Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Preview: Inside a Sanctuary for Chefs

Even though I call myself The Single Guy Chef, I’m not really a chef. (Although I wanted to play one on TV, which is how this whole food blog started. BTW, thanks for crushing on that dream, Food Network!) Still, I love discovering new ingredients and finding inspiration for new recipes.

What may be the ultimate showcase for fine ingredients and cookware from around the world may be the aptly named LeSanctuaire—a cook’s heaven or haven, however you want to look at it. Started by the food-obsessed Jing Tio, this boutique store in Santa Monica, Calif., has been winning raves from celebrated chefs like San Francisco’s Ron Siegel, the master chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. In March, I read a Sunday New York Times feature on Tio, likening him almost to a spice whisperer to the chefs, traveling around the world to find the best spices and then selling them out of his suitcase at some of the country’s most innovative kitchens.

That Times article made a passing reference to Tio’s plans to open a store in San Francisco, and I couldn’t wait to check it out. I scoured the Internet to find details and then eventually saw a brief mention of the store opening in the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Tio opened his San Francisco LeSanctuaire at the end of March, but hasn’t fully set up shop. Still, that hasn’t stopped the city’s best chefs (and one single guy blogger) from visiting the tiny store on Sutter Street. (Coincidentally, I just saw that the Chronicle published a fuller look at LeSanctuaire in Wednesday's edition. Ha! I beat them by a day!)

Below is a preview tour of what I found. I say “preview” because the store is still installing shelves and setting out products, and the store manager was wary of me making it sound like the store was completely done. LeSanctuaire has a reputation for being polished and precise. So I promised to come back in a couple of months when everything was complete, but I wanted to share with you my recent visit:LeSanctuaire is located at 315 Sutter St. between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street (opposite the Stockton Street Garage). You have to take a tiny elevator to the fifth floor. When I walked into the small, non-descript lobby leading to the elevator, I thought I was heading into a secret inner sanctum. In many ways, I was.When you walk out the elevator and turn the corner, you see this wall with what may just be Jing Tio’s manifesto on cooking. His philosophy is all about quality and discovery, which is probably why chefs love him so. He seems to capture the spirit of the creative cook. (I later find out in reading the Chronicle that this manifesto is from revered innovative chef Ferran Adria of Spain.)
Several imported products can be found on the back wall. This looks like your typical shelf at any high-end gourmet food store, until you start looking closely at the products and you start to see rare or hard-to-find ingredients.Because the store caters primarily to the restaurant industry, most of the business at the San Francisco store is wholesale (sales through accounts) with just a small cash-only retail segment. Since the store hasn’t fully been set up as a retail shop yet, none of the products on display had labels. As an experiment, I picked up this bottle of citron vinegar from France and asked how much it cost. The store manager looked it up and told me it sells for $30. What’s weird is that I probably would have bought it if I had the cash, but I only had $23 in my wallet. (Damn cash-sucking BART.)In one section of the tiny store, there was a counter with stacks of plastic containers filled with a variety of colorful spices. This is what LeSanctuaire is known for—the rare, interesting spice to add a new taste level to one’s dishes. I couldn’t even begin to remember or understand the different names of spices I saw. You could spend all day just learning about half the spices there.Oh look, a whole stack of exotic salts! Oh. My. Gawd. Who knew you could get salt from Jurassic?This final shot is of a beautiful display in the center of the store, showcasing this lovely Barcelona cookbook and porcelain kitchenware. To the right will be a more extensive display of other kitchen products. The Santa Monica LeSanctuaire has a reputation of stocking the finest (and often most expensive) cooking gadgets available.

Not pictured is a book section with tons of cookbooks, but not ones you see from Rachel Ray or other celebrity chefs. These books often look like treasured manuscripts from dedicated food lovers.

LeSanctuaire is not for the average home chef. But if you ever want to mingle with the city’s best chefs (a couple of chefs came in while I was there) or just find a rare gift for that culinary friend, you can always escape to this cook's nirvana.

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