These are disappearing foods. My goal is to show people what real food tastes like.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Formaggio Kitchen has been an institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over 30 years - a gourmand's paradise doubling as a neighborhood grocer. The history of the store is intertwined with that of owners Ihsan and Valerie Gurdal who own and run Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, South End Formaggio in Boston's historic South End and their newest venture Formaggio Essex Market in the Essex Street Market in New York's Lower East Side.
They believe in the one-herd farmer in Corsica, the tiny storefront baker in Tuscany and the fifth-generation olive grower in Andalusia, each striving to preserve their traditional methods in a world of mass-produced, industrial food.
theEditorial.com sat down with Ihsan to understand how an Olympic volleyball player from Turkey, who coached the Harvard volleyball team and lived in Cambridge, became one of the early visionaries in the slow food movement in America.
What were you trying to change when you took over Formaggio and is it the same today?
When I first came into the store, I felt like products were treated very specially and there was a very high and mighty feel that said, “We know everything and you don’t.” To me food was always comfort so what I wanted to do was make very good food very accessible and not threatening. That was the biggest battle because it had to begin from within – with the employees first. We had to change the way they felt about food. They had to like the food for what it is and not embellish it to what is wasn’t, not to make it too sophisticated.
I also wanted to find better products. We were handcuffed by what distributors brought into this country. Very slowly, we started to cut out the middleman.
It started with a trip to London and Paris in 1984, to see the markets and it was an eye opener to me. I saw better service, better displays and amazing products. But I made my first mistake with that knowledge. I went to the importers and asked for this and this and this and they did but it didn’t taste the same because it was treated as a commodity. They over-purchased and it sat around in the worst conditions.
These were live products made by real people and that pushed us into the next step. We started foolishly importing product ourselves and getting in bed with trucking companies and with the ocean logistics.
How did this work?
They were skeptical at the beginning but one fellow in Long Island, New York from an interesting family in the logistics business, took me under his wing. He was tired of being bullied by importers himself and he said, “I’m going to teach you and we are going to show them a small guy like you can do everything.”
That was the turning point. It took a while and I had to learn how to buy futures of liras and francs and about the labeling, the FDA regulations and customs. My wife Valerie and I spearheaded this alone and that was a mistake because eventually it dawned on us we were doing the same thing as the importers. We were going overseas, buying products and shoving it at our staff and so in the 90s we changed things. We started bringing over a manager with us and then we took a buyer over with us. This changed everything.
Why should the world care about what you do?
Because these are disappearing foods. And they are done is such small-scale and in shrinking businesses. My goal is to expose people to this and show them what real food tastes like. We find people who are organic and biodynamic in Piedmont and the tomatoes taste like tomatoes I grew up with. I want to bring that back.
The cost of food is going up and yet there is a burgeoning food scene? Can you explain this to us?
Fortunately it’s a movement now and there are so many foodies. Look at Brooklyn. Now when we go see small producers, I’m not the only buyer. I meet the guy from London and the guy from Switzerland and it seems we all have the same vision. We are buying from the same places for the same reason: because it’s old school.
At a Parmigiano-Reggiano producers recently, there were six of us are sitting at the table, and these are important people in the food industry, and we realized talking together that we were all buying the same Parmesan for the same reason. It’s all done by hand, family-owned, five wheels a day, high up in the mountains, still using a cauldron to heat the milk and it’s what we want to support. It’s a little more expensive than the coop cheese but it stood way above in quality, taste and flavors.
The throwback is that not everyone can afford this type of food. What is the movement thinking about in these terms?
There are two good answers: Imagine Parmesan you buy at $13 a pound and then imagine one that is made for $17 a pound by one little farmer who only makes 3-4 wheels a day. To me there is no comparison. It is not saving money buying one over the other, it doesn’t have a backbone, and it wasn’t a better product to start with.
What I recommend to people is buy what you need and do not waste. Shop like the Europeans, buy a third a pound or half of a pound of the better product and use it, don’t hold onto it.
Last night we did a tasting for our staff of five olive oils and vinegars we import. There is vinegar we import from Modena and another from Reggio Emilia and one was so exciting and refreshing and it was not expensive. They are less expensive than some of the gimmicky ones in supermarkets. These are done fruitfully with pure grape must vs. percentage grape must and wine vinegar and combining the two. Our motto has always been less is more.
