Sur La Table: Inspiring Sustainable Cooking at Home

Sur La Table, which in French means “On the Table,” was founded in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the United States) in 1972 to offer hard-to-find kitchenware imported from France. From these humble roots, the company has expanded to 74 stores nationwide, with over 20 stores offering in-store culinary programs, which the company began offering in 1996.

The Original Sur La Table

The Original Sur La Table

Recently, I met Carol Blonder after she commented on the “Dear Julia Child, We Need You!” post on the Every Kitchen Table (EKT) blog. Carol is the Culinary Coordinator at Sur La Table’s Keirland Commons, Scottsdale AZ store. Carol’s Culinary Program is the first for Sur La Table to form a relationship with a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, so I contacted Carol to learn more about this innovative program and how Sur La Table is helping to put Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™.

EKT:  At Every Kitchen Table, we believe that building a thriving, rapidly growing sustainable food system requires getting people back in their kitchens where they can live great food experiences that fully engage their senses. What do you think will help get more people cooking at home again?

Carol:  I think motivation to cook at home comes from many sources. People need to overcome their fears and feelings of inadequacy in the kitchen. The best way to do that is to start to cook.  Learning to shop for groceries, learning simple knife techniques, and taking a few classes is a good start and can change people’s feelings about cooking at home. So many chefs say that having the right tools and using the highest quality ingredients available is the key to great dishes. This is something anyone can create in their home and make part of their repertoire.

I also think the current economic atmosphere and concerns over our health and the health of the food supply are other motivations to cook and eat at home.

People need to recognize that feeding ourselves can be an act of nurturing families, our friends and ourselves. Being mindful of shopping for food, cooking and the act of eating is not something we think about when we are eating in restaurants or picking up packaged prepared foods, so it is great to see people come to class, learn new techniques or recipe ideas, and engage in cooking in a new way.

Finally, we need to include children as much as possible since they are also interested in cooking, often because they watch the food shows and want to learn to cook. At a recent Mom & Me class, the kids thought it was so cool to make their own marinara sauce and pica de gallo, and the moms were impressed that these simple sauces could be made fresh at home.

EKT:  You mentioned helping someone “learn to shop for groceries.” What’s involved in that?

Carol:  During the introduction to each class we review the recipe packet for the class. We cover ingredient information, which is a perfect segue to a conversation about how we shop for food. There are usually questions about organic versus conventional approaches, especially regarding produce and poultry. In addition, customers want information about where to find specific ethnic products (e.g., Asian markets, Italian imports). Customers are paying attention to the news about our food supply, and most are interested in making healthy choices.

EKT:  What’s Sur La Table’s vision for its culinary program?

Carol:  The culinary program was part of the first Sur La Table store, near Pike’s Place Market, in Seattle Washington and is viewed as a key component in Sur La Table’s vision to “be the premier retailer for creative cooking and artful entertaining.” The culinary program offers customers the opportunity to learn cooking techniques, from the basics to advanced methods in a variety of demonstration and hands on class experiences. Customers also have the opportunity to try out culinary tools and equipment in the classroom that will enhance their cooking experiences at home.

SLT Web: “Sur La Table’s cooking class program started in 1996. Today it is one of the largest nationwide, avocational cooking class programs in America. Most classes are hands-on and focus on seasonal cuisine and technique-oriented courses; skill levels range from beginner to advanced, with special courses devoted just to kids and teens. Private cooking lessons are available in all programs.”

EKT:  Can you describe the facilities used in your culinary program, as well as how those facilities link to the kitchen tools and equipment offered in the store?

Carol:  Our kitchens are fully equipped, and we have a comprehensive range of tools and equipment to use in our classes, everything from a wooden spoon to a top of the line espresso maker. Everything we use is offered for sale in the store.

We work with the customer individually, make recommendations and offer a personalized shopping service built around a specific customer’s needs. We have products that speak to the needs of the beginner and products that would be of interest to the aficionado.

For example, in our knife skills class, we teach customers about knife construction, how to choose a knife, knife care, sharpening, and different types of knives and their usage. This is in addition to the basic knife cuts they are taught and practiced in class. We sell a variety of knives at multiple price points and give customers the opportunity to try different brands in class, which helps them determine which knives they need for their home. One customer may choose the basics: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a honing tool, another customer may come in having read about a specific knife brand and construction and buy a whole set and an electric sharpening.

EKT:  Are the kitchens used for the culinary program located in stores?

Carol:  The Culinary Kitchen’s are located inside the store. The Culinary program utilizes the kitchen for classes, as seen on our monthly calendars. We also book private event cooking classes, which can be hands on or demonstration, team building events for business groups, and private cooking lessons for parties of one to four people.  Business groups and individuals book the private cooking events for bridal showers, birthday parties and team building events as well as a way to get together. We have 16 spots for hands on classes. Demonstration classes can accommodate up to 32 customers. The facilities can also be rented.

