two-hour lesson, involving a water stone and careful positioning of the blade at the correct angle.  There is an instructional DVD, but you can also opt simply to have Korin’s experts do the sharpening for you.  

Dean & DeLuca.  This stylish mecca for all things delicious has expanded under the ownership of Rudd Investment Group, making it possible for foodies to buy fennel pollen and Banyuls vinegar in places like Charlotte and Lakewood, Kansas.  Even these outposts retain the instantly recognizable look of the Soho store, though on a smaller scale: white walls, tile floors, lots of chrome metro shelving to display all manner of alluring wares.  

In New York, a maze-like hallway led us to Dean & DeLuca’s Soho offices, where we conversed with resident spice expert, Michael Scibilia.  His card carries no title, a hint, we think, of this engaging gentleman’s diverse talents.  He buys housewares, develops private label goods (the company’s much-copied glass tube spice rack is a perennial bestseller), styles catalogue photos, develops recipes, and has helped launch two new stores in Japan.  Oh yes, and along the way he picked up a degree in art history.  When queried, he confessed to a deep fascination with the fourth century A.D.  “The beginning of the end,” he laughed.  

Dean & DeLuca sells around a hundred spices, herbs and blends, no longer packed by six ladies in the store’s basement but in a big Midwestern plant.  And though customers clamor for standard items like Tellicherry peppercorns and herbes de provence, Scibilia is always pushing the envelope, searching for new seasonings and conjuring up ways to get customers to take a chance on them.  An encounter with the folks at Big Tree Farms, a Balinese food company, led him to stock long pepper, a rare spice popular with the Romans which grows wild in Indonesia.  “It’s got a wonderful musky flavor, with a lingering heat, but it’s out of most people’s experience,” he admits.  (Read about long pepper in SpiceLines.)  To entice adventurous chefs down this particular byway, he’s stacked boxes of long pepper at the meat counter, right above tempting cuts of beef, pork and lamb.  Also close at hand are exotic condiments like aged balsamic vinegar and truffled salt, kept, by the way, in a locked case.  

Scibilia’s curiosity and enthusiasm keep Dean & DeLuca’s corporate spice rack from getting stale.  In the space of a few minutes, he enthuses about grains of paradise, a medieval spice that’s hot again (“I’ve filled my peppermill with these instead of black pepper.  It’s fabulous!”), recommends mortars and pestles (“[British designer] John Julian’s is like a piece of sculpture!”) and prints out a photo he took in Aachen, a German town famed for its gingerbread.  (“Stacks and stacks of gingerbread slabs!” he exclaims.  “And not just gingerbread, but different types of gingerbread flavored with cardamom and anise…”).  

Scibilia also loves to experiment in the kitchen, concocting inventive ways to use familiar and new-fangled ingredients.  In a newsletter article he wrote for Japanese customers who tend to use few spices, he starts with a suggestion for broiled salmon, a mainstay of many a Japanese menu.   But then he launches a sneak attack: “Rub the flesh side of a fillet with five or six juniper berries, a blade broken off a piece of star anise, dried rosemary, savoury, white pepper and smoked salt....  Drizzle with Dean & DeLuca maple syrup.  Broil rare or until just cooked if you are squeamish….”  Palate-expanding without being outrageous and customers can, of course, obtain every ingredient at the store.  

Adriana’s Caravan.  “I’ll be in my office all day,” said Rozelle Zabarkes, when we asked for a chat.  Her office turns out to be a tiny desk and chair wedged behind the counter of Adriana’s Caravan in Grand Central Market.  Most out-of-town visitors still do not know about the delights of this food court on the lower level of the nation’s most famous railroad terminal.  Here you can find the ingredients for a magnificent repast: Malpeque oysters, white asparagus or salsify, a prime rib roast, cheeses from Murrays (say, abbaye de citeaux montbellard, a cow’s milk cheese made by monks in a Burgundian buttery), and dark bittersweet Lil-lac chocolate, plus wines from a shop around the corner.  And all the spices you’ll need to pull it together. 

Zabarkes turned failure into success through sheer force of will and a passion for cooking and spices.  She dumped a business in corporate film production to open her dream:  Adriana’s Bazaar, an Upper Westside shop where customers could sit around a table and leaf through ethnic recipe notebooks, then buy the spices they needed.  (Adriana is her adored daughter.)  “I had $300,000 in loans, but I really needed $400,000.  It was a great idea, but I couldn’t sell enough spices to pay the rent.”  She retreated to a mail order business, then was invited to open a store in Grand Central Market. 

Today her thriving business bears the brash motto: “Every ingredient for every recipe you’ve ever read.”  She stocks 1,500 products, of which roughly 400 are spices.  This is the sort of place where you can pick up real Japanese wasabi, Moroccan preserved lemons, and Tuscan chestnut blossom honey.  While we were there, a couple from Virginia stopped by for two bottles of Jamaican Pickapeppa Sauce.  (“We just drove in and you’re our first stop!”)  If you want to taste the difference between Ceylon cinnamon and three varieties of cassia, this is the place to come.  (Click here to read about cinnamon and cassia in the new issue of SpiceLines.)  If you’re interested in pepper, there are 21 possibilities; vanilla fiends can sample beans from Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.  

Though the familiar spices sell well, Zabarkes is always on the hunt for something new and different.  Asafetida, for instance.  “It smells like something died on the spice rack, but it is wonderful in food, sort of garlicky tasting,” she laughs.  “It’s great on fish and it’s used in Indian cooking.”  Unusual ingredients not only fit her product philosophy, but garner the kind of publicity a small business needs.  A short piece on Indian black salt in the New York Times led to a run on the item.  “We sold out the same day.”  If you want to learn more about either of these ingredients, check out Zabarkes’s cookbook, Adriana’s Spice Caravan.  The entry on asafetida begins, “How does one wax poetic about a seasoning whose aliases are devil’s dung and stinking gum?  Quite simply, one does not….” 

Character.  We’re hearing much more about character these days because it’s currently a bit scarce, just like oil.  Our partner Dr. Steve Martin will be lecturing on this very subject in early 2006 out in Iowa.  Because they care so deeply about what they do, we would say that Ms. Kawano, Mr. Scibilia, and Ms. Zabarkes have character aplenty.  It is their hallmark.  Someday we will celebrate such crusaders for quality in the same manner that Japan cherishes its Living National Treasures.   

What they’ve got is an absolute passion for the art of their trade, a zeal that goes beyond any financial rewards they can realize from their relentless activity.  It is the passion that compels the craftsman to get every detail right, to think long about the processes that harvest excellence, and to reach out and enter into intimate dialogue with those who share his values.   

P.S.  The festive months are upon us, and it is time to put memorable food on the table. To this end, we recommend on the Global Province The Best Holiday Turkey Recipe.  To further stir the senses we further suggest you look at Spicelines and The Very Best Spices.  Spices will give your food some real character.

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2005 GlobalProvince.com