What’s holding society back from adopting this?
I think the easy access and inexpensiveness of fast food is really a problem and it’s holding us back in a big way. My wife and I talk about this all the time. If we took steps and tax the crap out of sugary sodas and other junk food, it would help. Why make these available to our youth? There is such lobbying going on and as a result we tax other things we shouldn’t be taxing. To me it is disturbing how easily and inexpensively these unhealthy products are available.
There was an article recently in the paper about Bloomberg trying to change the food in hospitals and hoping private hospitals will pick up on this and do the same, airlines as well – to ban unhealthy foods. That’s progress. So there are movements but it takes time.
Who are your allies in this movement?
We have been working with Slow Food of Italy with the hopes these small producers will thrive and that people will eventually see the good and embrace them instead of turning to the junk sold today with labels we can’t even read, let alone comprehend.
I think Italy really started the slow food movement but now many countries have embraced it but it is a slow and hard fight.
The world is getting bigger and the food demands are getting bigger and people are looking to create huge amounts at the cost of quality. That is where the trenches are built. We need to control portions and think quality instead of quantity.
We talk with friends who are food writers. There were 40 of us on this last trip to Sicily and about 20 were food writers and we asked, “How do we make it easier for people?” And I said, create affordable products, teach them how to make polenta and add vegetables. Show them how easy and inexpensive it is to make it from scratch. It’s somewhat time consuming but it’s worth it. My children are 29 and 30 and we made a point to cook together twice a week, to eat together, and teach them how important it is for when they have families to cook from scratch.
Who are your clientele and how has it changed?
The new generation has become more food-oriented than I have ever seen. They don’t rest until they’ve done their research.
In the mid 90s it really peaked. It really had to do with the dollar being so strong as it was very affordable to go overseas and see the traditions in Europe. I saw the pendulum start to swing our way in the 80s when we would sell cheese to restaurants but it would never last more than a few months. I saw it as a trend but then all of a sudden, people were going to Europe and seeing cheese plates in a restaurant. I was very skeptical thinking it was going to be a three-month thing and then die down again. But then in the mid 90s, it caught on and it hasn’t slowed down. It’s made its place in the restaurant business and in people’s diets. It was a great collision in Cambridge because our clients came back with products and chefs came in with a hard to find ingredient and it was a two way street.
In a way we got really lucky because I’ve seen great producers from Vermont and other states disappear. Early on, shops like us weren’t enough to support these early producers here in the US. They needed people of all classes eating this product, restaurants serving these products. It took a while.
So there were producers who came along too early?
Yes. There was a doctor named Anne Dixon in Vermont who used to make the most amazing Brie. Her son Peter Dixon would sit in the station wagon with his siblings and his mom would come and tell us the ups and downs of cheese making and cry because people wouldn’t keep the cheese order they made at a restaurant because it wasn't consistent so she was left with it and I would buy it. But now Peter, her son from the back of the station wagon, has caught the wave and he’s an amazing cheese maker and we carry Rupert Cheese from Vermont and it’s one of his. The kids have taken over.
We have a young man named Tripp Nichols who buys all our American cheeses and is a judge for the American Cheese Society. He is now much more knowledgeable than I am!
What do you wake up thinking about each day?
My biggest and continuous concern is staff management and keeping up their interest and their passion. Valerie and I work hard to keep them involved in all the decisions we make. People lose interest if you make the decisions for them. If you involve them in this business then you have a bunch of mini-owners.
For example, I just received a grant from the Italian government to send Tim from our mail-order department to a food fair in Bologna and another grant to send someone to France. We also have annual trips that are very important and we rotate staff through these trips. We have one anchorperson who goes to do the buying and two tagalongs who go for learning. Kurt, my son who runs this Cambridge store, and David, the cheese buyer from the South End store, have gone to Geneva to the Jura Mountains. They will go to an underground fortress that has 160,00 wheels from about 160 towns and they will select, plug, and taste the cheeses for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They will spend time with the principals who own the fort, have fondue with them, and then they will have two other days to go to Haute Savoie to select other cheeses from producers we know.
Our cheese cave, built in 1996 (the first of its kind in America), has all the damp, musty, chilly characteristics of an Alpine hillside.
