I’ve been a chef for over four decades now, and it’s been a labor of love. Not only have I enjoyed my profession, but it’s also introduced me to so many wonderful people.
Probably enough to start a small city…
Chefs, like doctors, lawyers and other professionals are, I suppose, expected to be THE experts, professors in their chosen fields, so to speak. When Dr. is before your name, it’s kinda presumed that you’ll have the answers, whether they be medical or legal. I’m sure doctors enjoy parties more when they pretend to be store clerks.
Similarly, chefs are expected to be THE food experts. In reality, they should be, especially if they’ve been in the business more than a few decades. You don’t hang around the biz THAT long without picking up a few things.
For me, I’m particularly blessed and cursed because I’ve also taught culinary arts in colleges throughout my career, both at my alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America, and here in Southeast Michigan. Teaching forces you to become not only proficient but also an expert on things in order to teach them to others. And when you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, you research it, learn it, practice it, and add it to your professional arsenal.
Similarly, when I came to work at Nino Salvaggio, one of my interests was the opportunity to be surrounded with products and people that I’d not spent much time (if any) with.
Exotic produce, New World grocery products and an eclectic, culturally diverse customer base are just a few of the things that make life at our marketplaces so interesting.
And as you might well imagine, walking through our stores with a chef jacket on makes you a target for culinary questions and some not so culinary.
Such as, “Where are the bathrooms?”
And because the bathrooms happen to be next to the produce department at all three of our stores, I suppose that could be construed as a culinary question…
My answer: “Turn left at the carrots.”
And I suppose it doesn’t help that in clogs I’m about 6’ 3” and bald, so it’s hard to hide in our stores. Add that I’m usually wearing some colorful chef jacket with my name on it. Not particularly a good strategy if you’re trying to be incognito… (Although I’ve been told that when I’m wearing my green jacket, I can somewhat blend into the leaf lettuce display.)
The questions I’m asked in our stores change somewhat according to the seasons and depending on what department I happen to be in.
Here is a sampling of these questions, department by department.
The Produce Department
Because our produce departments are so large, the most oft-asked questions aren’t about recipes or cooking but where to find products that actually happen to be within 10 feet of where the asker is standing (I kid you not). And 9 times out of 10, they are in the large wicker baskets at knee-to-waist level (most people are used to seeing these particular items at eye level, I guess).
And, just in case you’re interested, our fresh cilantro and basil bunches are in these aforementioned baskets…
Other common questions include how to pick out a ripe melon (our produce buyer Mike has done his own blog about this). And actually, it’s a color, stem color and firmness, smell, and thumping sort of thing (best if taught in person).
And at this time of year, which apples I recommend for pies is a popular question. And while I’ve blogged about this before, my answer is a blend of at least three apples.
My blend of three apples includes Golden Delicious, Pink Lady and Braeburn. My blend of four apples adds Honey Crisp, and my blend of five apples adds Granny Smith to the mix.
The Meat Department
At this time of the year, the most often-asked questions have to do with roasting. If I happen to see what’s in the asker’s cart, or in his or her hands, I can see the question coming. It’s like they have this cartoon thought balloon hovering over their heads.
Sometimes, I do a preemptive answer strike as they approach… “Season, then sear in hot oil on all sides. Use a roasting rack to keep the meat off the pan. 350 F for 15 minutes per pound…”
Occasionally, the response is “Well, that’s great but where are the bathrooms?”
The Wine Department
Which wine for cooking? Hmmmm…
Some recipes call for wine, and one of the questions I often get if I’m in the wine department is what wine to buy when a recipe says to use a white or red wine.
My stock answer is any reasonably priced Chardonnay ($10 to $15) that you would otherwise enjoy drinking (because it’s quite likely you won’t be using the entire bottle for the recipe anyway). My second choice is a Riesling.
For the red, similarly, pick something reasonably priced that you might drink, but my answer here is (in order) a juicy red blend (first), a Merlot (second), and (last), a Cabernet Sauvignon. I try to stay on the softer side of tannins.
And by the way, if your recipe says sherry, it’s more often than not a sweet sherry (cream sherry also works).
The Grocery Department
Most people know what they are looking for in our grocery aisles, but the one question I’m most often asked is what type of olive oil to buy.
Here’s where I have to ask some questions myself. What are you going to use it for? A salad? For cooking? A marinade? The answers to my questions result in a tailored answer. Usually, it’s a hybrid use and the best answer is a hybrid Extra Virgin Olive Oil, one like Colavita or Cento or Nino’s Mediterranean Blend Olive Oil.
The Dairy Department
Honestly, most people are on their own in the dairy department. I mean, what do you really need to know about milk and eggs anyhow? And they’re SO close to a full cart and being done with their shopping that they just grab what they need and hightail it to the checkout line anyway.
But, foodies, well, they LOVE ingredients and they live in another world.
They occasionally ask dairy questions, usually about butter.
Do you really need to use unsalted butter for your recipes?
Generally, the answer is NO.
90% of the recipes that use unsalted butter (in my professional opinion) are pastry recipes that will not be affected whatsoever by using salted butter. If you’re on a salt-restricted diet, that’s another matter.
And what’s my favorite butter? Easy. Presidente (Salted).
I love to tell a good food origin story. So, when I’m at Nino’s Clinton Township bakery and someone asks me a question about our artisan breads, it absolutely makes my day. But, a word of caution: It’s often said (in jest, I think) that you shouldn’t ask Chef Pete a question unless you have time for his answer.
Long story VERY short, our artisan breads are made from fabulous flours and a starter that goes back decades now. It’s something I cultivated in the early 90s, and it’s as flavorful now as then. Made with a lot of TLC, these breads are something I never get tired of talking about.
In the End
Whatever store, whatever department and whatever time of the year, I enjoy answering our customers’ questions, and as a result, I learn a lot too.
If you see me, stop by and say hello.
Even if you only need directions to the bathroom…