Me, Sher, and Ad

Me, Sher, and Ad
Bro Adam and sis Sher, my rocks!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Caviar 101

When the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia closed and the property was taken over by Starwood Hotels, I was heartbroken. The Ritz-Carlton was a family atmosphere of employees striving to show an incredible experience of care, comfort, and opulence to our guests. I had come to truly believe in the philosophy, or as we said at the Ritz-Carlton, the Basics, of the company.

The Starwood Hotel company transformed the Ritz-Carlton into a St. Regis, their equivalent. I knew after working there a month I would not stay. They just didn’t embody the genuine care and comfort of guests and that family atmosphere that I had grown to love at the Ritz.  I started looking elsewhere. My search for an new employer brought me to a caviar and gourmet foods importer right in Philadelphia by the name of Assouline and Ting, Inc.  The owner was a very handsome short statured French man named Joel Assounline. Joel was friendly, excitable, full of never ending energy, and so likable. His wife, Vibeke, who I believe was Scandanavian, was very active in the family business.  She was also an accomplished architect in her own right who also rented the artist studios on the upper floors of the warehouse where I worked. It was my first experience working directly with a family where not one, not three, but several languages were used in business. According to Joel, the “Mr. Ting” in the name had been bought out years ago and Joel kept the name in the title because it sounded good. Joel owed several shops by the name of Caviar Assouline as well as his warehouse business catering to high end restaurants across the east coast. There was also a mail order business from the Internet which I helped manage.

At Assouline and Ting, caviar was their specialty, but you could also find gorgeous white and black truffles (when in season of course), fine aged balsamic vinegars, various expensive olive oils, quail eggs, duck confit, duck breasts, escargot, and extremely rich foie gras.  There were thousands of other gourmet products. It was a restaurateur’s and chef’s dream!  I worked there for 6 months as an assistant food purveyor. I basically took orders and enjoyed having a fancy title. I was more or less an office clerk who did a bit of everything. It was a small staff, about 6-8 salespeople, clerks, warehouse workers, and drivers who helped Joel run this gourmet foods company.

Although international in terms of business and sales, Assouline and Ting still continued to have a "mom and pop" feel to it. I enjoyed working there immensely but left after I was offered the purchasing position at the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel which opened up next to City Hall in Philadelphia. It was a position I could not refuse and Joel was sad to see me go, but understood. I was very sad to leave Assouline and Ting and owed an immense amount of gratitude to Joel Assouline as he taught me everything I came to know at that point about the high end gourmet food industry. I honestly don’t think I would have been hired as a purchaser of the Ritz-Carlton if it weren’t for what I learned under his tutelage.

One of my favorite memories of working with Joel was when his friend, Boris the Russian, would drive down and visit from New York City. Joel was in competition with another highend caviar/gourmet foods company in NYC and one of his contacts in NYC was Boris. When Boris arrived, you  took notice. He would stroll in scanning the room with large, dark piercing eyes.  He was intimidating in terms of a "mafia" type quality, but this quality was interesting and intriguing at the same time. Women in the office would now faint and swoon. Men would stand up in deference to this Russian with their mouths agape at the sight of him. Boris stood 6’5” and wore a dark black trench coat with black shoes. I remember him wearing all black but whatever he wore was the best quality. His hair, black as coal, hung straight in back and short and spikey in front.  He had a slight continuous five o clock shadow with gleaming white teeth. Boris’s attitude was “Don’t ask where I have been, don’t ask me what I am doing, and don’t ask  me where I am going.”  He spoke with a thick Russian accent whose heavy inflections sent chills down your spine.

Boris would come up to me every time, and say “I am Boris, Joel’s friend from New York, Let him know I am here with caviar.” He would not acknowledge my existence. In one hand would be a black attache case, in the other a black portable ice chest with a lock on it.  Boris would say the same thing to me every time he would arrive. After the 10th time I  cut him off and said to him, “I know who you Boris. Do you know who I am? You never say ‘Hey how ya doin?’”  I was trying to make a point. I was not just one of Joel’s little clerks, I was a person!  I was an assistant food purveyor!  He responded to me, laughing, in that thick accent, “Yes I know who you are. You are that kid I talk to on the phone all the time. So tell me kid,  do you want try some of the best caviar in the world?”  I exclaimed,”Hell yeah!”  “OK, kid, get Joel and see if he will let you try the best Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga caviar in world!”

Joel, Boris the Big Russian, and I went to the kitchen. Boris pulled out three huge kilogram tins of caviar and my instruction in Caviar 101 began. I leared that Sevruga caviar was the smallest. Small black eggs, briny, and intense, which popped in your mouth releasing what seemed like a mouthful of the ocean bursting onto your palate. We tried Ossetra next, which turned out to be my favorite out of the three. Medium sized fish eggs, these were light brown to dark brown in color, with an nutty assertive flavor. Lastly was the best of them all, Beluga!  This was before the 2005 ban on Beluga to repopulate the precious sturgeon fish which spawn these eggs. The Beluga were light grey, large, pearly and glistening.  They were mild in flavor, with a buttery taste. Absolutely scrumptious …. and as with all caviar, an aquired taste. It is a taste I was so luckily to have developed under the instruction of Joel the French importer and Boris the Russian caviar dealer.

I also learned about why caviar isn’t served in metal bowls, and served with horn, ivory, and glass spoons. The metal imparts a distastefull metallic flavor from oxidation. I learned that it can be consumed with mini-toasts, on blinis with sour cream, on bliss potatoes, with onions, salmon, creme fraiche and other various accroutrements. But I learned there is nothing wrong with taking a small horn spoon and just digging in, savoring the flavor of the bursting eggs between the tongue and the roof of your mouth. Lastly, I learned from Joel and Boris that you don’t DOUBLE DIP!  I think I was cursed in Russian and French at the same time.  I reminded Boris that as he stated, I was just a kid who didn’t know any better. He let out a hearty laugh and the called me something dirty in Russian with Joel guffawing, saying in English, "Good one Boris. Hey Marco ... he got you good!" I responded rolling my eyes, "Uh ... OK, whatever, remember I don't know what you are saying to me! Just give me more caviar!"

I think Joel, Boris, and I consumed around $500.00  worth of caviar that afternoon. It is something I will not soon forget. I miss those days working with Joel Assouline. He was so knowlegable about "the business." He was fun to work with as well. Alot of what I learned has since faded to the back of my memories but there is two lessons I won't soon forget. NEVER use a metal spoon when eating caviar and NEVER double dip!


  1. As someone who worked for Joel in the warehouse and managed his stores at the time of your employment I am surprised I have never heard of you. You must have worked under Sherri she as number one.

    1. It's sherri..I miss all the a&t employees, we should all do a reunion

  2. I worked under Sherri for just over 6 mths! Loved her. She kept me sane during Joel's crazy manic days. :)

  3. I hope you get me