I once worked at a specialty cooking store, where they sold things like truffle salts, caviars, fine cooking oils, artisan cheeses, kitchen equipment, and more.
One of my favorite parts about working there was meeting fellow food lovers, and friendly folks from all walks of the food industry-- everyone from local chefs to food entrepreneurs who told me tales of inventing hot sauce concoctions, building barbecue empires, and launching cottage food operations. As Julia Child said, "people who love to eat are always the best people."
I tried my best to gain a foundation of knowledge about all the products in the store, because we often received random cooking and baking questions in the rapid fire style of a cooking hotline. It was at times terrifying, as I hated the feeling that I might disappoint a customer who needed my help. However, fully mastering the nuances of each ingredient's savory and pastry applications could take three lifetimes (and then there was the cooking equipment to consider.) To try to conquer the learning curve, I spent a lot of time on food company websites, trying to absorb the back story of what made each product special. For the record (and just to nerd out about food branding for a moment), the Maldon salt company website is one of the most informative and engaging ones I have ever seen. (Did you know they are a 4th generation family business in Essex, England, a region which has been hand harvesting salt for over 2,000 years?) I love food products that have a great story to tell. But for every website like that one, I struggled with the companies that had a minimalist web presence, or those selling obscure imported ingredients that had no English translation (I know a freelance writer that can help you with that.)
I will not lie: not all of this was a selfless pursuit. I was a glutton for the kind of instant hero status you would get when you helped someone find the missing ingredient they needed for their tasting menu event that night, their culinary school final the next morning, or their restaurant opening. I loved the rush of tracking down those elusive ingredients. If we didn't have the item, I would call up the Japanese market, send them to the Persian grocer, or suggest the Mexican meat counter nearby. I once had a woman request to purchase exactly $48 in dark chocolate for a friend who had received a parking ticket in that amount, for which she wanted to pay her back in sweets instead of cash. All of the store's chocolate was pre-portioned in random weighed amounts, much like the containers you find at supermarket delis. So I scanned and scanned until I found the exact right pieces to represent the value of her friend's parking citation woes, and this nice woman even wrote me a thank you note for doing so. If you were ever wondering, these are the glory moments of a culinary retail worker.
Then there are the moments that leave you at a loss: a panicked customer calling in from home to explain, live as it is happening, a candy-making crisis where the sugar isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing and the chocolate step has gone seriously awry. Or, the woman and her sister making an old 1970's family dinner recipe in honor of their mom, an annual tradition involving aspic and Easter ham. With Easter fast approaching, they discovered that every single local store did not have the apricot jello they needed, and sadly I had to tell her we had none on our shelves either. In these moments, often the only thing I could offer were words of encouragement. If only I had known to refer them to this apricot aspic recipe using a base of orange jello and canned apricots, I could have saved Easter. Maybe one day, I will channel beloved radio host and cooking expert Lynne Rossetto Kasper and instinctively provide a graceful answer to each and every cooking crisis I encounter. (If you have not yet listened to her excellent podcast, you should start now.) Until then, I'll just ask myself: what would L.R.K. do?