Why “les human relations” matter

If you joined us for our birthday bouillabaisse and dessert selection, we certainly hope you enjoyed it. And if you did, it was thanks in no small part to the purveyors who help make the components of our Julia dishes possible. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.

In My Life in France, Julia writes about how much she learned in those years not only about cooking, but about shopping for food. The French tradition, whether or not it is always easy to follow in modern life, is to shop daily for fresh food to be prepared and served each day. When Julia lived in France, supermarkets had not yet entered the landscape; they were only just beginning to dominate the postwar grocery scene in the United States. Local markets featuring fresh local produce were the rule in France, and the sellers at those markets expected the buyers to get to know them and form a relationship with them if they wanted the best goods.

“The Parisian grocers insisted that I interact with them personally,” writes Julia. “If I wasn’t willing to take the time to get to know them and their wares, then I would not go home with the freshest legumes or cuts of meat in my basket. They certainly made me work for my supper — but oh, what suppers!”

One of Ruth’s own most memorable experiences from spending time in Paris with an old high school girlfriend eight or nine years ago was of the marchés — the smells of the baked goods in the boulangerie, the pâtés and the whole chickens hanging in the windows at the butcher’s shop — as she searched for food to be used in a special dinner she prepared to thank the friends who had offered her accommodations for the trip. Today, we use that French shopping technique to obtain just the kind of meat, fish, vegetables and fruits we want for the Bistro. We build and maintain relationships with our suppliers to get the best merchandise possible.

For example, we source our calves’ liver from a private butcher. When Ruth walks into his shop, he knows her, and he knows why she’s purchasing from him and how his merchandise will be used. This enables him to do a better job of making sure we have exactly the kind of meat that will make for the best outcome in a particular dish we’re planning. He can also ensure that we’ll have enough at the time we need it. If she has a special request, he’ll gladly meet it because he knows her and has insight into her plans — and if he has something special that’s in short supply, he’ll let her know about it, and perhaps offer her a deal on it.

The same is also true, of course, when it comes to buying items like fruits and vegetables. The better you get to know your greengrocer, and let him or her get to know you, what you will use the produce for and your likes and dislikes, the better your chances of getting the best, freshest goods, being pointed in the direction of specials and possibly getting a bargain as well.

Food sellers wants you to be a satisfied customer and to come back, especially if you’re a reliable purchaser of large quantities or a person who really cares about the quality of food. Good purveyors are flattered and happy to share their extensive knowledge of what they sell with you, and ready to steer you in the right direction to suit your needs. As a happy repeat buyer, you also become a steady means of selling perishable goods long before spoilage becomes a concern — and that makes you golden!

Sure, as Americans we’re conditioned to head for the supermarket, look over the food, put things in our cart and push it to the checkout without talking to anyone, unless it’s a friend we run into in the aisles. We think of actually interacting with the seller, discussing the merchandise and maybe even negotiating the price as something we might do at the West Side Market or the local farmer’s market, not at the Giant Eagle or Heinen’s or Dave’s. But you will have a more enjoyable and rewarding experience if, next time, rather than just strolling the supermarket aisles putting things in your cart, you actually talk to the people in the meat department, and the produce department, and the bakery. This is true even of hypermarkets and superstores like Costco. Get to know them, let them get to know you, and you might well be surprised at what they can tell you about what they have to sell, and how they will bend over backwards to help you find what you want!

Of course, if you’ve never tried shopping at a traditional open-air or farmer’s market, this is the prime time of year to do it, and you shouldn’t miss out on the experience. You’ll usually find fresher and more local food, of course, and just may find yourself eating more healthily as a result. One thing is for sure: The more you learn about your food and your food seller before you buy, and the more information you share about yourself and your plans for it, the better food you’ll be able to buy, and the better the meals you prepare will taste.

We hope you’ll join us tomorrow night for the first dish in Week 3 of the Julia Project, Salmon Filet en Papillote with Shallots and Tomato. More about that dish soon!


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