Chefs spice up food tours
Moving through the tightly packed Sevan's Bakery here in Watertown - home to a large Armenian population - chef Ana Sortun holds up a small bag of dried mint, explaining its many uses - such as sprinkling on just-roasted meats, or folding it into thick, creamy Middle Eastern yogurt, commonly used in a variety of Mediterranean dishes.
The tour group soaks up every word uttered by Ms. Sortun, nominated for a James Beard Award. They move as a pack as she steps deeper into the store, past the displays of olives, dried fruits, and nuts, and into the bakery's stainless steel kitchen, where they sample three varieties of feta cheeses - French, Bulgarian, and the newly arrived Turkish feta, all with slightly different tastes and textures.
Margaret Chavushian, the bakery's owner, swings through the door with a tray of soft mounds of red lentil kofte. Hard bagel-like breads and flat crackers with spread Za'atar - a dry mixture of summer savory and sesame seeds - are passed hand to hand. Murmurs and nods of approval travel through the group. Quickly, the tray is bare and smiles abound.
This Saturday morning lesson in yufka pastry, lamejun, kibbeh, and haloumi cheese is an example of the latest way for chefs to connect with clientele clamoring to get up close and personal. Unlike traditional walking tours, which are often led-to-a-chef, Sortun's version is chef-led.
Moving out of the kitchen and back into the shop, Sortun, who is of Norwegian descent, stops at the display of frozen goods and points out a number of delights such as Egyptian mantee - tiny baked ravioli-style dumplings that are traditionally cooked in chicken broth; boxes of lamejun - delicious pizzalike snacks that can be warmed in the oven or on a griddle; and yufka pastry, which can be wrapped around cheese and then fried.
Serious about her passion for Middle Eastern food, Sortun, chef-owner of the award-winning Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., exudes both confidence in her knowledge of this cuisine and appreciation for the goods displayed in this tiny corner market.
"I think sometimes there's a curiosity that people have about how chefs find their ingredients," says Sortun. "People think there's some kind of secret, when really, we're shopping the same way [as home cooks]. We're just looking for something that inspires us, that looks good that day.
"For me, Watertown is really a special place," she adds. "I can't get the ingredients they have there anywhere else. I can't find the labne or the yufka pastry at a lot of different places, so I rely on them for the kind of food I use [in the restaurant]."
The students file out of Sevan's and cross the street to Arax Market, a Lebanese and Armenian grocer, where the sights and smells change dramatically.
An earthy, sweet aroma prevails, wafting from the piles of fresh produce displayed in cardboard boxes stacked on the floor. To one side is a wall filled with clear bags of exotic spices, to the other side are open bins of pickled vegetables and cured olives.
In the back corner of Arax are piles of flour, grains, rice, lentils, and couscous, shelved near stacks of immense pita breads, which are routinely prodded and tested for freshness by the store's regulars.
"It was very exotic," says Marcy Rizzo of Newton, Mass., one of those on the tour. "You really felt like you were in a different country when you walked into those stores. [The place] wasn't Americanized - the way of displaying things, the quality, the smells, the colors; [or] how things like brilliant pink pickled turnips and crushed red pepper paste are used in everyday cooking."
Sortun deftly moves around the store fielding questions from the group about items such as tiny bundles of dried purple eggplant that are bound with thick rubber bands. She explains how to use fresh dates, which are hard and light yellow - with little resemblance to their dried, sticky, brown cousins - by slicing them very thinly and using them atop salads.
She draws out two types of skewers and explains the difference to the group: The round shish are used for cubes of meat and vegetables. The flat shish are for ground meat. "They make it by kneading the beef or lamb until the meat becomes creamy and binds itself. This is like their meatball," says Sortun.
The next stop on the morning tour is Massis Bakery, which feels like a cross between Sevan's and Arax. Here the group is treated to warm samples of kibbeh. Since the store has many similar ingredients to the first two, the time spent here is short.
Sortun then herds the tour across another street to Town Shawarma, a halal meat market, where samples of grilled sujuk (a special spiced meat mixture, similar to sausage) and a salty yogurt drink are served. The owner, Magid Alhussein, is amiable, and brings out the samples as soon as he sees Sortun walk through the door.
Sortun ends the tour at a small local restaurant, where, among platters of falafel and dainty dishes of humus, her clients chatter about this unusual peek at an often overlooked ethnic neighborhood.
Here's a sprinkling of chef-led tours in other parts of the country:
• Chef Kerry Sears of Cascadia Restaurant in Seattle offers market tours through Seattle's famed Pike Place Market. Mr. Sears offers insider tips on selecting seasonal ingredients and ends the program with a three-course lunch made from ingredients gleaned that morning. Cost: $65 per person. Saturdays throughout the summer. Phone: (206) 448-8884.
• Celebrity chef Rick Bayless occasionally offers tours through Chicago's venerable Maxwell Street Market - combing through mostly Mexican and Latin food stalls and shops for delicacies. For more information, e-mail his assistant, Jen Fite, at: email@example.com.
• The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., offers small-group tours of organic farms and aquaculture operations in the Monterey Bay region. Tours include cooking demonstrations and lunch. Well-known chefs participating include Rick Moonen of RM & Branzini restaurants in New York; Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Ciudad in Santa Monica, Calif., and Los Angeles; Charles Wiley of Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and more. The next event is Saturday, May 21. For more information: Monterey Bay Aquarium, (831) 648-4800 or go to www.mbayaq.org.