Imagine an America without buffalo mozzarella, Parma ham or silky camembert. The year was 1977, and Steve Jenkins had not yet embarked on his food-procuring journey through Europe. “There was no cheese in New York that was worthy of anyone’s table.” Steve changed all that.
As a young man, Steve’s primary motivation was his fear of failing in New York and having to return to his hometown in Missouri. He was a classically trained actor and couldn’t find work. Then came Dean & Deluca, the revolutionary fancy food store. Steve was their first hire when they opened in SoHo in 1977. “They realized I was hungry and sharp and would work my ass off for little money.”
At Dean & Deluca, “the lights went on” for Steve. He met people who had travelled the world and eaten its luscious bounties. But the upscale store had no chicken liver pâté, no Parmigiana Reggiano. He thought, “What the hell, here we are this cool food shop and we don’t have any of these things that make a food shop great.” Steve made up his mind to change that.
By 1978, he had scraped together enough cash to buy himself a ticket on an Icelandic Airlines flight to France. Steve manically studied food books and maps, hungry for information. He rented a car and drove to villages big and small, in search of cheese and stories. Steve wanted to know every detail. Why did they use a certain kind of milk? Who were the people who made the cheese? How did it fit into their history, their cuisine, and their lives?
It was a lot of “grunt work,” but Steve couldn’t be happier. He had never done anything that took so much effort and dedication—college was more about partying and having a good time. “But when I got involved in food and maps and France it was so much fun that I mastered it.” Steve was serious about his mastery. He set out to be the world’s authority on cheese. And not just cheese, but all food.
After France came Italy. “Being in Italy was a life-changing experience, I couldn’t sleep all night…I was having more fun that you could possibly imagine, usually all by myself.” Steve “looted Italy of all the cheeses in Piedmont and worked my way south.” He smuggled home parmesan, fontina, pecorino, tallegio and mascarpone to a country that had never experienced the real, Italian versions of these great cheeses.
In our food-frenzied world, it is hard to remember that only a few decades ago, “nobody gave cheeses any respect,” or even any thought. It was “dumb luck,” Steve insists. “There was no competition, I wasn’t racing anyone. It was a wide open field. I stole everything I’ve ever done.”
He learned from the masters. He got up at 4 a.m. to study French cheesemongers set up their shops, watched them talk to customers, and stuck around to see how they closed at night. Steve discovered that people trusted their countermen “to figure out what would grace their table that night.” He decided that selling food was an incredibly “noble endeavor.”
Steve embraced and perfected the “peasant virtue of being a counterman.” At Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, where Steve found a home behind the cheese counter, he was “a servant” to his neighborhood—bringing the best cheeses in the world to the foodies, celebrities, and families who came to depend on him. He did everything the best he could, focusing on the smallest details, cleaning the countertops until they shone. He took immense pride in his work. In turn, his work brought him great satisfaction.
Steve is now a partner in Fairway. He maintains it’s the best market in the world. They care deeply about food, and there is always someone behind the counter who will talk to you knowledgably and thoughtfully about what to cook for dinner.
In 1996, he published The Cheese Primer, and in 2008, The Food Life. After becoming perhaps the world’s authority on cheese, Steve moved on to olive oil. “I know more about olive oil and have done more with it than anyone in creation.” Such a statement might sound arrogant if it wasn’t true. Food-loving New Yorkers know that Fairway is a temple to great olive oil.
Steve has never followed a trend or a fad. “There are no new recipes.” It’s the classics that are important. “Until you’ve mastered the old stuff, you have no business creating anything.” His advice is to learn everything you can, read what you can get your hand on, do your homework. “Put your head down,” and do what you’re doing the very best that it can be done.
There is “no replacement for giving yourself up to something and getting humble. I was so stoned, I felt such joy, I didn’t even think about money or success. I just wanted to learn everything.” Thanks, Steve, for learning. Thanks for bring us chévre and crotin and comté. The world is a better place because of it.