Steven Jenkins is a poet and troubadour, with the kind of love that for 30-some years, has propelled him from hamlet to village, ever singing the praises about the objects of his affections. Fontina d’Aosta, Pecorino Toscano, Fourme d’ Ambert, Laguiole. It was Jenkins who sought out these beauties and brought them to New Yorkers. Without him, we’d likely only know factory cheeses.
It took a guy from the heart of America—Columbia, Mo.—to make it happen.
A pioneer in the specialty food world, Fairway’s master buyer and master cheesemonger has been witness to history and created some of his own.
Growing up, Jenkins, 62, was not only surrounded by his mother’s and grandmother’s great cooking, “traditional and terrific,” roast beef, fried chicken, and Yorkshire pudding, but also by the freshness of the produce grown by his grandparents, who he said were inveterate gardeners. When in bloom, their apple trees were magnificent.
“We weren’t farmers, but we had a great deal of respect for the food that came out of our own place, rather than just going to the supermarket,” he said.
After college, Jenkins moved to New York to pursue a career as an actor. But acting work was hard to find and he found himself running out of money. The last thing he wanted was to go back to his hometown and get a job with his father, who was in the water conditioning business.
Salvation came when he got a job at a cheese shop. Did he know about cheese? Hardly. “I knew a big thick slice of Velveeta, and a Dr. Pepper and a peanut butter jelly sandwich,” he said.
But he was set on learning as much as he could, showing up early and staying late. He became the manager, and then in 1977 moved on to Dean & DeLuca, where he became their first employee.
At that time, New York City was in the middle of the Middle Ages in regard to dining. Fancy restaurants in the ’70s and ’80s were the domain of the wealthy and established. Chefs had no serious ingredients to work with.
“Forget cheese. In terms of other ingredients, like olive oil or vinegar, certain herbs and spices, none of that was available. Nothing. There was no ‘crème fraîche,’ there was no ‘fromage blanc.’ There was no sherry vinegar, there was no walnut oil, there was not decent bottle of olive oil in the whole city in the ’70s and well into the ’80s. We were oblivious to the fact that serious food is ingredient-driven.”
At Dean & DeLuca, Jenkins felt he had to learn everything about food and become “unassailable as an authority.”
“I’m a Missouri hick in New York, I’ve never been any place. I’ve never had any life experience worth relating. I had no reason to be able to call myself an authority, and I realized, I’m in a lot of trouble. So how am I going to do this?”
He took a leaf out of Stanilavski’s acting method, which dictated, “learning everything there is to know about everything.”
Jenkins turned to classic food writers, among them M.F.K. Fischer, Elizabeth David, Waverley Root. “I was in heaven reading these people.” He would stay up all night, reading books and studying maps.
Then, starting in 1978, saving whatever he could on a salary of $200 a week, he started to travel. He would catch a cheap flight on Icelandic Air or Air India, and fly into London, and grab a shuttle into Paris. There, he would rent a car, maps at his side, and make stops wherever a village had a cheese or sauce named after it.
He would do his best with his working French, Italian, and Spanish.
“You just strive. You make mistakes, but people are so intrinsically nice everywhere. They just know if you have a good heart, if you’re trying to pay respect to the type of people in the type of region you’re in.” In the beginning, Jenkins said he would ask a question, which made them think he spoke fluently, and they would rattle off an answer that was lost on him.
But “the proof of his pudding,” as he said, is that he single-handedly started to import cheeses to New York—cheeses that had never been seen here before.
He took singular pride in being able to make customers happy by guiding them to cheeses that surprised and amazed them.
“Like a real Camembert,” he said. “No one had a real Camembert in New York. They were all fake. I had seven, or eight, or nine different ones. When you get a Camembert that’’s ready for that afternoon, not tomorrow, not yesterday, but for that afternoon, it’s a thing of wonderment, and people perceive that when they taste it because it’s so complex, it’s so baffling. How you could never have tasted anything like it before? And you can’t wait to do it again.”
“Always, the norm what people think is in our business, is the customer is always right and give them what they want. I’ve always been the opposite of that. Customers have no idea what they want. I’ll decide,” he said. And who can resist his descriptions and signs, by turn over-the-top, poetic, and humorous? (“The harder the cheese, the higher fat; the softer the cheese, the lower the fat! This is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”)
In 1980, Jenkins started working at Fairway. He found a welcome change from his earlier work, where he found the atmosphere too snobby, with “rich people trying to show off and impress each other.”
At Fairway, there was sawdust on the floor, no one was wearing fancy clothes, and he could smoke a cigar in the back room. Not only that, but there was a common rejection of the notion of gourmet, which he said meant nothing, “just people thinking they were better than other people because they could have this cheese or this caviar, or foie gras, or whatever.”
Jenkins got his hands on products and made them accessible, “a humbling down from all that snobby thing,” he said. For example, there was no thick glass between the customer and the cheeses. He would bring them out on a counter where people could pick them up, look at them.
“I’m talking, counterman wearing an apron and a hat and people moving away from me on the subway at night because I was so stinky from cheeses. I found so much joy in the peasant virtue of what I did all day. That made me so happy.”
He continued to travel to Europe, this time on company time and expense. He would learn by observing vendors on Rue de Seine throughout the day, starting at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. when they set up their stalls.
“It’s the real thing, it’s not computers and it’s not Wall Street, it’s not business. It’s food. It’s as real as it can be. That hard work was such a joy to me, to find something finally I could do, no matter how hard it was to show up six days a week, made me feel like I belonged.”
