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Meet Dr. Henry Wainer

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Kiwano horned melon, ginger vinegar, virgin pumpkinseed oil, wild truffle sauce. Do you ever wonder where local chefs and specialty shops find these things? The answer is Sid Wainer & Son in New Bedford. Their customer list reads like a “who’s Who” not only of Cape Cod but the country.

You may have seen one of their 180 trucks being unloaded at the Dan’l Webster Inn in Sandwich or the Casual Gourmet in Centerville, just two of their hundreds of customers on the Cape. The trucks are lab-jacket white and painted with the humble message “Specialty produce and food handpicked from the world’s finest farms.”

Nationwide they ship to 23,000 customers, and have even provided product to the Queen Elizabeth II. When Steven Spielberg made a movie in Newport, R.I., Sid Wainer & Son provided the produce for a market scene.
Founded in 1914 the company is run by Dr. Henry B. Wainer, who was awarded a doctorate degree from Johnson & Wales College “for his integrity… in searching out these wonderful ingredients for chefs and as a world leader in food safety.” Physically, Wainer is a towering figure and not pretentious about the title, merely proud. Informally, he’s been called the “Produce King” and “Willy Wonka” of produce.
“I’ve been in the business since I was born. My father had a wholesale produce business and if I wanted to be with him I had to go work,” he says. “We bought and sold and tried to make profit. You have to surround yourself with people who have a passion. We have employees here who have been with us for 30 or 35 years. I’ve worked since I could walk and I don’t work any less now.”
Wainer employs 500 people with one office buying products and another selling them - often in the same day. The turnover is staggering in this 300,000-square foot warehouse that is stacked to the ceiling with produce in 11 different chambers, each with a different temperature, depending on the product. Fruit is ripening in one, vegetables being held in another. Even pasta has it’s own temperature range. There aresmoked fish, edible flowers, caviar, honey, pate, rare oils, jams, goat butter, you name it, Wainer’s got it. It’s amazing they can keep track of it all.
In addition, they operate four local farms and a distribution company in England. In recent years, they opened the Gourmet Outlet in the warehouse with 700 varieties of produce and specialty foods available to the public. “Everything that we wholesale,” he says.
Celebrity chefs visit from all over to see what the latest is, in the culinary world. They are given a kitchen to work in and computers to plan menus. There are also classrooms for seminars and a penthouse lounge with views in all directions. It is a world apart.
Wainer is a walking encyclopedia of information on his products, some of which, this food writer has never seen before. Many of his employees are chefs who create recipes for dishes like seaweed salad withwhite soy sauce and roasted sesame oil or fruit soup (see recipes).
On a bitter winter day, it lifts the spirit to see row after row of exotic produce in a rainbow of colors from all over the world. The baby purple, orange and green cauliflowers are as colorful as real flowers. There aregold beets, Easter egg radishes, snow peas with strings removed, iceless scallions, grilled Tuscan olives,microgreens, and popcorn shoots. Exotica don’t come cheap. The Hawaiian Rambutan that looks prickly like a sea urchin is $16.95 per pound. The 12-year-old balsamic vinegar isn’t $99.95 per case; it’s for one 8.5 oz. bottle. Think of it as perfume for your salad.
When asked about food trends, Wainer ticks them off. The evolution of the American diet; awareness of food safety; information online and television; families eating on the fly; the development of prepared foods; and modern transportation.“You can get truffles from Italy, cheese from France, caviar from Russia. I have 1,600 produce items in the middle of winter. Products come by plane or boat. It changed everything.”
He also feels that drugs like Lipitor, which reduce cholesterol, have changed eating habits. Now that people are able to absorb more fat, he is building a cheese cave in his outlet facility. “It will be unlike any in the world. Cheese is going to be the next coarse. It’s real, it’s alive; it’s delicious.”
Wainer is passionate about his business and constantly experiments. He bought his first farm, five years ago and grows produce there that has never been grown in the Northeast. “It’s an experiment. Our goal is to find out what will work and inform local farmers. We grow 33 varieties of raspberries. Over 250 different crops.”
He also likes to wow chefs with things they have never experienced before like pansy leaves dusted in edible gold leaf. Or vegetable powders in flavors like pumpkin or gumbo. “It took 12 years (of experimenting) in Italy before I brought truffle oil in.” Food safety is one of his biggest concerns so products aren’t around long. “We turn the facility 6 times a week. Berries twice a day. Produce is 90 percent water. The faster it goes to market, the better it is.” And he is a leader in food safety. “We are the only Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points certified company in the United States. Our food safety program is the one written for NASA for the astronaut program.” Often chefs stay in his 80-year-old farmhouse, where they can see the produce being grown. They also spend time in the five floors of the renovated warehouse with its stylish brick walls, state-of-the-art-kitchen, entertainment area, gym, lecture hall and computer area where up to 123 people can watch the screens at one time. Olympic chefs came to create menus and worked in the kitchen for a week.
Wainer is sympathetic toward farmers. “They work really hard. We know how difficult it is. We plan crops with farmers and try to diversify.” So he tries to present his products to the best of his ability. And it’s worth the trip to see the best of Wainer’s ability.
On Saturda y, tastings are held in the shop and recipes are given out. Two-thirds of the staff are trained chefs and readily answer questions. A winner was a delicious combination of Brie cheese, fig compote and chopped pecans, warmed and served on a water cracker.
Olive oils are lined up so they can be compared. Each is hand pressed, hand filled and hand poured. Sample honey, jams, jellies, mustards, fruit purees, grains, beans plus finished dishes complete with recipes.
Wainer says, “I do what I do because I love it.” And if it isn’t the best, you won’t find it on the shelves of this amazing food emporium.