The name Steve Jenkins is synonymous with Guru, Expert, and Savant in the world of Mediterranean foodstuffs. In 1976, Jenkins was the first American cheesemonger inducted into France’s ancient and elite Guilde des Fromagers (he has since been elevated to Prud’homme, the guild’s highest status). Author of Cheese Primer and The Food Life, Jenkins was recently named one of the 25 most important people in the history of the American specialty foods industry by Gourmet Retailer.
He has introduced countless cheeses and other food stuffs to New Yorkers (and subsequently the rest of the United States) by pioneering the importation of traditional and artisanal foods from over a hundred Europeancompanies to New York City’s wildly successful Fairway Markets. A regular guest on the award-winning NPR program, The Splendid Table, Jenkins knows his (food) stuff, and he wants you to know he’s not fooling around.
So how does one become an “Idiot Savant” as Jenkins so eloquently puts it? Years upon years upon years of studying, traveling, and finding joy in discovering new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes all over the world — that’s how. Jenkins will be the first to tell you, “It’s out of a passion for being out there in that area, smelling those smells, eating in those joints, staying in those little hotels and driving, driving, driving, and talking to people.”
Raised in the suburban Midwest, Jenkins remembers the meals of his child-hood with a wistful appetite — as though he’s not yet had his fill. “My mother and my grandmother were terrific cooks, but they were merely regional cooks — Missouri cooking via Kentucky. They were not at all versed in the Mediterranean style or with any kind of European food whatsoever. So I was without any sophistication other than a love for good ingredients that were prepared traditionally.”
“My grandmother and grandfather had a garden that was just mind-blowing. My joy probably stems from their garden — fresh lettuce salad wilted with vinegar and bacon grease, tomatoes, apples, carrots, all those wonderful things. There was no wine making, no olive oil, we didn’t use fresh herbs in the Midwest, no seafood — we never had any seafood! We really had very little to work with other than the things we loved like roast beef and yorkshire pudding, chili and fried chicken. Our country grew up so fast we had no time to create any tradition or any kind of a heritage for food other than about a hundred years ago; butchering hogs on a farm, chopping the heads off of chickens, and a great garden near the kitchen.”
From fried chicken to French cheeses? Early on Jenkins decided that he wanted to be unassailable when it came to being approached in a food shop counter situation by anyone from any walk of life when asked about a certain food stuff, ingredient, procedure, recipe, domain — anything. “I wanted to know everything there was to know about all of the foods.”
“Every night as I’d lay in bed I’d be reading about the places, the people, and the things that they loved to put in their mouths. I did it all dealing with maps — I found that I had a great love and respect for maps, and I got such joy out of dreaming of jumping up in the air and coming down on this place on the map. I could only imagine what was going on in Savoie 400 years ago, I could only imagine what those woods looked like, how close Piemonte was and how it was a part of Savoie then.”
“It was all born out of studying maps and having an appreciation and regard for the fact that all of this food has nothing to do withcountry — it has to do with the specific regions and subregions it came from. Year after year, I’d get in a car with my maps and drive down all the little roads seeking out villages that gave their names to certain food stuffs. You find that over 10 years you build up a nice body of knowledge, after 20 years you’re a bloody expert, after 30 years you’re a savant, and after 35 years it’s been such a joy, such a great way to fall asleep at night.”
Jenkins took his first trip to Europe in 1978, when he was 27 years old and working for Dean & DeLuca. Since then every single season that passes, he craves to be in Europe. “I’m lucky to be there two seasons of the year,” he says. “I always go in October, harvest time, and then I try to get there in the winter, spring or summer. I love going places in the dead of winter; you’re just invisible, yet at the same time you get more attention because no one really travels in the winter — if you’re there you’re serious, they take you seriously.”
In early 1979 there was very little quality olive oil available to NYC retailers. Jenkins evokes memories of big brand ‘pure’ grade olive oils found in Italian grocery stores, like Amastra, “Bright green for no good reason, and purportedly from Sicily.” Regular supermarkets sold Goya, Bertolli and Berio, and fancy shops like D&D and Balducci’s had access to phony brands of EVOO but “It wasn’t EVOO, and I could prove it!” Just three olive oils — Hilaire Fabre, Plagniol and Louis de Regis — all purportedly from France, but undoubtedly from Spain bottled in France.
“At this point I had read my Elizabeth David, and my MFK Fisher, my Roy Andries Degroot and my Richard Olney, and I knew there was a lot of serious olive oil out there. So I made it my business to get my hands on it. I started with the Tuscan Badia a Coltibuono and the Provencale L’Olivier (which I much later learned was also cheap Andalusian oil bottled in France.)”
By 1980, Jenkins had found his home in Fairway Markets, and was well along pioneering literally every great French cheese in France (and just starting in on Italy via Peck’s La Casa del Formaggio owned by the Stoppani brothers in Milan) when he was inspired to do the same with olive oil. “My one experience that galvanized me as to the notion of selling the best olive oil came after I fell into A l’Olivier, an olive oil shop on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris: Huge terracotta amphorae, fabulous chevron-shaped labels, crystalline bottles of all sizes, and dark green masculine tins all filled with extra virgin olive oil. Some of it may actually have come from olives grown in Provence! I realized no one in New York had any appreciation for olive oil, exactly as they had no knowledge, regard or desire for serious cheese.”
Jenkins and his mentor and founder of Fairway Markets, David Sneddon, began growing and harvesting their own olives in the Umbrian region of Italy — they’d been converted; olive oil coursed through their veins. Sneddon recalls picking and pressing the olives in November while the scent of burning grass lingered in the air
and the cows descended from nearby mountains towards warmer microclimates for the winter. In April, when the two opened their olive oil for the first time, rubbed it on their hands, and held it up to their faces, they were enveloped by the scents of that cool November day — smoky earthy tones, reminding them of the back breaking work it took to obtain those bottles of gold. Proving that it really is a labor of love.