Kiss, a 35-year-old trained chef, spends five days a week engaging people in conversations about food. He tells them what farro is, how to pick the right dried chili peppers and which meat substitutes work best for stuffed artichokes. He directs them to the row of reference books on his work table: “Veganomicon,” “How to Cook Everything,” “Spice and Herb Bible,” among others. He wears an apron, not a chef’s coat. He listens, nods, answers lots of questions and jots things down for customers on a special prescription pad.
What he doesn’t do is cook for them or spear samples with toothpicks.
Some folks find this confusing. They see a menu of tasty-sounding dishes on a chalkboard overhead, recipe handouts and bowls of dried beans next to the books.
Are you demonstrating something? they ask.
“I’m your cooking coach!” Kiss replies. “I’m ready to talk about food.”
Sometimes, that provides a starting point; other times, Kiss gets a blank stare.
These days, the dialogue about what we should be eating grows louder but not so clear. There are more choices, and caveats, in every corner of the supermarket. We want food that’s healthful, and we’re realizing that preparing it ourselves is key. But that doesn’t mean all of us know where to start.
Lex Alexander figured out long ago that the grocery store is a natural place to educate, as have several major supermarket chains. The challenge these days seems to be finding the right level of engagement. He and his wife built the Chapel Hill, N.C., grocery chain called Wellspring, which they sold to Whole Foods in 1991.
“I saw people come in fairly exhausted [at day’s end], in need of encouragement or enthusiasm to make their evening meal,” he says. “I wondered what would happen if we put a team of people in the stores next to the fresh plants and expanded the selection of dried plants next to that. The team would assist and encourage people to cook with these. That would be a great service.”
Alexander bounced the idea off his pal Molly Stevens, the well-respected food writer and cookbook author. She got it right away — including the part about not hoisting a single pan.
“I do demos all the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them,” Stevens says. “But they don’t go far enough. The person who is doing the cooking can’t focus one-on-one. Are customers motivated, or are they looking for samples? I’ve watched them try to eat dried pasta.”
She came to Rockville recently to check out how customers were responding just after the store opened in mid-April. Outfitted with a store apron, she had three interactions within 20 minutes that, for her, confirmed the cooking-coach approach.