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A Melange From Near and Far at L'Epicuriste

Mon, 03/20/2023 - 11:54
L'Epicuriste's shelves in Bridgehampton are packed with food products from both near and far to appeal to chefs or the ambitious home cook.

The streets are mostly empty in Bridgehampton these days, even on a Saturday, with the foot traffic of the summer and  early fall months a distant memory. Still, L'Epicuriste, an unlikely store catering to the discerning foodie on Main Street, marches on through the off season, determined to offer its products year round, no matter how many people have shifted their lives back west.

Even the proprietor, Charles de Viel Castel, said during a conversation last month that he and his family have reestablished themselves in the city for the bulk of the week. The kids are back in school there and he and his wife, Vanessa Traina, are back in their offices -- his at Stelac Advisory Services, where he is a founder and managing partner, and hers with her fashion clients. They will continue to spend weekends, summers, and holidays here throughout the year. "I am sort of back and I wish I wasn't, but the finance stuff still takes precedence," he said.

L'Epicuriste's well-edited inventory is focused on specialty food, entertaining, and lifestyle items. And fashion frames the narrative, both through his wife's aesthetic and his own foray into jewelry design with his company CVC Stones, which he started in 2015. Kelsey Ficara, the store manager, also came from a background in fashion, but has enthusiastically embraced her new mission. 

"I met her through a friend of mine, a real estate broker who went to school with her," he said of Ms. Ficara, who grew up in Southampton. "Finding someone in the Hamptons these days has become almost impossible with housing and everything else."

Although fashion isn't specialty food retailing, they hit it off and he said, "You know what? Come and sell some mustards with me and we'll figure it out." Now, he said, she is on her way to becoming a partner in the business.

The idea for the store came during the two years Mr. Viel Castel and his family spent here after the Covid-19 shutdowns. His children were enrolled in local schools, and the family immersed themselves in life here. "One of the things I noticed was we were cooking a lot more and sometimes I was looking for ingredients that I couldn't find," he said. It led him to call stores in the city or order things online.

Then, someone he worked with suggested opening a store, and they did. "We'd never done this before. It was a quick learning process with permits, refurbishing the space, and finding the right products." They settled on a mix of things: very specific ingredients for chefs, more general interest items from around the world for people who like cooking more complex international dishes, high end convenience items like a truffle risotto kit from Italy, and gift items for hosts and hostesses. "The bottle of wine or the flowers gets old," he said. "We thought it would be fun to have . . . products that they would like or that they would try."

They decided to include tableware and kitchen items as well, such as knives, placemats, and "deeply refined napkins made in France" and others made in Morocco. The store also carries flowers from Botanical Atelier Missi, a New York and South Fork elite flower designer, locally grown vegetables in season, and honey from local bees. The mix of local and distant products "really resonates with the customers." Even an area artist, Sydney Albertini, has given the store some items to sell. "We have interior decorators or people that buy art and people who buy knives and people who buy French soap. It's a bit of everything."

With food products, they are looking for the new and different. A company called African Dreams makes hot sauces. The Japanese Pantry consists of two guys who fly to Japan "multiple times a year and find low-batch harder-to-find soy sauce, or ponzu, or sesame oil, etc." The product lines have changed since opening, but are "always within the same sort of family. There are always things I want to add, but I am pretty happy with the assortment. And clearly we try and avoid having products that you can find easily." (They have Greek olive oil, because a Southampton woman imports it.)

The straightforward products that do really well surprised them. The noodles and chili crisp by David Chang's Momofuku line are bestsellers. "I would have never expected that to be the case when we opened."

And, as in fashion, aesthetics matter. "It might be a bit silly, but it does matter to me," particularly when thinking about gifts. "For some people, having salt in a nice ceramic jar from Ibiza has an extra value, and we think of that too."

He knew being open year-round would be a strain on the business, but wanted to do it anyway. "We always had that 'hope for the best, but expect the worst' kind of thing, so I think it's gone according to plan." They did well in the late spring and summer last year, with a drop off in the fall and December. "Then, literally, from January to March, I had sort of assumed that we could barely pay the rent. It's been better than that but there has certainly been a huge drop from the rest of the year." His clients have been loyal though, and continue to support the store onsite or by shipping gift baskets around the country.

Prices are not inexpensive, but he said he is trying to be reasonable in what he charges. "You can see every macaron has a different size in the store, which tells you . . . they are not machine made. And yes, that is going to be more expensive than the sort of macaron you can find in Starbucks. It's just the nature of it."

Although he would ideally be open every day of the week, he has cut back winter hours because of staffing -- most of his employees are high school and college students. "What's wonderful is that people get quite passionate. They try the products, they understand them, and they now know what to recommend. None of us were fully experts a year ago, and now we can hopefully tell you the difference between French mustard, an English mustard, and the Japanese one."

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