GOOD TASTE is said to be elusive, yet it can be found. In cookware and foodstuffs, for example, look no further than a small shop in Alexandria called La Cuisine. It was founded 10 years ago by a kitchen-oriented, strong-minded woman named Nancy Pollard.
Virtually ignored by the local citizenry, it survived for a time on the word-of-mouth patronage of value -- and quality-conscious New Yorkers who came over to the shop from nearby National Airport. Gradually cooks in McLean and Potomac responded to the appeal of a true boutique -- a shop where the limited selection has been lovingly chosen and is sold by people who know and care. Now La Cuisine has a fair share of loyal Alexandria customers as well, is comfortably on its feet and is about to tell the world of its wares in a hand-crafted catalog that will be available by the middle of the coming month.
The catalog (which will sell for $3) contains a fair amount of culinary lore along with careful descriptions of the products therein. The emphasis is on text over photographs and there also are touches of opinion, something rarely heard in the food equipment business.
"The industry proposes things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the consumer or the retailer," Pollard said in a John Anderson-like tone of disapproval. "They want to sell lots of whatever the current fad is fast, then change gears. High tech is becoming pseudo high tech, and slickness often overrides the basic function of a piece of equipment. You can't count on price as an indicator of quality, nor on continuity of supply of an item. I can't tell you how much of our time has been taken up rejecting replacement shipments that turn out to be a cheap imitation of the original product, often at a higher price."
Pollard's style at La Cuisine is to "stay with things tested over a period of time," offering a large selection within a range dictated in part by her own standards of quality. "I guess I'm a traditionalist," she said. "No, I'm a purist and I detest not having a selection to suit different needs. I will have a range of copper or cast-iron pans and not stock some other styles at all rather than have just one or two of each."
The store itself, on the ground floor of a townhouse at 323 Cameron St., does contain a good deal of copper and cast iron (the latter displayed in and around a fireplace), as well as a forest of wooden-handled food scrapers, several rolling pins and such unusual items as a soapstone griddle, lovely tin molds and a selection of tea pots. Pollard has made a few "crossovers" into housewares, as with a high-quality cheesecloth, and foodstuffs account for an increasing proportion of the selection. There are several styles of chocolate, packages of five-color combinations of peppercorns and some remarkable fruit essences from France.
It's human enough, and uncrowded enough, that the cat posed in the middle of a display space is real and asleep. In the tradition of shopkeepers, Pollard lives upstairs with her husband and two children. She is an avid and talented cook -- and one of her own best customers, so the smell of food cooking or baking often wafts into the shop and becomes an uncalculated stimulant to sales.
The copper pots and pans Nancy Pollard imports directly from France are her best sellers and biggest revenue producers. She sells copper and hammered aluminum (an underrated material) utensils in two styles, presentation and the harder-to-find, heavier hotel weight. After three years of negotiation, she has a selection of Fortnum & Mason products imported from England. She continues to seek out handsome, hard-to-find, hand-tooled molds. But there are only a few hundred items on display, as opposed to several thousand one might find in a large cookware or department store.
"People walk in off the street, look around and may leave almost at once," Pollard said. "Or they say, 'Where have you been all my life!'" chimed in Leslie Hagan, an associate who was deeply involved in the three-year project of assembling the catalog. "We have a high volume of repeat customers," Pollard continued, "very few of whom are really wealthy. But they care and they know we care. So we've educated one another."
She said she feels the general public has awakened to cookware in the decade she has been in business, but still is not sufficiently discriminating. Some of the responsibility for this, it should be acknowledged, she puts on the shoulders of the press. "It's very hard to find factual information on kitchen equipment," she said. "Too much manufacturers' propaganda is unfiltered when it reaches the public."
Her answer is to reverse the priority that has a retail shop pushing to sell, usually at a low markup, what manufacturers need to sell. Instead, Pollard explained, La Cuisine tries to supply what cooks need or can use to good advantage. "Design has become an important sales tool," Pollard said, "but I put quality and function before design. in choosing a piece of equipment.
"It's not financially rewarding when we tell people they really don't want this or that, or convince them not to throw out a cast-iron pan they've come to replace. But they respect us and come back. Customers are astounded when we have answers to their questions about cookware and cooking."
Pollard did not come to her convictions, or the courage and authority to voice them, easily. She had studied literature, not merchandising, before embarking on her career. "I had always wanted to have a retail store and I loved to cook. But when I needed something special like a carbon steel cookie sheet, I couldn't get it. I saw a gap and projected myself into it."
Once the store became profitable, she considered expansion. For a variety of reasons it didn't happen and now she is happy. Progress is not La Cuisine's most important product.
"With a branch, you can do more volume," she said, "but it entails an awful lot of busy work and is really not productive in areas I'm interested in. I prefer research to sales and at this point would rather expand my chocolate selection than open a new store."