` Fairway Market’s Steven Jenkins Started with a Map - Olive Oil Times

Fairway Market’s Steven Jenkins Started with a Map

Feb. 3, 2011
Lara Camozzo

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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 food­stuffs to New Yorkers (and sub­se­quently the rest of the United States) by pio­neer­ing the impor­ta­tion of tra­di­tional and arti­sanal foods from over a hun­dred European com­pa­nies 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 child­hood 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 wine­mak­ing, 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 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 cer­tain food­stuff, 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 with coun­try — 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 food­stuffs. 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. The 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.

Sometime after 9/11, Jenkins and one of his Fairway part­ners, Brian Riesenburger, got really involved in olive oil. We just did what came nat­u­rally; we did the same thing with olive oil and vine­gar that we had done with cheese — we set the stan­dard for the indus­try, and we set the bar very high because we know so inti­mately the geog­ra­phy of the Mediterranean Basin. We’re idiot savants. We bring our hobby into our stores, just like peo­ple do with stamps or bugs or but­ter­flies or birds — for us it’s olive oil and vine­gars, cheeses and all the Mediterranean ingre­di­ents.”

Jenkins stocks around 100 EVOOs at Fairway Markets, and trav­els to his groves in all sea­sons sev­eral times a year — some of them, of course, not all because they deal with too many. So he trav­els to new groves, and to those groves that are longest-stand­ing and most impor­tant, like two in Extremadura and Andalusia, sev­eral in Western Sicily, in Catalonia, and many else­where, includ­ing Umbria, Sardinia, Tuscany, Molise, Liguria, Lazio, Puglia, and cer­tainly all over the South of France, from Languedoc and the Camargue to Corsica and Provence.

It’s a Mediterranean Basin phe­nom­e­non,” says Jenkins, yes there’s olive oil in New Zealand, in Australia, in Lebanon, Algeria, and some in Egypt and Israel — and we’ll address it — but unless it tastes so good to us that we can’t resist it, we don’t include it. At Fairway Markets, we’re not inclu­sive of oils just because they exist, we are only inclu­sive of olive oil that passes what we think is a rig­or­ous test: our own palette. That’s as sub­jec­tive as can be, but it’s true. If we don’t love it, it ain’t gonna make the cut. There are no oils from Syria, Turkey, or even my beloved Tunisia that have met the stan­dard, which is, Do we love it?’

Jenkins imports 24 French oils, direct and exclu­sively from the pro­ducer, as well as a dozen very spe­cific oils from Spanish farm­ers (“My Alcubilla Luque oils from near Baena are the only EVOOs avail­able in the US that are still pressed the old way, from fanat­i­cally cer­ti­fied organic olives that yield a flor de aceite that is, a pre-extra-vir­gin’ oil.”) and around ten very spe­cific oils from locally famous Italian fam­i­lies in Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio and Sicily. However, my most sat­is­fy­ing accom­plish­ment is the 14 (not 12, not 15) very spe­cific oils from Spain, France, Italy, Australia, California and Mexico (yes, Mexico!) that I induced the farm­ers to sell to me in bar­rels, unfil­tered,” says Jenkins.

I cut out more than the mid­dle man when I buy by the bar­rel — I’m cut­ting out the bro­ker, the importer, and the dis­trib­u­tor. That oil came not just from a farmer, it came from the mill, which pressed the olives and sold the oil to a bro­ker who sold it to the American importer who’s been nos­ing around look­ing for the cheap­est oil he can get, who brings it into NY or wher­ever and sells it to the dis­trib­u­tor who sells it to the retailer. There’s nobody between me in the store talk­ing to peo­ple about the olive oil they just tasted, and the farmer who grew the olives.”

