May 20, 2015

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Dear friends,

Akron will lose not just a grocery store when West Point Market closes at the end of the year, as store owners announced last week. Akron also will lose some national stature, a piece of history and much of its culinary zeitgeist

The influence of West Point Market on our local quality of life in the last 35 years cannot be overstated. The store and former owner Russ Vernon made Akron an unlikely culinary mecca in the 1980s and 1990s while improving the quality of food in both our homes and restaurants.

The revolution in American food in the 1980s was ingredient driven, and the Akron area had an armory of ammunition. The armory was West Point, an outpost of Nicoise olives, radicchio and goat cheese in a wilderness of Pop Tarts and Tang.

I began writing about food for the Beacon Journal in 1982, and gradually came to realize that no matter what trend crested the national horizon, Akron-area cooks could dive right in. The key was always West Point, a rare gem of a store that put in our hands cutting-edge comestibles that even big-city gourmands could only read about or eat in restaurants.

New Yorkers should be so lucky. Zabars? Ha! The famed New York shop couldn’t compare to our West Point, which developed a reputation as the best gourmet-foods store in the United States and earned a coveted Silver Spoon Award from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade for owner and visionary Vernon.

Two weeks before I left the Beacon Journal in 2006, an NBC-TV news producer called and asked to send a crew to interview me about how, in Akron, Ohio, I managed to become “the best food writer in the country.” I don’t know where she got that idea, but I was flattered. The interview fell through when the crew was shunted to a more important story but I  know what I would’ve have said: West Point Market.

Thanks to West Point I was able to write about goat cheese in 1985, shiitake mushrooms in 1986 and edible flowers in 1988, long before most of my colleagues at other newspapers had access to such ingredients.

The store led the specialty-foods industry in many areas including store design. A steady stream of gourmet-store officials from across the country and abroad trooped to Akron to tour the store and borrow ideas.

For example, a 1987 expansion that made West Point Market one of the largest (if not the largest) specialty foods stores in the U.S. at the time included innovative lighting to create the feel of a department store. Instead of the harsh fluorescent overhead lighting of traditional supermarkets, West Point’s new lighting was soft and subdued and directed at the products rather than the aisles.

“We’re lighting the food, not the people,” Vernon explained.

Vernon was the driving force behind the market’s success and continuing evolution. He was both the face and the heart of the business. When he officially retired in 2005, leaving the store in the hands of his middle son, Rick, and a new business partner, Larry Uhl, Vernon’s absence soon became apparent. Although neither the Vernons nor Uhl admitted business had declined, the store no longer bustled with shoppers when I visited. No one greeted customers enthusiastically by name.

The store’s apparent decline could be blamed on the mainstreaming of gourmet foods, many of which are stocked now in regular supermarkets. But years ago Russ Vernon saw the trend coming and formed a plan to focus on “extreme gourmet” foods and to step up the store’s already legendary service.

“We’ll tell you eight ways to use raspberry vinegar,” Vernon said in a 1994 interview. “This is what will assure us a place in the future. And only that.”

After recovering from a heart attack in 1997, Vernon began talking  about “stepping back” from day-to-day operations, although he still was calling the shots in 2003 when he again discussed the mainstreaming of gourmet and West Point’s response.

“It’s like being in front of a freight train,” Vernon said. “You don’t stop to bend over and tie your shoe.”

I bet if Russ had remained in charge, he would have laid new tracks.

TIDBITS

The first bite of Mussaman curry took me back two decades, to the makeshift dining room in what is now Frank’s Place across from Tangier in Akron. Back then, I thought Sunanta Fogle’s Thai cooking was the most exotic, delicious food I’d ever tasted. A meal last week at the new Lemongrass in Monroe Falls confirmed that long-ago verdict.

Sue Fogle is back and her Thai food is as fabulous as ever.

Fogle, chef/owner of the beloved Bangkok Gourmet restaurant in Akron for years, has returned from a 5-year sojourn in her native Thailand to care for a family member. She has taken a job as chef at Lemongrass Grill, a Thai restaurant that opened May 8 in Monroe Falls. The restaurant is owned by Ming Pung, eldest son of the family that owns Golden Dragon in Cuyahoga Falls.

Many of the menu items are Bangkok Gourmet favorites, including cashew chicken, dumpling snacks and all of the curries. Some of the names have been changed, so read the descriptions if there’s a special dish you’ve been craving.

Sue said she will remain at Lemongrass at least as long as it takes her to teach the kitchen staff her techniques and recipes. Let’s hope that takes a long, long time.

The restaurant is at 20 N. Main St., phone 234-706-6488. The website on Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/lemongrassgrillrestaurant/info?tab=overview .

MAILBAG

From Leslie P.:
I have an additional suggestion for the young lady turning 17 and interested in cooking. I think “Ruhlman’s Twenty: by Michael Ruhlman is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to understand what happens during the cooking process and respects ingredients and methodology.

Dear Leslie: Great suggestion. In the book, Ruhlman distills cooking down to 20 things – techniques, ingredients and attitudes – that govern the craft, and offers 100 recipes that illustrate them.
There are plenty of photographs, too.

From Rob:
Uh, about that herb grinder?  Pretty sure it is for one specific herb, which is now widely available in Colorado and Washington, and with a prescription in several other states.  Probably won’t work very well on coriander seeds. (The fact that it is “frequently bought together” with a digital scale on Amazon might have been a tip-off, but maybe Sherrie is just REALLY accurate when she measures out her spices.)

Dear Rob: Maybe I should have picked up on that – but then, I’m not used to thinking of Amazon as a head shop. Also, I don’t remember anyone grinding the stuff back in the day. Thanks for setting us – um – straight.
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