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A Market for the Exotic

Monday, March 10, 1997

When most of us sit down in a restaurant and begin scanning the menu, we’re wondering which dish to order, not where its ingredients came from. How, for example, in midwinter New England, does a chef find fresh hedgehog mushrooms or pea tendrils or banana leaves?

Chefs from all over the country - from Rhode Island to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago to Commander’s Place in New Orleans - find these and many more exotic foods at Sid Wainer & Son of New Bedford.

Operating of a vast warehouse - a former Beacon Blanket factory building on Purchase Street - Wainer supplies fresh produce, herbs, spices, edible flowers, and a wide range of specialty gourmet foods to some 2,000 hotels and restaurants in this country and abroad.

(Chef James Mitchell, who uses Wainer’s products at his West Deck restaurant in Newport, recalls vacationing recently on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and seeing the distinctive Sid Wainer & Son imprint on boxes of food being uploaded at the airport there.)

Who is Sid Wainer?
Actually, he’s Henry Wainer, 47, son of Sid Wainer and grandson of the original Henry, who started the family business in 1914 as Wainer Bros. Produce.

Sid Wainer died in November, but the company is still called Sid Wainer’s. “It will be that,” said Henry, “unless maybe one of my daughters takes over the company some day.” (He has three daughters and one son).

In 1914, blocks of ice were the main means of keeping produce fresh, and horse-drawn buggies and trains were the main means of transportation. Today, Henry Wainer buys some 600 fresh varieties of produce directly from growers in California, Central and South America, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. His fleet of more than 40 refrigerated trucks pick up containers in Boston, bring them back to the New Bedford Warehouse for inspection and repackaging, then ship out specialized orders to customers as varied as the West Deck in Newport, the Four Seasons resort hotel in Nevis, Zabar’s delicatessen in Manhattan, Harry & David’s, fruit by mail, and the Neiman Marcus stores.

Wainer’s foods fill some five airplanes a day from Logan Airport, headed for destination across the country and in the Caribbean.

He has been called for produce for a Martha Stewart photo shoot and to supply produce in vintage crated for the Amistad filming in Newport.

Among the items that Wainer specializes in are baby lettuces, radicchio, Chinese long beans, gold beets, cactus leaves, Portobello mushrooms, squash blossoms, star fruit, Scotch bonnet peppers, baby leeks, yellow Finn and Yukon gold potatoes, jicama, lemongrass, tomatilloes, wine grapes and edible flowers such as nasturtiums, pansies, and Johnny jump-ups. Wainer boasts that he carries every variety of forested mushrooms in the world, and has 17 varieties of tomatoes.

Touring the chilly room of his warehouse with a reporter in tow, Wainer points to one box after another, occasionally reaching in to pull out a particularly amazing specimen: “Japanese eggplant from Florida, Jerusalem artichokes from California, gold and red beets, baby turnips, banana leaves, Mexican haricots verts, Cubanelle peppers, red orach…”

But Wainer himself is stumped by a piece of fruit that looks like a grapefruit-sized lemon with squid like tentacles. “What is this?” he asks, a nearby employee “Buddha Hand,” is the answer.

Wainer is primarily a wholesale distributor acting as middleman between food growers and chefs. But about three years ago, he opened part of his warehouse as the Gourmet Outlet, a retail food store where regular people “can shop where the chefs shop.”

Open five days a week, the Gourmet Outlet is an insider’s secret in New Bedford - a great place to find unusual varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, olive oils and balsamic vinegars, pignola nuts, herbs and spices preserves, smoked salmon and sausages - virtually everything that’s available to chefs at some of the finest restaurants in the world. There’s usually a tasting table, where many items are available to try, prepared by Gourmet Outlet staff. They also make up gourmet food baskets to order.

Recently, the Gourmet Outlet added fresh flowers to its offerings.

In general, prices at the Gourmet Outlet aren’t bargains. You’ll pay about what you would in a high-end supermarket for the same items, but the selection and the quality are outstanding. That’s because many of the items that you see on the shelves in New Bedford will be shipped out within 24 hours to restaurants up and down the East Coast or in the Caribbean.

In order to assure the availability of the hundreds of food items he provides to restaurants, Wainer cultivates personal relationships with farmers and food producers from California to Italy, Scotland, and Israel. The smoked salmon he offers under the label Kilchurn Estate, for example is traditionally cured, oak and beech-smoked Scottish salmon that Wainer found on one of his many food-scouting trips abroad. It’s the salmon that is offered at the famous Zabar’s delicatessen in Manhattan, one of Wainer’s Customers.

Wainer travels to Italy several times a year to buy aged balsamic vinegar, truffles and truffle oil, extra virgin olive oils, tapenades, marinated artichokes and artichoke paste, and roasted peppers. From France, he selects mustards, herbes de Provence, olives, nut oils and jams.

But it’s the fresh produce that’s always been the heart of Wainer’s business. As one of the country’s largest distributors of such perishable and delicate items as raspberries, mesclun greens and mushrooms, Wainer cultivates relationships with California growers such as Gold Bud Farms, one of his favorites for fresh tree-ripened peaches and juicy cherries.

“The most time-sensitive produce items we carry are green beans, mushrooms and berries,” says Wainer. “There’s a half-day shelf-life for raspberries, so they come in and go out here three times every day. We do 3,600 boxes of mesclun greens a day.”

Wainer prides himself on being able to get “anything to anyone at any time. I can get a green romano bean from a farm 200 miles from an airport to a restaurant in a Caribbean resort in 36 hours,” he says. “We have fraise des bois (French strawberries) all summer long, in two colors. Nobody else does that.”

Truffle Carnaroli Risotto
7 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup white wine
1/2-teaspoon salt
1/4-teaspoon white pepper
1/8-teaspoon black pepper
1 lb (2cups) Fondo di Toscana Carnaroli rice
2 cups assorted chopped wild mushrooms (shiitakes, oysters, porcinis, etc)
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1/4-cup heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
3 teaspoons chopped green onion
2 teaspoons white truffle oil
1/4 ounce freshly shaved fresh white truffles (optional)
Bring stock to a boil in saucepan. Remove from heat and reserve. Heat olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent (1 to 2 minutes)
Add white wine, 1/2-cup stock, salt and pepper to the rice mixture. Bring to boil and then to simmer, stirring frequently.
Add more stock in 1/2-cup increments and continue to stir frequently as the stock is absorbed by the rice. When all stock is used, add mushrooms to the mixture and simmer until the mixture is creamy and bubbly (about 8 minutes). Stir in butter, cream, cheese, green onion and truffle oil. Season to taste, if additional pepper or salt are needed.
Simmer for two more minutes. Serve immediately with freshly shaved white truffles sprinkled on top.

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