Feature photo by brooke
I have been working at the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park for over a year now and have found myself exposed to and accustomed to fancy foods. I don’t mean caviar and soufflés but rather a wide variety of locally or small-batch–produced cheeses and foods—food that really has some TLC put into it. Without doubt, it’s intimidating to someone new to the world of fancy foods, as it was to me, but that world is far more accessible than it may seem.
Patrick Kelly is the manager of the cheese and charcuterie department at MSCM, also experienced as a fishmonger and butcher at Fox and Obel prior to his foray into cheese. His tips for those curious but wary of dipping a toe into the specialty food waters?
“The first thing you need to do is stop shopping at [big chains], because you’re not going to find anything out of the ordinary there. Stop in [for example] a smaller Italian grocery store; they have cheeses that you’ve probably never heard of, and they’re great [because] they’re not cut into a thousand little pieces and shrink-wrapped until they suffocate and taste like plastic. You don’t have to go crazy, either; buy a small piece here, a small piece there, and work your way into it.”
As far as cost goes, now having shopped at my fair share of ethnic delis and specialty markets, I can attest that a lot of shops offer quality house-made or small-batch products at incredibly reasonable prices. That’s not to say that a specialty cheese shop is going to be cheap, but as Patrick put it, “One of the things that I’m trying to combat is the perception that craft cheeses are cost-prohibitive for the average person. I’ve gone through our selection of cheeses and highlighted fifteen cheeses that are available for under $5 per quarter pound.”
Now, if you’re like me, perhaps the more intimidating part of familiarizing oneself with specialty foods wasn’t the food itself but the people behind the counter. In my fearful perception of reality, faces of the characters from Saturday Night Live sketches—like the Gap girls or worse yet, the IT guy—transposed themselves on the perfectly innocent people behind the cheese counter early in my cheese market shopping days, ready to roll their eyes at me for any question that I didn’t practice on my walk over after sufficient Wikipedia research. According to Patrick, however, even the most intimidating hipster wielding a meat slicer is more than likely willing to talk to even the most overwhelmed customer, skinny jeans or no.
“Ask questions! Don’t be shy! Most people who are involved in fancy food on this side [of the counter] love talking about it,” he says. “That’s one of the things I love most about this job. Anyone who cares about their craft is absolutely going to help you find what you need, walk you through it, find a common ground where you’re not spending too much [but] you’re trying something new, you’re having a new experience, and it won’t be intimidating.”