Pantry to the Stars

Spanish cheese as a talent-retention tool?

Great Ciao, Inc.
1201 Dupont Ave. N., Minneapolis

There are chef trading cards in our monthly magazines. Trading cards! When did this happen? Yes, I've said before that the Twin Cities are suddenly in a golden age of dining, with the number of places you can get a well articulated, perhaps even dazzling, meal increasing by, what--a factor of ten? Still, though, trading cards?

There are a lot of advantages to living in the Twin Cities, in our wealthy urban prairie town of nearly three million souls who all purport to know one another on a first-name basis. One of those advantages is that, with a little digging, you can find out how and why your world is changing, and how those changes affect everything from appetizers to brain drain. And so, I present to you: a little digging. Or rather, the first in a series that will look at the remarkable set of factors that have created our newish and bona fide restaurant scene, factors too complicated to fit on the back of a trading card, but too illuminating to ignore.

Great Ciao's Scott Pikovsky: Big cheese in the culinary community
Michael Dvorak
Great Ciao's Scott Pikovsky: Big cheese in the culinary community

Let's start with...Garrotxa? It's everywhere. Why? Pronounced gar-ROACH-uh, this firm, nutty, sweetly herbal Spanish goat's-milk cheese from Catalonia is now featured on a dozen menus between the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers--what the heck? Also bafflingly popular: membrillo (quince paste), pimentón (paprika smoked over oak wood that has been cured with tobacco), and fig molasses. Why those things? Why here? Why now?

Because of Scott Pikovsky, that's why. Back in 1995, Pikovsky started a company called Great Ciao (get it?) to import and distribute high-quality foodstuffs. He has subsequently made a name for himself internationally as a quality fanatic who will pay top dollar for super-premium product. "Scott has changed the dining scene in this city more than anyone in the last five years," confirms Doug Flicker, chef at Auriga.

How? It's the ingredients, silly: dozens of olive oils, from single-estate to good and cheap; dozens of the rarest and most costly vinegars; slices of oil-cured, smoked tuna; a dozen varieties of sea salt (from Hawaii, Sicily, you name it); rare nut oils like Austrian toasted pumpkinseed or African argon oil; French truffle butters; different kinds of bottarga (dried fish-roe cakes); a hundred rare cheeses; salamis; pastas; 600-day-old prosciutto; olives of every description--including some from trees nearly extinct; various by-products of European winemaking, including "Noble Sour," a vinegar made from Pedro Ximenez grapes, the kind used for sherry.

If you've had a meal in Minneapolis or St. Paul in the past three years and paid more than $20 for it, you've doubtless had Great Ciao ingredients. Pikovsky started the company in his house in Excelsior, but moved into his own warehouse space last winter. The place is simply the ne plus ultra for chef spotting; it seems like every name chef in town stops by to taste, test, and poke whatever's new in the warehouse, sampling fancy oils and vinegars from throwaway plastic spoons.

Is that Tanya Siebenaler, chef at Sapor Cafe and Bar, stuffing yard-long dried sausages into her bicycle's saddlebags? Yup. Is that Joan Ida, pastry chef at Goodfellow's, eyeing boxes of French vanilla in glucose? Yes. Is that Vincent Francoual, chef at Vincent, throwing a few wheels of Epoisses, a runny cow's-milk cheese with a wine-washed rind, into his bag for a motorcycle sprint across town? Indeed.

For me, walking through the warehouse aisles at Great Ciao is very disorienting, because I feel like I am in all the restaurants seeing all the dishes, all at once. Here are the fat little quills of handmade Italian pasta I loved on Steven Brown's last menu at Rock Star; here are the white anchovies that are dressed up with capers and lemon zest and served at Coco Cha Cha as an appetizer (also available in a retail package at Turtle Bread); here's the thyme-blossom French honey that glazes roast chicken at Café Barbette (also available at the St. Paul Whole Foods); and didn't I have that fig molasses drizzled on melon at Auriga? Yikes. I could do this all day.

This north Minneapolis warehouse is the art-supply store for our best chefs, the spot that makes much of the difference between what they can cook, and what you can cook. You simply don't have access to the ingredients that they do (unless you shop at Turtle Bread in Linden Hills, the two Whole Foodses, the cheese shop at France 44, or St. Paul's Buon Giorno, as those are the local gourmet stores that carry the most Great Ciao products.)

"For the longest time in the Twin Cities, chefs had to source those things themselves, out of California or New York," says Alexander Dixon, of Zander Café. "Most of the Midwest purveyors like SYSCO don't understand anything except institutional cooking, and for us to do things that are a little more diverse than cafeteria foods, we needed these more diverse ingredients. Scott took it to the next level. It was really refreshing, after cooking in the Twin Cities for 20 years, to have someone bring me something I can use that I've never heard of."

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