Sunday, October 9, 2011

E. Dehillerin: A kitchen store that sells things you don't even know exist

If France is the country of fine food, and Paris is the capital of France, then it should have a place where one can buy all the utensils necessary to create said fine food. And it does: E. Dehillerin, appropriately located in the neighborhood that was once Le Ventre de Paris, the Stomach of Paris, i.e. Les Halles.
     Since 1820, Dehillerin has been purveying all things needed to make a perfect soufflée, an outstanding roast or an exquisite île flottante. They advertise themselves as a family business that selects "the very best in professional utensils for cooking and pastries". In short, everything you need to cook from soup to nuts.
     The store is famous for its copperware, which is featured in a window that hasn’t changed in all the time I’ve been going there. That exquisitely crafted copper rooster still sits on that copper ball, and the dust on him has almost become a patina. But the store also carries a full line of cast iron cookware, as well as aluminum for induction ranges. Not to mention any kind of cutlery you might desire, including knives sharp enough to replace a guillotine. (I saw my first zester here and have since bought many of them for my gourmet friends.) They also sell cooking apparatus such as food mills and ricers and graters and wickedly sharp mandolines that will slice even the most recalcitrant vegetable. Plus an assortment of molds - ranging from the comically tiny (for petits fours) to the unimaginably gigantic - and the very latest in non-stick Flexipans. In short, if you want it, they’ve got it. And all at an amazingly reasonable price.
     On my recent visit, workers were busily repainting the entire facade in its trademark forest green. And a faster paint job I’ve never seen. It was a Monday, and the store usually closes for an hour and a half for lunch so I’m betting the intention was to finish the job during lunch, but it ran over. They hadn’t even taken time to put up "Wet Paint" signs
     Dehillerin has the reputation of being snooty, but that has never been my experience. Quite the contrary. The moment you come through the door, someone asks what they can help you with. And you feel you really ought to know, because one look around tells you they’re very busy people. If you’re not sure what you came in for, or you’re there just out of curiosity, simply say you’d like to look around a bit. They’ve heard it before. They’ve heard it all before.
     And they’re very handy with advice. I buy my skillets there: "Made in France since 1830 by de Buyer. Extra thick black steel (2.5 mm thickness). For use on any heating element: gas, vitroceramic, electric, and induction. Riveted steel handle." Sure these skillets are heavy, but they cook up a storm. When I bought my first one, the clerk sized me up and decided I wasn’t a professional. "Now NEVER wash it with detergent," he chided me, "and NEVER let it sit in water." I assured him I wouldn’t - but I have, once or twice, when it proved stubbornly impossible to clean otherwise. This time I get the same admonition, and I admit I have washed my old one (instead of just wiping it clean immediately and scouring it with coarse salt, if need be), and he frowns, but I say I never leave it to soak. He still looks saddened, so I add that I always sit it back on the burner for a minute or two to make sure it’s really dry before I put it away, and that seems to reassure him because he smiles and says, "Ah, bon, dans ce cas...".
     Even if I come in with some specific purchase in mind, I always like to poke around the store to see what else they have. The place is tiny and the aisles are narrow with stock piled high on plain wooden shelves. And there’s even more downstairs in the basement - a mysterious place indeed, dimly lit and dusty, reached by appropriately creaky wooden steps (like the ones that led down to my grandmother’s cellar in Pennsylvania). That’s where all the more professional stock is kept, especially all those huge cafeteria-size pots large enough for a cannibal to cook a whole person in!
     The entire store is no-frills and glamour is considered superfluous. Not one inch, not one centimètre of space goes unused. (Which is similar to many a kitchen I’ve seen in pocket-sized French neighborhood restaurants.) Shelving soars right up to the very high ceiling, requiring a ladder to retrieve that much-coveted Dutch oven. Baking rings are suspended from the ceiling, including one large one shaped like the Eiffel Tower. Other utensils hang from pegboard mounted on all the walls. The clerks are constantly climbing up and down, handing things over people’s heads, or weaving down the aisles past customers from all across the globe. In the time it took to buy my skillet, I heard customers conversing in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, French - of course - and American... a lot of American.
     Once you’ve found what you came for - or something brilliant that you never knew existed - you find a clerk, if he - or now she - hasn’t been accompanying you all along. They write you up a bill and escort you to what passes in France for a line at la caisse, where you pay up. Then your goods are passed to a young gentleman whose one purpose in life - day in, day out, all year long - is to wrap your purchase in traditional plain brown paper. As he’s the only one who has time to quip, I ask him what he does at Christmas. He replies that wrapping Christmas presents is his wife’s job. Understandably.

E. Dehillerin is not a store for the faint of heart. But even if you’re not a professional, there’s still no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of discovering this Ali Baba’s Cavern of Things Gastronomic. Don’t break into a cold sweat, fearing they’ll throw you out. They know who’s who, and what side their brioche is buttered on. They’ll take you under their somewhat rough Gallic wing and make sure you get what you need, if not what you thought you wanted. Just don’t try to engage them in conversations about your Aunt Betty’s cooking or how you make your quiche. They’re just not interested.
     They probably make a better quiche themselves anyway. And I’ll bet they got the recipe from Curnonsky himself when he came in to buy his cooking utensils there.


Open Monday from 9:00 to 12:30 and 2:00 to 6:00 and from Tuesday to Saturday from 9:00 to 6:00. Closed Sundays and holidays

18 & 20, rue Coquillière / 51, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau - 75001 PARIS
Tel.: 33 (0)1 42 36 53 13 - Fax: 33 (0)1 42 36 54 80


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