When Steve “Papi” Jenkins talks about his life in food, it’s a sweeping narrative with dramatic arcs. He traces a beauteous knot of Provençal pink garlic back to its geographic, historic, ecological, and anthropological origins. He has forgotten more about food than most of us can ever hope to know. I worked by his side for three years, and I can attest that Steve is not just bragging. He revolutionized the way New Yorkers shop, eat, and live.
I got to write a profile of Steve back in 2010, and it was perhaps my favorite interview ever. Some interviews are easy; charismatic talkers give great sound bites. Some are harder; I pry and prod and hope to get something of substance from the tight-lipped or uncooperative.
I didn’t have to do any work to get Steve to launch into a story, and he’s a mean storyteller. I’ve seen him captivate crowds of hedge fund suits with his poetic and passionate tales of tagliatelle; the peasants and their piave; the art of pulling curds into warm, weeping, glorious mozzarella. I left my interview with Steve inspired.
Steve was the very first employee of Dean & Deluca, when the whole thing was a novel concept. He was an out-of-work stage actor in need of a job, but the food moved him. “The lights went on,” Steve said. He met people who had traveled the world and feasted upon its luscious bounties. But the fancy store had no chicken liver pâté, no Parmigiana Reggiano. He thought, “What the hell, here we are this cool food shop and we don’t have any of these things that make a food shop great.”
Steve made up his mind to change that. He bought a ticket to France, then Italy. He rented a car and drove to villages big and small, in search of cheese and stories. He smuggled home chévre and crotin and comté. He read everything he could get his hands on. He studied maps, and studied them some more (I miss lessons from Steve, big maps spread across the conference room table. You can’t understand ingredients if you don’t understand where they come from). In 1980, Steve came to work for Fairway.
He promptly began introducing Fairway’s customers — neighborhood cronies and families and celebrities and chefs — to foodstuffs they had never seen before. The world’s finest ingredients…ingredients we take for granted these days: Alsatian spaetzle, Provencale tapenade, Iberico ham, fleur de sel and sel gris from Brittany, clementines from Spain.
“Anchovy-marinated Aragon olives. Nova Scotia blueberry nectar. Olio Santo, the beloved ‘sanctified’ (hot chile-infused extra-virgin olive oil) from Western Sicily. Crème fraiche from Normandy. Mascarpone and Fontina d’Aosta and Mozzarella di Bufala from Italy. Butter from Normandy. Sea-salted caramels from Brittany. I could go on.” Steve can definitely go on.
The genius of Fairway was that unlike Dean & Deluca, there was nothing chichi or pretentious about Steve’s counter. He sold serious food to everyone, at reasonable prices, in a store than felt more Home Depot than Whole Foods.
Steve is America’s first French-certified maitre-fromager (master cheesemonger). His book, Cheese Primer (Workman, 1996), is considered the professional’s and amateur’s bible. It won the James Beard Award and has sold over 300,000 copies. Steve is a food innovator, a rockstar.
Steve hired me when I was eager to leave the restaurant biz, to try something new in food. Somehow, my food hero was going to give me a chance. I started behind the cheese counter, the best place to learn. I got up close and very personal with the ashy morbier, Gouda dotted with crunchy crystals, the oozy stink of langres. I stretched the curds into mozzarella myself, pulling until my forearms were sore and my thoughts were milky and happy.
When I came to work in Steve’s office, I thought I had arrived in heaven. Every surface was covered in olive oils and vinegars, tins of Alsatian sauerkraut, Pruneaux d’Agen, Bixi-Bixia (the great Basque barbecue sauce made with Espelette chile), a bottle of garum, the unfathomably stinky Roman fish sauce his friend was making from Spanish mackerel.
Steve would tilt his head back and take a big swig straight from a bottle of olive oil. “Taste this,” he’d say, passing the bottle. Always, I’d be glad I did.
The best was when Steve would pick me up in ‘The Rocket Ship,’ his beautiful Audi. We’d ride to the new suburban Fairways: Little Falls, New Jersey or Douglaston, Queens, and he’d play really good music, really loud, and give me reading assignments. Thanks to Steve, I discovered Waverly Root, Roy Andries de Groot, and Patience Gray. I read When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman at Steve’s suggestion.
“Didn’t the chapter on Provence make you cry?”
It also made me cry, a little, leaving Steve’s office, strewn with well-loved books and cheese and maps and strange shirtless photos of Steve that were the punch-lines of inside jokes.
“There is no replacement for giving yourself up to something and getting humble,” Steve says. “I was so stoned, I felt such joy. I didn’t even think about money or success. I just wanted to learn everything.” I’m so glad Steve learned, and that I, in turn, got to learn from him. New York is a better City because of Steve. I am a better cook, a better writer, and a better person. No words can adequately thank you, Papi!