He derived great joy from the knowledge he learned—the geography, the history, all so intertwined with gastronomy.
“Every ingredient I can think of has a form or taken a form throughout the centuries for a reason, not happenstance. There’s a reason why things are the way they are.”
Why is brie in the shape of a disk? “Because the atmospheric pressure east of Paris was such that for that recipe, that cheese needed to ripen from the outside to the inside, needed to be thin and broad, as opposed to a block.”
Why does a mountain cheese come in massive 100-kilogram wheels? Ask Jenkins.
Dealing With the FDA
If there’s a thorn in Jenkins’s side, dealing with the FDA is a major one.
“I don’t believe in government having their fingers in everything I do. It’s been a nightmare lately,” he said.
A year ago, the 110th Congress broadened the powers of the FDA to seize and detain goods for “no reason whatsoever,” said Jenkins. “It’s bureaucratic overreach. It’s infuriating. The FDA should be concerned about the cantaloupes from Mexico, the spinach in California, the ground beef at Costco. These are the things that people get sick on, not a beautiful jar of preserves from Burgundy, not a fabulous raw cheese.
“Countless times I get my hands on something, it’s just magic, I get to run with it for a while until I get ratted out by the competition or the FDA does its diligence.”
This is a big change from his early Fairway days, from about 1980 to 1985, when he imported raw milk cheeses, deemed illegal. At that time the FDA wasn’t able to scrutinize shipments as closely as it does now.
“I have 30 to 40 percent of the cheeses I had through the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s because of 9/11. Everything has gotten so impossible.”
With the FDA so closely inspecting his shipments, Jenkins turned his gaze to American producers, to try to convince them to make the stuff he was seeking. A favorite of his is a vinegar maker in Quebec, who had bought land across the border in Vermont, “grove after grove of all these antique apples.”
“There’s no commercial value in making cider because it’s too competitive, but I convinced them if they would make apple cider vinegar for me, I can make them famous. And they did, and I have. And now they’re making a bourbon vinegar.”
Jenkins’s vantage point over the world of food and his own acumen tells him how products fit into the landscape, and what people will buy. “How they can be recipients of that largesse is to listen to me,” he said.
He started touting American cheesemakers in the early ’80s, and since then, he said, the United States now has “the most magnificent artisanal cheese industry anywhere in the world. We can compete with anybody in the world because people like me championed these small American cheesemakers and have the buying power to make them rock stars.”
“I have some Amish people now whose reaction I was gauging because they’re so laconic, most Amish, because they’re not excitable.”
They were making good cheddar, but Jenkins told them if they wrapped it in gingham cloth and put it away to age for three or four years, they could get triple the price they were going to charge him.
“Their eyeballs and brains were doing this computation, and they got so excited they didn’t know what to do.”
With European producers, it’s a different story. Jenkins feels they’ve been working for so long it would be presumptuous for him to push them in another direction. That’s not to say he won’t give some advice at certain times, though, as in the case of a Belgian family in Liège, whose sourcing for their jams is impeccable, with flavors coming in cassis, bitter orange, and cherry, among others.
Even the pasta makers Jenkins deals with are now making pasta in the manner that he asks for and packaging it in a certain way because he knows it will be more successful.
Jenkins is proud of the prices he’s able to pass on to customers.
With 13 stores, Fairway has a lot of buying power.
Most people in Jenkins’s position in the industry go to local importers, rather than directly importing. “That’s silly, you’re giving choices over to someone you don’t even know,” he said.
Jenkins essentially cuts out the costs of a broker, importer, and distributor. “That’s why I’m successful. There’s nobody between me and the field,” he said. “When I import, I pay what my artisan charges people coming to the farm so my price is rock bottom.”
And the producers? With Fairway, they are getting paid faster and getting larger orders.
What’s Hot Now
The specialty food world is abuzz over grains, and Fairway is currently working on a November launch for its private labels, including amaranth, chia, red rice.
Chocolate is also hot. “Chocolate is important but getting more important because there’s so many little chocolate makers around, you’ve got to pay attention to them,” he mused.
The hottest of all, though, is olive oil. Jenkins contends the single most important ingredient in your kitchen is the cooking fat you use. Palm oil aside, three main choices predominate, he said: lard, butter, or olive oil.
“I love lard, I love butter, but olive oil I love more, because of the flavors that it brings out in food and because it’s good for you. … If it’s an early harvest, you’ll live forever and you’ll never be sick.”
He’s intent on educating people about olive oil, so they understand why they should like it, and why it deserves their respect.
Last April, Fairway underwrote the largest olive oil competition in the world, with 700 entries; they’re already at work for the next olive oil event in April, which will be more of a festival.
Fairway is also opening stores to the pace of about four a year, with next openings slated for Nanuet in Rockland County and the Hudson Yards in Brooklyn. Each store opening brings with it 500–600 jobs.
Sitting in the room he called the nerve center (where they “laugh and plan and hoot and holler”) in the office in Harlem, Jenkins said he would like to start curtailing his activities next year, and turn to more reading.
His colleagues will have to step up, he said. They chided him right away.
“When you get to be as old me as me, traveling like that is grueling,” he said. A moment of quiet.
Not half a minute later, his eyes lit up, fixing on a bottle of drinking vinegar—pomegranate. “I’ve got a vinegar drink. I’m a vinegar freak.” And then he enthused about the upcoming “super hot” tricolor quinoa. And then the red rice.
It’s about serious food, yes, and it has always been, but it’s clear Jenkins makes it seriously fun.