Not to men­tion, I bot­tle these 14 oils myself — that’s half as expen­sive right there. The fancy European bot­tle and label eas­ily adds on 5 to 7 euros — that’s how much the oil should cost! Then I’m able to mar­ket each oil with a label I made myself that fea­tures every­thing I want my cus­tomer to know about the oil — where exactly it came from, when exactly it was har­vested, how many hours elapsed between pick­ing and mulching, the cen­trifug­ing, and how long it was allowed to decant; the vari­ety of olive or olives, the things I smell in them, the things I taste in them, their tex­tures, attacks, inter­ims and fin­ishes; and finally my favorite uses for each of them. I only wish the labels were big­ger so I could put maps on the bot­tles.”

At Fairway Markets, you’ll find maps, posters, and pho­tos of the olive groves splashed all over the store — It’s olive oil porno every­where you go!” Huge tast­ing cup­boards hold a con­tainer filled with 24 to 36 dif­fer­ent EVOOs in all of the stores. People get excited about the par­tic­u­lar area that these oils come from, and they make it their busi­ness to go there,” says Jenkins. They’ll go to Barcelona and rent a car and drive down to the Ebro River Delta and see the Cocons oil from Catalonia that’s one of my absolute favorites, and they’ll see those flat stones for which the oil was named. They’ll go there because of what’s on the label of that bot­tle that acquaints you with exactly where it came from. It’s a geo­graphic les­son — what’s cooler than that?”

Over the years, Jenkins has seen very lit­tle change within the olive oil indus­try, say­ing that he’s found that more and more peo­ple think they know some­thing about olive oil, But in truth, they are filled with lies. If you’re inter­ested in olive oil and you go on the inter­net and try to learn more about it, there’s more and more mis­in­for­ma­tion, and non­sense, and absolute fac­tual bologna than had there not been any inter­net at all. If cus­tomers don’t travel, at least go to one grove in the entire Mediterranean Basin, they’re not going to learn about olive oil.”

My cus­tomers in the Tri-State area of NY are as sophis­ti­cated as any in the world, they’re well-trav­eled, yet they still had no grasp or regard for the region of olive oil — they knew not a wit. I had to teach them the same way I did about cheese — it took years to bring their appre­ci­a­tion up to where I can now have 7 cheese coun­ters that are far bet­ter than any­thing in the world in terms of its breadth, depth, and qual­ity. It’s the same thing with olive oil, it’s tak­ing a long time to get peo­ple to pay some respect to it rather than just spend­ing $40.00 on a half-liter with a beau­ti­ful label and think­ing, I must be pretty smart about olive oil.’ While in real­ity, the oil was 2 years old, it’s already stale, you paid 4 times what the oil was worth and you know noth­ing about where it came from.”

My mis­sion, on the other hand, is to make sure the cus­tomer knows exactly where their olive oil came from, pays as lit­tle as humanly pos­si­ble, and the oil tastes bet­ter than any­thing he or she ever, ever put in their mouth — the finest ingre­di­ent they could pos­si­bly have any­where in the world. That’s my mis­sion. That’s what I’ve been build­ing up over the past decade — a rather siz­able cadre of peo­ple who have really strong likes and dis­likes for spe­cific olive oils. That’s as good as it gets right there.”

So go to a Fairway Market, taste one or two or twenty olive oils from around the globe. Let the labels and pho­tos trans­port you to far­away lands, down dusty roads, where the cows are still milked every morn­ing, the eggs are fresh, and a gar­den over­flows onto the kitchen counter. Ask Steve any­thing — really, any­thing — about food, and expe­ri­ence for your­self what a life­time of knowl­edge and absolute pas­sion for the high­est qual­ity ingre­di­ents is all about. Take a piece of the Mediterranean Basin home with you, driz­zle it over fresh fish and wilted let­tuce salad, dip a warm baguette into the depths of its fra­grant golden pools, and really think about what you’re smelling and tast­ing. Does it pass your palette test? Do you love it? Maybe even enough to pull out a map and plan your next adven­ture? Because that’s what it’s all about — eat­ing is expe­ri­enc­ing, and when the eat­ing is this good, it’s tran­scen­den­tal.

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