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A Life of Cheese: Say Formaggio Kitchen

By Elizabeth A. Gudrais, Crimson Staff Writer

It's Saturday afternoon at Formaggio Kitchen, and David Welch has set up his grill on the sidewalk in front of the West Cambridge gourmet grocery store. The shop's produce buyer chats with customers, greeting each one by name as he serves up rack after rack of his barbecued pork ribs marinated in special sauce.

"That smells delicious!" a passersby tells him--and indeed, the fragrant smoke seems to be beckoning customers from all directions.

The sidewalk in front of the little store takes on the feel of a block party, as lines of customers waiting for their ribs catch up on each other's lives. While children munch on Halloween-themed cookies from the bakery inside, Welch plays party host, introducing those who don't yet know each other.

The gregarious atmosphere has quieted down by Monday morning, though the store is still catering to the customers who trickle in and out.

Owner Ihsan Gurdal is frantically juggling phone calls while maintaining his hearty congeniality.

A truck driver calls from the Mass. Pike, asking for directions to the store. He's on his way to drop off 300 cases of cheese.

Then a photographer from Bon Appetit calls from Logan Airport, saying he'll be there soon to photograph the store for the January issue.

A group of women visiting from Montral arrive for a tour. The store is a stop on their culinary guild's tour of the area.

The store has garnered write-ups in the Boston Globe, The New Yorker, and food magazines and newspaper food sections nationwide.

The source of the hubbub is, by and large, an 8' x 10' stone-walled room in the store's basement: Gurdal's cheese cave.

The cave's environment is optimal for the aging of cheese, and at roughly 50 degrees and 98 percent humidity, occurs naturally in many European basement locales. But to recreate that in Cambridge is rather difficult.

Gurdal developed his passion for cheese under a French wine-and-cheese connoisseur in California.

"I was just so fascinated by the tastes and flavors and looks of it," he says.

So when he moved to the East Coast in 1982 and saw Formaggio Kitchen, it was a perfect fit.

He worked his way up from clerk to cheese buyer to his current post of co-owner over the course of 10 years, all the while toying with the idea of the cheese cave.

In 1996, he made it a reality.

At the time, he says, it was unique in the United States, though copies have since cropped up.

Still, this room remains the chief source of cheese for virtually every restaurant in Boston, as well as restaurants all over the country, particularly in New York and San Francisco. In addition, the store has just begun a burgeoning mail-order business.

It's clear that Gurdal knows his stuff, and that the cheese cave is his baby--"a labor of love," as he is fond of calling it.

As part of his presentation to the Montral culinary guild, Gurdal explains the considerations that go into cheese aging.

For example, certain cheeses naturally have cheese mites on their rinds. Those cheeses must be stored on the lowest shelves, or the mites will jump onto the mite-free cheeses.

Gurdal and his staff tend the cheeses, brushing mites off weekly, cleaning the wheels as needed, tasting them if they are nearing their prime.

At any given time, the store carries between 300 and 400 varieties.

Gurdal's staff traverses the globe hunting down new finds for its customers. The store's cheeses come from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, England and Ireland.

"The cheeses I find are farmhouse cheeses, where the farmer knows every cow's name," says Gurdal.

In his tour for the Montral women, Gurdal details the story behind the bleu de Termignon.

It comes from a 91-year-old French woman who lives in the mountains and owns nine cows. The woman has been making the cheese all her life, but uses only the summer milk of her cows.

A wheel of Comt Badoz was made and aged in a German bunker left over from World War II. After the war, a French war veteran bought the tunnel from the French government and holed up in it, finding the atmosphere perfect for making cheese.

"I find that the personality of the farmer trickles down to the product," Gurdal says.

Though the cheese cave sets Gurdal's store apart, the rest of the products have just as much personality.

There's Nutella and Carr's Table Water crackers--staples of the 'gourmet' section of even Star Market, but there is also Fleur de Sel sea salt from Brittany (billed as "the caviar of salt"), licorice candies from Genoa, jams and jellies from all over Europe, many varieties of olives imported from the Mediterranean region...the list, of course, goes on.