Is there someone who changed your life or stepped up and made a path for you?
Dun Gifford from Old Ways Preservation and Trust whose mission was to teach people about the Mediterranean diet. His partner Sarah has taken over since Dun passed away and she organized our most recent trip to Sicily. They have had quite an influence on us. I have been on six trips with them and the passion and understanding of the small producer and the Mediterranean diet definitely came from Dun. He taught me how to pick products and exposed me to a circle of food with the likes of Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Paula Wolfert - the great dames of food writing and so many more. My first trip with him was to Liguria where we found the olive oil, Roi, that we still import today.
Joe Moscowitz was very instrumental in teaching us how to be an importer and my wife Valerie is my “brakes”. I am so easily excitable that it has come to a point where she will not let me go overseas alone anymore. We go with a mission.
Were there moments in this business that humbled you?
It involved Julia Child and I’ll never forget it. When we built the cheese cave downstairs she wanted to see it and I carried her down because she was getting frail. Once we were down there, she sat down and said, “You’ve done a good job kid.” Those are special moments you don’t forget.
And ten years ago, Valerie and I were visiting Paris for the Salon du Fromage and walking through the Sorbonne towards our favorite bistro and we stopped by a bookstore. Valerie grabbed a Lonely Planet and our store was in it. To me, that was like we made it. That was such a proud moment. There are many small ones but they are the ones that mean a lot more to me than others.
Journalist’s notes: In 2006 Ihsan was inducted into the Guilde du Fromage by Roland Barthelemy.
On November 10, 2008 Ihsan received the title of Chevalier of the Ordre du Mérite Agricole from the French government. This title was given to Ihsan for his tireless work in supporting French agricultural artisans by introducing his stateside customers to their handcrafted products.
Other American recipients of this prestigious title include Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch.
Would you describe a typical day for us when you are not on these fabulous trips?
We travel a lot in the fall and also in the spring so those months are pretty hectic. September and October are very important months because we are buying for the holidays and in the spring we get a flash into what is going to happen in the future. Besides that there are always surprise trips like the Italian grant.
I get up at 5am, walk my dog for an hour, at work at six and check emails, make my overseas Skype calls, check into the Euro and then strategize. After that, I go into the daily routine of the shop and look at the big picture of all the stores and talk to Valerie about what we need to do and what is coming. Fridays are our most important because we receive our shipments from Europe. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we are waiting to see if things have cleared customs, passed FDA, if the ship has docked. We just went through a huge scare on the eastern seaboard and the Gulf with a possible longshoremen strike. We had contingency plan to bring food through Montreal and I have to deal with these things as well.
What event are you most looking forward to?
Well November and December, to be honest we are tunnel vision. We work sixteen-hour days.
I get to go home to Istanbul in January for a huge buying trip. I am very lucky to have found a foodie in Istanbul who is American-educated and he is running around in the mountains looking for really old school products for us. He contacted me and said, “I’ve looked at your website and the amazing things you are doing and I think I can find you things in Turkey.” He’s found a cheese guy in Turkey on the Russian border. Listening to this kid is amazing. He tells me we have to buy 100 kilos and now, at this stage, I can do that in my sleep. Things like this get me excited. He seems to really understand what we are all about. He is finding me a very elusive honey in the Black Sea that is said to be magical and a cure. It is almost like a black honey and it’s already being copied. People are darkening honey with junk because of its legend but he claims he’s found the real thing up in the mountain. It’s a real feat, even if I can get 3 kilos of it.
Favorite spot for a cocktail?
Island Creek with Tommy Schlesinger, Chris Schlesinger’s nephew. Do you know why? I say “Tommy, make me something tart and not too sweet” and he’ll do it. He’s a great mixologist. He used to be at Craigie and then at Eastern Standard and now he is the GM at Island Creek.
What website do you frequent the most each day?
I’m into antique cars and I love this one website with classic cars of South Beach Miami.
Before you die you would order...
Schnitzel. My father was an accountant for a very reputable hotel and the chef was Austrian. And as a kid, he would make us work at the hotel whenever we had bad grades. I would work in exchange for that Schnitzel.
Who make a decent Schnitzel in Boston?
Eastern Standard used to make a great one.