EKT:  What drove the Scottsdale store’s decision to collaborate with a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm?

Carol:  Lori Hunter, our store manager, believes in building relationships in the local community. Part of the Sur La Table mission is to give back to the communities where we live and work. Lori saw involvement with a CSA farm as way to be involved in the local food movement, support the community, and bring people to the store are interested in what we do.

Lori and I were aware that one of the challenges for CSA subscribers is what to do with produce that arrives weekly during a season [see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough]. As a retailer focused on cooking and entertaining, with a culinary program, we can provide that information through our knowledgeable staff and by offering classes that focus on use of local seasonal ingredients.

EKT:  Did someone have a relationship with Desert Roots Farm? Have there been any surprises?

Carol:  Research was done to determine a good fit for the CSA program. We knew of Desert Roots but did not have a previous relationship. There have not been any surprises, working with our CSA farm, Desert Roots Farm, has been smooth. Kelly Saxer, Desert Roots farmer, has been doing this a long time, and has her program down to a system.

EKT:  Is the CSA concept something Sur La Table is considering in its other stores?

Carol:  We are the pilot for this partnership, and I believe this is something other store managers and Culinary Coordinators would like to put into place.

EKT:  Is Sur La Table partnering with food or related companies to support its culinary courses?

Carol:  The relationships with food retailers changes during the calendar year, depending on customer demands and suppliers. We have had for example a relationship with Academia Barilla, featuring their products and offering a series of classes from their recipe library on regional Italian cooking. Sur La Table also had a successful culinary tour to Italy and Academia Barilla’s culinary school last fall, with another trip planned. Another current example is a relationship with Guittard Chocolates, whose products are featured in our classes.

EKT:  What kitchen tools & equipment would you recommend for an aspiring home cook?

Carol:  Here is a list of Basic Kitchen Essentials:

  • Knives:  Chef’s Knife, Paring Knife, Serrated Knife, Kitchen Shear, Knife Block or Guards, Sharpening Steel, Cutting Board, Cheese Knife
  • Tools: Measuring Spoons and Cups, Whisks, Spatulas-variety including a fish spatula and grill spatula, Spoons (wooden and metal) with Long Handles, Tongs, Colander and Strainer, Instant Read Thermometer, Peeler, Mixing Bowls-various sizes, Grater and Rasp, Ladles, Juicer, Can Opener, Pastry Brush, Bench Scraper, Sheet pans (rimmed) and silpat mats or parchment paper,  Baking Sheets, Pepper mill,
  • Small Appliances: Blender, Food Processor, Hand Mixer, Immersion Blender, Toaster, Coffemaker, Electric Grinder for spices, Stand Mixer
  • Cookware: Saucepans-variety of sizes, Saute or Saucier pan, Roasting pan, Skillet, Dutch Oven, Stockpots, Baking Dishes, Steamer Basket, Cast Iron grill pan
  • A cookbook that focuses on cooking technique

For more information on these and other products, please visit Sur La Table.

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11 responses to “Sur La Table: Inspiring Sustainable Cooking at Home

  1. Thanks for an excellent interview. I had no idea that Sur La Table was as focused on ingredients and methods as it is on products. Bravo! I especially like the points Carol makes about involving the kids – so very true.

  2. Pingback: Sur La Table: Inspiring Sustainable Cooking at Home « Every … | OurBrownies.com

  3. what a great interview and really inspiring program!! keep up the great work – all around!

  4. Very exciting! I love Sur La Table — now I can love them even more.

    Thanks, Rob, for posting this and thanks for participating in Real Food Wednesday!

  5. localnourishment

    I’ve worked really hard to learn to cook. I left my mother’s home with a knowledge of how to bring water to a boil and nothing more. I find I am injured (to the point of needing medical intervention) in the kitchen very frequently, and I suspect it is lack of knowledge of how to handle implements. It is wonderful that there are these options available!

  6. Makes me glad, and feel fortunate, to have grown up in a family that cooked. I have friends who never learned. One made a cake, from a mix, the other year and that was a radical thing for her. Unfortunately her kids didn’t have the role model of cooking either so they didn’t learn either. The art dies without exercise.

  7. Pingback: CHEESESLAVE | Real Food Wednesday: May 20, 2009

  8. I’m so thankful that I spent time in the kitchen with my mom growing up. We didn’t eat the most nutritious foods, but at least we at a steady stream of home-cooked meals.

    Thanks for sharing this in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival. I joined Cheeseslave in stumbling this post.

    Cheers,
    KristenM
    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  9. Pingback: 5 Simple Tools For The Gourmet Home Chef | Personal Chef Atlanta

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