Inside the Mind (and Pantry) of Kitty Keller
We sat down to a casual* lunch with Kitty Keller—importer, founder of KL Keller Foodways and friend of Market Hall Foods. As she wraps up the transition of her business to Manicaretti, Kitty reflects (in her typical sharp, pithy way) on her decades-long career, if she’ll ever truly retire and why you should be making your own pesto.
*Author’s note: casual at Kitty’s house means prosciutto-wrapped melon, fresh chèvre dusted with crushed myrtle leaves and a bottle of Spanish cava on ice, naturally.
How does a producer or a product make the Kitty cut?
I would attend food shows with Linda Sikorski (the former Senior Grocery Buyer for MH Foods), and she would ask me what I thought about a product. I’d respond by telling her, Let’s see if we’re still thinking about it in the morning. So, whatever I woke up the next day thinking about, and wanting to use in my kitchen and make dinner with—that’s how they made the cut. Linda has a great palate and a great taste memory. We’d try a Pedro Ximénez sherry vinegar and I’d say, That was pretty good. And she would say, The one we tasted three years ago was better. And darn, she was right!
Which product or producer discovery are you most proud of?
The vinegar of Banyuls from La Cave de L'Abbé Rous. It’s better known in the U.S. than it is in France. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the vinegar used in the house dressing at Chez Panisse. One night in the mid-90's, the folks at Chez Panisse called me, saying they needed more. But I was completely out of stock. They told me it was on the menu for that night—in a reduction for guinea fowl. I told them, I have a half open bottle at home. Can I run it over to you? And then I asked all my friends who had any unopened bottles. I collected them all and ran it over to Chez Panisse for dinner service that night.
Kitty Keller with René Quintane, then Head of Cellar at Banyuls, 2001
Sounds like there was no way Chez Panisse was going to skip it or even try to replicate it.
Well, it’s tough to replicate. It’s got notes of beeswax and tobacco—where else are you going to find that?
Have you ever been surprised by how customers use these products in their cooking?
I think using the Yandilla Mustard Seed Oil as a dressing for poke was a creative use. I also love it mixed with mayonnaise and used as a dipping sauce or to spread on a pastrami sandwich. Once, while I was doing a demo at Market Hall Foods on 4th St, a customer bought three bottles of it. I asked her, What are you planning to do with it all? She told me she frys trout in it. I thought that was a great idea!
What is your best-kept pantry secret ingredient?
Fleur de Sel (from Gilles Hervy). In the fall, I have really great apple trees and Market Hall makes a fabulous pie shell, so I make a tarte tatin and add a little Fleur de Sel in there. The secret behind the combination of salty and sweet, is that chemically, the salt speeds the sweet taste to your brain. It’s also pretty fun in mashed potatoes, because you take a bite and go, Wow, what was that masked bandit?!
What is one common U.S. food habit you'd like to replace?
Industrially made food. The manufacturer has to go to great lengths in order to get the product stable enough for travel and then to be able to sit on the shelves. The end product is never fresh and never tastes as good as it should.
Like pre-cut carrots?
No, like pesto sauce! And pre-cut carrots.
Now that people are meeting again and entertaining, tell us your favorite tips for hosting food-loving friends.
Pick a meal you can prepare in advance to make it easy. I’m going to be having friends over for an al fresco Moroccan dinner. I’m going to make zaalouk, which is like a Moroccan ratatouille, with eggplant, tomatoes, onions, zucchini and harissa in advance. I’ll make semolina bread the day before. So the only thing left to do is little Moroccan meatballs to stick on the barbie while everyone is gathered around.
What's next for you? Any big plans for retirement?
I’m kind of like a rat on a wheel—my mind is always going. I’ve been chatting with producers who are looking for a consultant, but that’s all I can say for now. Whatever comes of it, I’ll be happy working with the great producers I’ve come to know.