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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