Food for Thought

Central Market turns 10: Inside stories (spouse pickups, royal cheese & Mario Batali too) on H-Town's food changer

Central Market turns 10: Inside stories (spouse pickups, royal cheese & Mario Batali too) on H-Town's food changer

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Happy 10th, Central Market! www.centralmarket.com
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David Kiser of Central Market Photo by Steven Thomson
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Cafe on the Run Photo by Francis Lum/Picasa
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Great selection
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Author’s Note: I buy the Thanksgiving sides there freakin’ every year and no one has ever introduced me to a future spouse. Photo by Marene Gustin
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I’ve had the fresh tortillas at Central Market. They are good. But I’ve never found a diamond ring in one. Photo by Michael Sweeney
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H-Town's food changer
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News_Marene_holiday sides at Central Market
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Let’s play some foodie Jeopardy!

I’ll take shopping for $200, Alex.

A: Fresh gnocchi, Sacre Bleu Cabernet Sauvignon, chef-prepared almond crusted tilapia and a spouse.

Q: What are things you can pick up at Central Market, Alex?

Ding, ding, ding!

Foodies know that Central Market, which celebrates turning 10 on Thursday, is a great place to shop for dinner. But apparently it’s also not a bad place to shop for a spouse.

“One of my favorite memories from the past decade involves a friend of mine,” says Central Market’s David Kiser, head of the popular cooking school there. “She was standing in line at the Chef’s Case and struck up a conversation with an older woman who invited her to come to Thanksgiving dinner and meet her son. They’re married now with two children.”

Author’s Note: I buy the Thanksgiving sides there freakin’ every year and no one has ever introduced me to a future spouse.

And then general manager Phil Myers passes on this story from another employee: “One time we helped a guy coordinate his marriage proposal in the bakery. It was the first year we were open and he told me how excited they were about the store opening in Houston because he met his fiancé at the original store on North Lamar (in Austin). She loved the tortillas so much he wanted to put the ring in one and could we accommodate?

"We did; it was great! Everyone was in on it but her. The girl said yes and we sent them to the café with balloons and a bottle of champagne.”

I’ve had the fresh tortillas at Central Market. They are good. But I’ve never found a diamond ring in one.

But besides these romantic moments, Central Market has seen a lot of other interesting and odd things.

When the store opened in May of 2001 Houston wasn’t exactly a grocery wasteland. We did have Rice Epicurean Markets where you could spot blue bloods and blue hairs shopping, Fiesta Marts for Mexican specialties and the original Phoenicia Specialty Store if you were on the west side of town. But Whole Foods was just a twinkle in Houston’s eye so H-E-B’s Central Market was a draw for us inner Loopers.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so excited about a grocery store opening,” says Kiser, one of 44 “charter partners,” employees who’ve been there since the store opened. “There were people lined up waiting for the doors to open.”

And they’ve also seen people stand in line for fajita samples as though they’d never had them. In Houston. The Art Guys have painted the floors and the largest cheddar cheese ever shown in Texas (at 12,500 pounds) was displayed. And just recently a 75-pound cheddar (puny) was carved here by Sarah Kaufmann to resemble the royal newlyweds Will and Kate. They take cheese seriously here.

The store also does a lot for community nonprofits and for its neighbors in times of crisis.

As Kiser tells it, the store opened to heavy crowds but then two days later Tropical Storm Allison rolled through, flooding huge sections of the city.

“We were lucky,” he says. “We didn’t have any damage and didn’t have to close at all, so people came back here to shop.”

The store was also one of the first to reopen and offer ice and water to customers after Hurricane Ike in 2008, even though they didn’t have electricity,

And then there’s the cooking school Kiser presides over. Folks flock here for everything from classes in basic knife skills to demonstrations by hot local chefs and international names, like Francis Mallmann and Mario Batali.

“That was one on my favorite experiences,” Kiser says. “I mean, Mario!”

So what’s in store for the next decade?

“We’ll just continue to educate people no matter where they are on their food journey,” Kiser says.

So, wanna join in the celebration? Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Central Market offers a big tented event, 2001-2011 A Delectable Decade, Celebrating 10 years of Foodie Love.

Ten of the city’s top chefs will be there to mingle and feed the masses. Texas wine makers and farmers, live music and more round out the event. Tickets are $100 and available online. Proceeds benefit Foodways Texas, an organization founded by scholars, chefs, journalists, restaurateurs, farmers, ranchers and other Texans who've made it their mission to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.

So what are waiting for? It’s going to be a foodie paradise.

And who knows? Maybe some lucky gal will find a diamond ring in her tortilla.