Shopping for Foodies

The title to this post coud be “Why I Like Sur La Table better than Williams-Sonoma,” but it isn’t, because in truth, I prefer a different kind of cookware store altogether than either of the afformentioned choices.

I like eccentric, locally-owned places with crowded shelves that bow under the weight of so much cast iron, you could melt it all down and make a battleship. I like to see gadgets hanging in untidy array against a far wall, with banneton and baskets dangling from rafters. I like places that are so filled with color and cookware in glorious array in a cramped space that one fears to move too quickly, lest one knock over a teetering tower of obscurely shaped specialty copper pans and engulf the little lady who is examining a larding needle with great intensity.

Such places do exist outside of my imagination: The Kitchen Emporium in Westerly, Rhode Island is one such dream shop for culinary adventurers.

Another sort of independantly owned kitchen shop that I like is one that is beautifully appointed, with an eclectic selection of only the best of the best cookware and serving pieces, with cutlery displayed like sabres in a wall case and artistically arranged merchandise that is as functional as it is beautiful. When stepping into that sort of shop, one should not be surprised to see local chefs in their whites perusing a selection of peppermills or testing the edge of a folded-steel santoku from a master knife maker in Japan.

In Columbus, in the Short North neighborhood, there is such a shop. The Cookware Sorcerer stands among art galleries and specialty boutiques, and is something of a gallery itself. Stepping into it, I cannot help but feel my voice lighten as I whisper, fingers lightly caressing hobnailed tetsubin and smooth butcher blocks from John Boos.

But, unless you are lucky enough to have a shop like one of these near you, the most likely places one is to go to find specialty cooking items (other than the Internet!) is a local Sur la Table or Williams-Sonoma. And while you are bound to get better prices by shopping the ‘net, sometimes, one needs to look at the glaze on a stoneware garlic keeper with one’s own eyes, or feel the heft of a cast iron skillet, or test drive a chef’s knife with a carrot to know its balance and handling before making an investment in one’s own or a friend’s kitchen arsenal.

Yesterday was a day for such shopping, and since we were in the neighborhood, I stopped by at Sur la Table. Here is where I have to admit to my utter and complete preference for Sur la Table over Williams-Sonoma, and also inform readers that I am an independant contractor who teaches cooking classes through Sur la Table’s culinary program.

I do want to make it clear that the reason that I prefer Sur la Table has nothing to do with the fact that they sometimes pay me money to teach people how to cook Asian food. Rather, it is the other way around–I have never applied to teach at Williams Sonoma, because I prefer the atmosphere at Sur la Table.

Why do I like Sur la Table, which is, after all, a chain, rather akin to Williams-Sonoma, when once I used to worship at the altar of the Williams-Sonoma digest-sized catalog, sighing at the illustrations of chef’s knives and tart pans?

It comes down to several things, really.

First of all, is diversity. Sur la Table sells more of a variety of different, interesting things than Williams-Sonoma does. I don’t cook just American regional or French or Italian food. I tend to cook mostly Asian food, and because of that, most of what Williams-Sonoma is geared toward is way out of my realm of interest. If there are not woks, cleavers and bamboo steamers hanging about, I am not likely to be as interested in any given shop. In addition, I like to look at obscure items like tagines, aebelskiver pans, springerle molds and chocolate forks.

Williams-Sonoma just doesn’t carry all of these bizarre items, while Sur la Table does. And while the store is quite neat and tidy, its sheer volume of merchandise gives it a hint of the cluttered, overstuffed feeling that my dream kitchen shops (such as the Wok Shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown) have. There is just something in me that is made giddy by the attractions of precariously balanced cooking utensils that have the look of medieval Inquisitor’s tools.

Maybe it is because I am a packrat by nature and am not overly fastidious when it comes to tidyness, but for some reason, I like to see a wide array of somewhat jumbled merchandise, rather than a meticulously displayed modest selection.

Something about Williams-Sonoma is too clean and perfect to really get me interested. There is a very limited palette of color and style in the shop, and everything seems to scream, “Stuff that Yuppies Will Love.” Everything is neat as a pin and perfectly polished and the folks I see shopping in there don’t look like they cook very often. They are too perfectly coiffed and manicured to make me believe that they actually like to get down and dirty with their food.

