At 40, La Cuisine is the area's oldest independent kitchen store
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Nancy Purves Pollard discovered her life's work in a kitchen disaster.
It was the late 1960s; Pollard was a newlywed living in Charlottesville, with guests coming to dinner. She decided to try chicken with Calvados and cream, a simple dish she had savored as a foreign-exchange student living in Germany, where a Frenchwoman living in Munich had cooked it for her.
She had her French friend's recipe, yet the dish Pollard produced in no way resembled the one she remembered. "In my flimsy nonstick skillet, there were no pan juices to deglaze, and the uneven heat caused the ultra-pasteurized cream to curdle," she says. "The chicken lay in a sickly white heap. The apples turned to mush. It was an inedible mess. We went out to dinner."
That's when Pollard realized something was lacking in the way Americans cooked at home, and it had to do with equipment. The French cook had made her Calvados and cream dish in a copper saute pan.
Pollard decided to open a shop that sold high-quality, durable pots and pans that enhanced rather than impeded the interaction between food and flame. The store would celebrate good food and hospitality, and, like all the best retail establishments, it would express its owner's point of view.
In 1970, at age 25, Pollard opened La Cuisine on North Lee Street in the warehouse district of Old Town Alexandria. Her initial investment was $11,000 scraped together from savings. Two years later, "with our knees shaking," Pollard and her husband, Robert, a contractor specializing in high-end construction, bought a circa-1810 brick Georgian house and storefront at 323 Cameron St. in Old Town. Today it is home to the oldest and most successful independent kitchen store in the Washington area.
It is their home as well; the couple live upstairs. Over time, Robert renovated the building inside and out, painting the exterior a distinctive Caribbean pink trimmed with turquoise. Above the door, he attached a wrought-iron arm from which he hung a sign: "La Cuisine, The Cook's Resource." The shop is thriving. It caters to experienced and neophyte cooks and hosts scores of in-store events every year, with a growing online presence.
A handsome woman at 65, with thick white hair and a virtually unlined face, Pollard walks down the wooden stairs from her home to the 900-square-foot store every morning wearing high-heeled shoes and the outrageous earrings that are something of a trademark. She checks e-mail at her small desk and monitors the flow of online sales, then takes her place behind the counter.
Facing her is a gleaming inventory of copper pots; stainless-steel mixing bowls; porcelain baking dishes; linen towels; Sabatier, Messermeister and Shun knives; Hammersong tin cookie cutters; hand-carved wooden springerle cookie molds; cookbooks; artisanal foodstuffs; seasonal delights and bins full of fine baking chocolate that perfumes the store air.
"Our stock is carefully edited," she says. "The store is small. We only have room for the best."
Pollard does not sell ceramic knives because "they break easily." No plastic cutting boards: "Research shows them to be vectors of bacteria." Nonstick cookware also is a no-go.
District resident Susan Osann, a longtime La Cuisine customer, recalls walking into the shop in the late '70s feeling discouraged. As the mother of young children, she had little time to spare, yet she wanted to make a great meal. "I had pulled out this recipe from 'The Silver Palate' cookbook. It was for white ratatouille," she said. As Pollard had decades ago in Charlottesville, "I followed the directions, and it was such a bust."