New Yorkers who cook globally know Kalustyan’s as the one-stop source of ingredients essential to even the most far-flung cuisines—it carries more than 20,000 products, Aleppo pepper to za’atar, from at least 75 countries, Armenia to Yugoslavia.
Less known is that this Model U.N. in Curry Hill is also becoming a locavore destination. Shelves and shelves filled with imported exotica and staples now also hold the likes of harissa and tapenade and bitters made very close to home.
The store’s owners, Aziz Osmani and his cousin Sayedul Alam, have always prided themselves on being the first to carry the newest international products. But the door has opened wider since Dona Abramson, a longtime chef, was hired as operations manager in 2013 and has become a maven to local entrepreneurs looking to make their mark with adventurous foods.
A recent addition to the freezer cases stocked with the likes of kulfi and quail and Persian fruit purees is representative: a new flavor of ice cream from Adirondack Creamery being promoted with the “we are all immigrants” slogan and 50 percent of profits going to the International Rescue Committee. It’s called “Syrian Date and Walnut.” And it’s made in Kingston, in the Hudson Valley.
Abramson has brought in White Moustache yogurts, Persian style but fermented in Red Hook, and Queen Majesty Hot Sauce, Caribbean and Mexican style but bottled in Queens. She went all in on Le Bon Magot’s chutneys, conserved near Princeton. She added Spread-mms tapenade, Provençal quality but blended in Harlem. That harissa is from New York Shuk, founded by a couple in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And of course she carries David Chang’s line and Zahav’s Soom (sort of local) tahini.
Among the other acquisitions Abramson raves about are Brooklyn-based Blank Slate Kitchen’s palm sugar syrups, especially one flavored with black pepper, and its Sichuan oil, “complex and flavorful.” Her heartfelt, kitchen-inspired praise can make you want to get on the 6 train to try Black & Bolyard’s bay leaf brown butter, which she lavishes on fruit, grains and grilled cheese and also adds to walnuts she toasts. Of course it’s made in Brooklyn, by two former Eleven Madison Place cooks.
Asiz Osmani has always searched out many of the products Kalustyan’s carries, but many others are finding their way to Abramson as word of her palate and influence has spread.
Rebecca Montero, who produces that tapenade worthy of the South of France, says Abramson has proved to be much more than a buyer. “She’s always helpful, offering advice and suggestions. I was a really new brand, and she helped me figure out how to play against X, Y, Z (to compete) and also connect with other producers.”
Abramson’s background is more in cooking than merchandising, although she actually got to know Osmani when she was working at Kitchen/Market in Chelsea and he would consult her on Mexican chilies and chocolate and other esoterica Kalustyan’s customers would sometimes request. The shop, founded by her husband, Stuart Tarabour, was one of the first in the city to offer takeout burritos but also offered a Latino pantry, right down to importing Hatch chilies from New Mexico in season. Osmani hired Abramson a couple of years after the Chelsea businesses closed and she was working in stressful, grinding catering. “The call came out of the blue, but the timing was right.”
Abramson grew up in Sullivan County, the “Jewish Alps”/Borscht Belt. Her mother, who ran a jewelry business with her husband, was the kind of cook who gave dinner parties often but could come home from a full day of work, open the refrigerator and turn out a dinner that would need a Fresh Direct order today. “She would pull out what she had and put something together,” Abramson says. “I realized years later that my cooking style is like my mother’s.” (She also inherited the accessory gene—even on her days off she’s likely to be wearing a scarf.)
Abramson, a vegetarian since she was 13, went to Goddard College in Vermont, as much commune as school, where she learned organic gardening and worked in the co-op kitchen, learning to cook in large quantities. Back in the era of both classifieds and no credentials, she answered an ad for a breakfast cook. “Everyone knows how to make breakfast,” she figured. “But I started putting cinnamon and vanilla into the blueberry muffin mix and people started buying them by the dozens.”
In 1980 she was hired by the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and learned “it’s a real industry” before moving on to Harvest in Boston, where Bob Kinkead became her mentor. The menu changed every day and celebrated then-novel ingredients like mâche, radicchio, frisée and sun-dried tomatoes being brought in from Europe by Flying Foods. “I was so fascinated I went to work with them for one day a week for six months, picking up ingredients like Dover sole at the airport and delivering them to restaurants.”
Abramson came to New York in 1984 to work at a restaurant at the South Street Seaport doing 2,000 covers a day, “just slinging food,” before hiring on at the old Soho Charcuterie, where she “started making salads by the numbers, jumbo shrimp, curried chicken, tarragon chicken, then got free rein to take what I learned at Harvest and create.” After it closed suddenly, she hired on at Arizona 206 to learn Southwestern cooking with Brendan Walsh. She worked with Kinkead again for a summer on Nantucket and at 21 Federal in Washington, DC.
But her life changed when “I walked into a store called Kitchen around the corner from where I was staying at 20th and Seventh and asked if they were hiring. Stuart was behind the counter. I found out later he didn’t need to hire me, but he wanted to.”
The two founded Bright Food Shop together in 1990. “We didn’t want it to be just burritos, and I was very ingredients-oriented; I would go to Chinatown once a week.” So she fused Mexican and Asian “long before pot stickers and quesadillas were on every menu.”
“We lasted 17 years,” she says. “I’m very proud of it. He gave me a stage to do my thing. We had an awesome brunch.” The menu was seasonal, especially after she started going to the farmers market in Warwick near her weekend house. Instead of using tomatillos and other imports from Mexico and California, she switched to famed grower Cheryl Rogowski’s produce; she added pasture-raised eggs and fair trade coffee. By the end she was serving her own heirloom tomatoes in salads, grown in her garden. “It was a full circle experience for a chef.” The circle expanded even more when she brought the shiso she had grown last summer to stock the fresh-food case at Kalustyan’s.
These days she and Tarabour spend Sundays and Mondays at a house they bought recently in Saugerties where she forages for chanterelles and is planting a garden with French garlic and more.
She doesn’t argue with friends who say she now has the greatest job, though, even if it is 50 hours a week under fluorescent lighting. She had never worked front of the house but now has a desk on the main floor of the sprawling store where she can connect with shoppers, chefs and vendors.
“I’m so obsessed with food and want to engage,” she said. “People come in with a recipe or say they just came back from a trip and want to cook. It’s really been great. I run into a lot of old customers (from Chelsea days) and work with a lot of chefs on wholesale. They know I’m a chef so they can bounce ideas off me. It’s just the perfect job for me.”