Big Apple bites

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

FOOD BUSINESS:Gourmet store Dean & Deluca attracts all sorts of customers, from movie stars to native New Yorkers – and two Irish women play a key role in selecting the fare, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

IT’S PROBABLY ONE of the best celebrity-spotting corners in New York. Under an old-fashioned awning, a modest shop frontage conceals a deep and high shop with white wooden ceiling fans slowly spinning over the thronged aisles. On any given day, sleek black cars pull up outside, the chauffeurs waiting while their passengers browse the shelves. Already this morning RB star Usher has caused a flutter among the staff in chefs’ whites. Actor Sarah Jessica Parker is known to drop in, looking reassuringly undergroomed as she shops.

I’m at 560 Broadway, in New York’s Soho district, at the headquarters of global gourmet food shop Dean Deluca, which began as a small cheese and food outlet in the 1970s. Under its roof, Dean Deluca sells an eclectic mixture of farmers’ market fare, exotic fruits, cheeses and meats.

It all looks delicious, and much of it is eye-wateringly expensive. A place on one of the steel shelves or in one of the fridges here can pitch a small producer into the big-time. Like a publisher receiving manuscripts every week, hopeful producers tap on the window by sending their food to the merchants’ department. Among the staff there, two Irish women, Diane Stopford and Lisa Cagney, open the boxes or the zip-lock bags, taste whatever looks promising, and try to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Dubliner Stopford is a buyer, travelling the world to source ingredients, and assessing what comes into the office unsolicited. Her right-hand woman, Mayo marketing graduate Cagney, came to the US after working with Gordon Ramsay’s company in London.

Stopford started her career in food at the age of 15 when she worked with Derry Clarke in his Dublin restaurant L’Ecrivain during her summer holidays. After graduating from the Dublin Institute of Technology’s culinary arts degree eight years ago, she headed to California on a J1 visa. A job in a San Diego holiday resort led to sponsorship from a progressive restaurant chain. Then a TV producer who came into the restaurant talked her into launching a food and cooking website.

Three years ago, she became a Dean Deluca buyer (or merchant as they’re called) on the west coast and then came to New York as an executive chef. Last year she became a merchant for the New York store.

It’s a dream job for a young Irish chef. Last year she flew to Korea twice and oversaw the setting-up of a Dean Deluca branch in Tokyo. Last November, she travelled to Vienna sourcing products and the month before that it was Lima in Peru. Next month, she’ll be coming to Ireland.

“I make huge shopping lists for the stores, just like anyone makes a shopping list,” she explains. Except this is the mother of all lists that sometimes involves a surreal cross-cultural experience.

“I was teaching seven Korean chefs how to make barbecue sauce, and thought: here I am, a girl from Dublin teaching Korean chefs how to make a totally American dish.”

Lisa Cagney is the daughter of a coffee-shop owner from Castlebar. She saw first-hand the hard work involved in her mother’s food business, The Hot Cup. She knew she wanted to work in food but decided to go in through a marketing route. She got a Green Card in a lottery and moved from London to New York.

In her role as administrator in the merchants’ office, it’s her job to open the boxes of unsolicited food. “We get between 10 and 50 a week. Some of them come in with no information, just a zip-lock bag with food in it. People will make something and their friends will tell them, ‘you should be in Dean Deluca’.” The truth is there is more to it than that.

A television item on Irish food for St Patrick’s Day last year led to a new producer getting a coveted slot on the shelves. Stopford passed a sample of Birgitta Curtin’s Burren Smokehouse smoked salmon to another buyer and it fitted with what they wanted. It was also perfect for the large hamper business. Burren Smokehouse salmon joined Kerrygold butter and a range of farmhouse cheeses including Gubeen, Ardrahan and Cashel Blue on the shelves. The shop stocks Kilbeggan Porridge Oats, and Ballymaloe relishes, too.

As a buyer for a gourmet food store, she is not in the Tayto-Denny-Barry’s Tea school of Irish food. What appeals to foodie New Yorkers is not the nostalgic taste of the old sod but a quality product that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best. Concerns about what people are eating and where it comes from is all good news for Irish food producers hoping to break into the US market. Stopford would love to see a co-op of farmers coming together to develop a facility that could get US department of agriculture approval for bacon, puddings and sausages. It would be expensive, she says, but it could open up the market for meat products.

It strikes me that these two are a happy side of the emigration story. “I left in 2003 when everything was booming and no one was leaving,” Stopford says. Two months ago, she too got a green card – a process which meant she had to prove “extraordinary ability in my field”.

In a city where few people cook but people love to eat, it’s easy to see the appeal of the store. “I see people come in for coffee and a bagel in the morning,” Stopford says, “then they have a snack at 11, lunchtime for soup when we have lines out the door, and back for their dinner.” Food heaven. New York style.

See deananddeluca.com