Gurdal calls the store's stock "a huge mishmash of flavors, quality, textures."

"A little bit of the best of everything from Europe," is how clerk Karen Halperin sums it up.

The defining feature is quality.

"We always try to find nice things and people who make things traditionally," says clerk Jason Bond.

"There's nothing here they haven't sampled," Halperin says of the store's owners. "They don't buy things because they read about them."

The store also takes pride in its homemade products--the cinnamon bread made twice a week by the in-house baker, or the soups, lamb and crme caramel created by the in-house chef.

And Gurdal assembles his staff from variety of backgrounds--employees hail from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Brazil, Kansas and Atlanta, among other places. Many have either been to culinary school or have experience in the food business.

Clearly the store has found success. Over its 21 years it has expanded to occupy three storefronts, a store size almost unheard of for a mom & pop in metro Boston. Cheeses and meats occupy one room; the bakery and most of the store's canned, bottled and boxed goods the center room; vegetables, fruits and flowers the third.

Though the store's wares are sophisticated, employees strive to make them accessible to everyone, making shopping at the store an educational experience that will expand customers' culinary horizons.

Though he has the knowledge and the product base to begin with, it's Gurdal's excitement that allows him to pull it off.

When it comes to food, "I'm like a child," he admits--if a new cheese comes into the store, he says his instinctive reaction is to run around and show it to everyone.

When Gurdal speaks of a kind of yogurt he tried for the first time on the Greek island of Chios, where he recently traveled for a food industry conference, he makes it sound like a transcendental experience.

"It was the most amazing yogurt I have ever tasted in my life," he says rapturously.

And in the 20 seasons he coached Harvard volleyball, he would bring his team to the store the night before the Ivy tournament and give them a seminar on cheese.

Passing along excitement about good food is the heart of Formaggio Kitchen--and on Saturday afternoon it shows.

Richard F. Meyer '54, a professor at Harvard Business School, says he shops at the store roughly four times a week. Today he is picking up meats and cheeses--including his favorite, prosciutto de Parma, a spiced ham from Parma, Italy--for a breakfast tomorrow morning with friends in town for the Princeton football game.

"Hi, Karen," he greets Halperin, who is at the deli counter today.

"Hello, Mr. Meyer. Do you need prosciutto de Parma?" she asks with a knowing look.

"Actually, yes," Meyer answers, smiling at her recognition of his indulgence.

Two teenage girls lean eagerly over the bakery counter toward clerk Luis Henrique, a native Brazilian who came to Cambridge to try to get a graduate degree in psychology at Harvard.

"So we meet again!" one of the girls chirps sweetly, focusing more on Henrique's blue eyes than on the half-pound of gummy bears he is rationing out for her.

Jay and Jennifer Bodnar, stopping in en route to Vermont, quibble in front of the bakery window before finally settling on a key lime pie--Jay's choice--after some good-natured argument.

"That's what I call love," Henrique tells Jennifer with a smile. He's never seen the couple before.

"I know, I'm making sacrifices all the time!" Jennifer says, bantering back. She decides to add ten Halloween cookies to her pie purchase--"The kids can eat them in the car."

You have to wonder how they do it. The store is an oasis of instant family in the midst of a city reputed for its lack of warmth.

Outside, Welch is still grilling up his specialty.

"What's cooking?" asks a man exiting the store with a jumbo Formaggio Kitchen bag on each arm.

"Oh God, it smells so good!" another exclaims.

At 6:15, it's closing time, and the store is quiet, doors locked behind the last departing customer. But car after car pulls up, producing customer after disappointed customer. And Welch is still cranking out his ribs.

"How did I miss this all summer?" a man exclaims in disbelief, ordering half a rack from Welch. His passengers are displeased to find the store closed, but as long as he has his Formaggio Kitchen ribs, he's happy.

Formaggio Kitchen is located at 244 Huron Ave., off Sparks Street and Concord Avenue.

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