And then there are the employees–the folks at Williams-Sonoma are rarely genuinely friendly. (There are exceptions–there was a Williams-Sonoma shop in Cranston, Rhode Island where the employees were great foodies, and very warm. They were fonts of information and were great to talk with.) Here in Ohio, there is a certain snootiness to the air of the Williams-Sonoma employee, and a need to explain everything to everyone, whether or not they need an explanation or not. I have also noted a lack of knowledge on the part of the employees here regarding the operation of and the use of various of the gadgets and appliances they are selling.

The folks who work at the Columbus Sur la Table, however, are very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. They are each and every one of them foodies to the core, and if they don’t know something about a bit of merchandise, they will run off and find someone who does, and when they answer questions, it is never with a superior air, but rather with the genuine desire to pelase.

Pricewise–I find the two to be similar, though the prices at Williams-Sonoma are pretty much universally higher. And while I can often get a better price for any given item at Sur la Table online, once shipping is calcuated in, as well as the wait, the price no longer seems so much of an issue.

So there we are–this is why I like Sur la Table better than Williams-Sonoma.

But the truth is–I prefer any number of the independant cook’s shops even better, and prefer to browse and shop in such places when I can.

There just isn’t one near me.


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  1. I guess I am pretty lucky Barbara. We have Surfas in Southern California (Culver City) which started out as a restaurant supply store but over the last 5 years or so has grown to be open to the public with an array of evertyhing you might find in Sur La Table (SLT) or Williams Sonoma (WS) but without the brand name hype (AlClad, etc). They have recently expanded to also include a cafe.

    I also have access to cake decorating stores (Gloria’s) which has the jam packed shelves and more inventory than space. I also like browsing SLT and WS but rarely purchase anything there because the cost are usually more than a comparable item at surfas. P.S. Disclosure statement- I have no ties what so ever with Surfas (:>)

    Comment by Sylvie — December 18, 2005 #

  2. I usually purchase most of my more expensive stuff elsewhere besides SlT or WS, too. But, once there is a discount involved at SlT, the prices usually are decent enough at that point.

    I do sometimes go for restaurant supply stores, too. The markup is not as high, and you can get really durable stuff that way.

    I also agree with the brand-name hype. All-Clad is nice–but you can get comparable stuff at restaurant supply stores for a fraction of the cost.

    Comment by Barbara — December 18, 2005 #

  3. Hi Barbara,

    First of all let me just say that I love your site! It’s so easy to read and your writing is so warm and enthralling. I can tell I’m wording the words of a kindred food spirit!

    Here in Toronto, Ontario, we only have Williams Sonoma. And while I must admit that I was quite awe struck when the first few stores opened up, I’ve been less impressed lately.

    For one thing, the quality of some of the items isn’t very good. I’m not talking about the small appliances, I mean the quality of some of the bakeware.

    I’m an avid baker and I just don’t stand for things that are cheaply made!

    The other problem I have with Williams Sonoma is that the staff turnover is so huge that the people they hire are not very knowledgeable about food.

    I mean I’m not saying I’m the world’s smartest foodie but I know way more than a lot of those people.

    This summer I finally made it to San Francisco and I had the chance to enter both the Williams Sonoma (Union Square) and the Sur La Table (San Jose). I was more impressed by Sur La Table.

    I thought they had a better selection of items and I too loved the feeling of “slight disarray”. It reminds me of a true kitchen … one that is cooked in and baked in and lived in.

    Williams Sonoma is just a little too perfect for my tastes.

    Anyway … keep up the great work!

    I’m slowly trying to build a blog of my own … reading your blog always gives me a lot of inspirations!


    Comment by Ivonne — December 19, 2005 #

  4. I was just at the Wok Shop in San Francisco and loved it! It’s so cluttered with great finds. I bought a ginger grater. I love your site, keep it coming!

