Ihsan and Valerie own and run the Formaggio Kitchen family of stores. As is true of any folks passionate about their jobs, work intertwines throughout all aspects of their lives. Their travels – frequent and far-flung – are largely dictated by the food producers they want to meet or to revisit, by rumors of new and exciting foodstuffs and/or food conferences such as “Cheese,” the biennial Slow Food festival held in Bra, Italy. Their larder and wine cellar are stocked with favorite items they have imported or new items they are testing out. Even when on holiday, they are in direct communication with all three stores, coordinating deliveries from Europe and generally checking to make sure everything is on track.
Ihsan was born and raised in Istanbul. He moved to Cambridge, MA after attending UC Berkeley and, in 1992, Ihsan took over ownership of Formaggio Kitchen. Since then, has presided over the shop’s development and has worked extensively with cheese makers and affineurs throughout the United States and Europe, installing the first cheese aging caves in a retail store in the United States.
Valerie lived in Madrid for six months before her freshman year of college and it was there that she acquired her love of market culture, visiting her local cheesemonger, baker, meat purveyor and the various fruit and vegetable stands. Upon arrival in Boston, Valerie found this experience echoed in shopping trips to Formaggio Kitchen where, after a stint in professional kitchens, she started working in 1984.
Ihsan and Valerie oversee all three Formaggio Kitchen locations – in Cambridge, Boston’s South End and in New York City. Usually around 7am every morning, Valerie and Ihsan arrive in the Cambridge shop. Valerie grabs a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, peruses the Cambridge shelves and then hits the road, heading to the South End store while Ihsan stays to hold down the fort in Cambridge. Throughout the year, they organize gatherings for staff members – ranging from oyster night, to BBQ, to a night of food trivia. Evenings see Ihsan regularly teaching classes – often at Boston University – and Valerie is very pro-active with local schools in Boston, regularly hosting teachers and their classes for informal educational sessions on cheese, spices and/or food production. Several times per year, Valerie also spearheads volunteer trips to the Faith Kitchen in Cambridge where the team helps to prepare dinner. Weekends find Ihsan and Valerie in Westport, MA where they enjoy long walks with their dog, Tank, cups of Piantagioni coffee and get some well deserved rest!
We sat down to chat with Ihsan and Valerie about their holiday food traditions and to get some food-related gift inspiration! Here is what they had to say:
Any special Christmas traditions in the Gurdal household?
Valerie: The holidays are busy but we always make time to set up a small tree in Cambridge and in Westport because, at the end of a long day, it’s comforting to come home and turn the Christmas tree lights on. We like to start out Christmas Eve with something sparkling, a little caviar, rillettes and usually a perfect robiola. And then we open a couple of bottles of a nice Burgundy or something from the Jura – maybe a Bandol this year, as we have some in the cellar. We also like to roast chestnuts over the fire.
Ihsan: We celebrate Christmas Eve with a big batch of Bouillabaisse. After the meal, we listen to relaxing music that usually puts me to sleep after the long month of hard work. The next day finds me in the most comfortable clothes I can get my hands on, enjoying leftovers.
What cheeses do you take home at the holidays?
Ihsan & Valerie: For our Christmas cheeses we usually have a perfect goat robiola, a piece of Comté Extra Grand Cru and Bleu des Basques. Bleu des Basques was Valerie’s brother’s favorite cheese and we always enjoyed it with him and continue the tradition.
What will you be taking home (food-wise) from the shop to your family this holiday season?
Ihsan & Valerie: The farro panettone from Gioie di Fattoria, rosé Champagne, pork rillettes and our selection of perfectly ripe cheeses.
What food gifts have you given to friends or family?
Ihsan: Jean-Marie Cornille extra virgin olive oil, Durand chocolates, sparkling wines, boxed wines and seasonal cheeses. Depending on the occasion, I often choose unusual or exclusive cheeses – our Belgian Sainte-Maures for example or a leaf-wrapped robiola – one of a kind conversation starters that elicit a lot of, “aaahs” and, “oooohs” from our friends.
Valerie: Whenever I give a food gift to someone, I try to introduce them to something new that I think they will like and share something I am very excited about. Hopefully my passion and the story behind the item makes it even more enjoyable!
What have you/are you planning to buy from the shop this year as a gift for someone?
Valerie: My dad always likes a good jam so something like the Arraya Cerise jam will go in his stocking this year and my mom, being Spanish, always likes turron but since we seldom have a Spanish one, I give her one of our Italian torrone. My nephew gets a package of buffalo jerky or the hottest hot sauce we have and my niece is fond of the Béquet caramels.
I also love to give unique spices because it’s something people don’t often buy for themselves but enjoy getting as gifts. I also love a well stocked pantry so I usually end up adding things like canned seafood, olives, peppers, farro and dried pastas. I find these items to be a great way to entertain on the fly if people pop over unexpectedly.
Any other special holiday traditions or moments?
Ihsan: Going for a walk in the woods with our dog – and I always make my famous “doggie” eggs the mornings after the craziest days of the season. (editor’s note: doggie eggs are soft-boiled eggs mixed with pieces of buttered toast – and sometimes bacon too!)
Valerie: My favorite Christmas of all time was when Ihsan and I visited our son, Kurt, in London when he was working at Neal’s Yard Dairy. As we were planning our trip, I mentioned it to my sister and, before you knew it, my entire family was on board. We rented three apartments near Borough market where Kurt was based. My sister and family got there on Christmas Eve and we had this huge shopping list of food from all the purveyors in the market – she and Kurt got this huge wheelbarrow and strolled it through the streets of London to the apartments. We arrived on Christmas day with our daughter, Ayse, my parents, my brother and girlfriend Tina and cooked up Christmas dinner and walked the quiet streets of London that night. Magical!
This post concludes our four-part series profile of staff members at Formaggio Kitchen. We hope you have enjoyed getting to know our team a bit better! If you missed any of our installments – click here, respectively for parts one, two and three.