You wouldn’t buy a car without asking the dealer a lot of questions, and you’d never get fitted for a new suit without asking the tailor more than just “Can I get this in gray?” Whether you’re buying a computer or visiting the doctor, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. And yet, when we shop for our food—you know, the stuff we put inside our body—we become like the cliché male driver who won’t ask for directions.
When was the last time you spoke to the guys stocking your local shop? All too often we walk in blindly and exit with a bagful of best guesses.You have experts at your disposal, experts who want to help you, so don’t ignore them. Get these three wise men on your side and start reaping the benefits today.
Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder in Chicago
When you buy meat from Rob Levitt, the co-owner and head butcher at Chicago’s The Butcher & Larder, he doesn’t need to know what cut or grade you want. He would rather hear what you’re planning to do with it. “If you come in and say, ‘I’m having 16 people over, and I want to do steak tacos,’ ” he says, “or ‘I want to make carnitas and it’s a romantic dinner for two,’ we can steer you in the right direction.”
Like most butchers, Levitt doesn’t expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of meat. “If you’ve never heard of a sirloin flap, I’m OK with that,” he says. “You don’t have to know what you’re talking about. That’s what I’m here for.” Levitt is especially enthusiastic about working with customers buying on a budget. “I don’t judge,” he says. “I’m on a budget, too. If you come in and say, ‘I’m doing a roast. I have 10 people coming over, and I don’t have a lot to spend,’ I can recommend a lot of different things on the lower end of the price scale. For example, buying a chuck eye instead of a rib eye doesn’t mean you’re slumming it. You’re just getting a different cut of fantastic meat.”
Levitt’s Guide to Buying Better Meat:
-All butcher meat is fresh, even if it’s a few weeks old. A 14-day-old steak at a butcher shop is going to be much fresher than any steak at a grocery store, even if you buy it a week after we cut it.
-If you’re buying chicken that’s packaged with an ingredients list, you’re buying the wrong chicken. The only ingredient should be “chicken.”
-Prime rib is just a grade, and you have to pay the USDA for that grading. Not all farmers do that, and I’m OK with that. When people ask for prime rib, what they really want is a rib eye steak. It’s still prime rib, we just don’t call it that.
-At a restaurant, if you ask where the meat is from, and they say, “Our commissary in Idaho,” that’s not enough information. They should know the cow’s name.
-The ugliest cuts are usually the tastiest. There’s a cut called the arm roast, and when we pull it off, it’s got tendons and it’s all nasty looking. But put it in a slow cooker for five hours, and you’ve got the most delicious meat you’ve ever tasted.
Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco
A bakery may not seem like an intimidating place, but it can be. “If Americans can’t pronounce it, they’re probably not going to buy it,” says Chad Robertson, the master baker and co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Take something like kouign amann, a delicious Belgian butter pastry, for example. “There’s no English word for it,” Robertson says. “So people are usually too embarrassed to order it.” Robertson is happy to bridge that gap and explain what the pastry is and even how to pronounce it. But at a bakery as popular as Tartine, you need to make the first move.
Talking with your baker can be especially valuable if you’re trying to stay healthy. Robertson has lots of advice, from being wary of baked goods made with multigrain or wheat grain (“It could still be packed with sugar and butter”) to understanding that gluten-free “doesn’t always mean healthy. There are also gluten-free Oreos and gluten- free Cheetos.” If you’re counting your calories, Robertson suggests trying out a meringue cookie, made from whipped egg whites.
-Stick with places that bake in real time instead of a few big batches. If you walk into a bakery and the oven’s not on, turn around and walk out.
-Just as you look for certain fruits at specific times of year, fruit pastries and pies are seasonal, too. If you like apple or pear pies, wait until fall.
-If a bakery’s pastries are individually wrapped in plastic, they’re not fresh or weren’t made in-house (or worse, bought at a big-box store).
-Look for bakeries with long lines—not just because they’re popular, but because more customers means fresher food. If they’re constantly selling out, that means they’re constantly baking.
The Produce Manager
Vito Latilla, co-owner of Manhattan Fruit Exchange in New York City
It doesn’t take much to get Vito Latilla, one of the three brothers who run the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in New York, to start spilling secrets. He can tell you how to pick out a persimmon (they’re at their sweetest “when they look like they’re ready for the garbage”), iceberg lettuce (“it should be heavy and tight, like a baseball”), or broccoli (“the buds on top have to be closed really tight”). He’s also not shy about explaining how some produce grocers try to trick their customers: “If you see a head of escarole with a couple of leaves missing, it means it was going bad and they tried to clean it up and make it look presentable.”
Be a Produce Pro:
-Tomatoes sold out of season are usually treated with a gas called ethylene, which helps them get that red, ripe appearance. Opt for tomatoes on the vine.
-Smelling produce for freshness is a myth. Most grocery stores keep fruit and vegetables chilled; unless it’s obviously rotting, it won’t have a distinct odor.
-Don’t go and bite into an apple, but strawberries and blueberries should be sampled. If your grocer complains, take your business elsewhere.
-Avoid produce from South America. It’s traveled too far. The peaches may look and smell like peaches, but they sure don’t taste like peaches.