    Comment by Allison — December 19, 2005 #

  5. I totally agree with you about Williams-Sonoma. The sales people seem very snooty for really no reason. Also, the store only seems to sell the “top of the line” which is usually a waste of money. The only reason I’ve found to go there is they sell wire racks that fit half sheet pans. I can’t find those anywhere else.

    I do most of my cookware shopping at Polsters Restaurant Supply store North of German Village.

    Comment by Brian — December 19, 2005 #

  6. Welcome, Ivonne, Allison and Brian! New faces/voices here are always welcome!

    Staff turnover is a big thing at Williams Sonoma here in Ohio, too. The folks at Sur la Table seem to be the same faces who were there when I started working with them as an instructor–and the folks there really seem to like it a lot there–they are highly motivated folks who are enthusiastic and fun to be around.

    Allison–I am glad you loved the Wok Shop, too! If I lived in the Bay area, I swear I would bug Tane until she gave me a job. She wouldn’t have to pay me much–I’d just want to work there to help folks find cool stuff for their kitchens! (Actually–she teasingly offered me a job the first time I was there, but I think she was only teasing–besides–I was only a tourist and had to go home!) Glad you like the site and the blog–I will keep writing–no worries.

    Brian–you are right–restaurant supply stores are a great place to go–I haven’t been to that one–I tend to go to the one in Lancaster because it is closer to home.

    Comment by Barbara — December 19, 2005 #

  7. We have both WS and SLT in the San Diego area. I periodically shop both but mainly go in and check out the merchandise then hit the internet (ebay mainly) to find what I want but at a cheaper price. If it is over $25 Amazon is another good place as they don’t charge tax or postage on anything over that amount. However, my true love is exactly what you like Barbara – the overfilled, hanging from the rafters kitchen/grocery store, hopefully with sounds of many accents from exotic foreign countries being spoken in the background, unreadable labels with English being in the tiny print. My best kitchen treasures were found in such places.

    I do love your writing. Although I have taken many Chinese cooking classes none of the instructors has given me details like you do with this recipe of dry roasting beans. I check Tigers & Strawberries daily for your daily teachable moments that helps me better utilize my wok. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your knowledge and skills.

    Comment by Maureen — December 19, 2005 #

  8. Maureen–you and I shop alike, it seems! I will only buy something at either WS or SlT if I cannot get it cheaper elsewhere–usually online, or perhaps in one of those overstuffed kitchen stores that I so love. (If I thought I could make a go of it here in Athens, I would open one, but I don’t know that we have the kind of market to support such a store here in this little town.)

    Thank you for your kind words about my writing. As for my moments of teaching–that is part of why I started writing Tigers & Strawberries–in order to teach more effectively to a wider audience, and share the insights and skills I have learned through various means.

    I have learned that writing these “lessons” makes me a more effective teacher when I am working “live.” I always thought it would work the other way around–and it does–that my experience teaching up in front of a class makes me more able to write instructions clearly and concisely. I just never thought it would work the other way around, too, but it does.

    So, in essence, in writing this blog, I am improving myself as well as others–what more could I ask?

    Comment by Barbara — December 20, 2005 #

  9. Heather found a nice tagine, (for which she had been looking for a while,) in a little Lebanese shop in Portabello Road while we were in London.

    It’s very nice glazed terra cotta. Very plain and utilitarian, and we paid all of ten pounds for it, (about $18.50 American.)

    The problem then was to carry it around the rest of the afternoon, (during our tour of BBC Television Centre in Hammersmith,) and on the plane ride home. Heather called the little orange dodad her “White Elephant” during our long haul from Blackheath to Heathrow, (via bus, train, and several different London Underground Tube lines with 6 heavy bags and a fragile tagine.)

    It survived and lives happily in our kitchen. Now we just need to get our new kitchen, (Barbara’s old kitchen, currently stacked up in our non-functional summer kitchen…how ironic…) installed and learn to use it! I miss London curries!

    Lots of love!


    Comment by Dan — December 21, 2005 #

  10. I am ever so happy that the tagine made it home safely!

    Foodie shopping in London, as I recall, is great fun. We shall have to see if my memory is correct when we go back with you and Heather in a couple of years!

    Comment by Barbara — December 21, 2005 #

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