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Wanted: one cave manager

The food business is booming, and with it, there's a boom in jobs you've never heard of.

April 04, 2007|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

FIVE years ago, it would be safe to say, not a soul in California woke up each morning to a to-do list starting with: Review a restaurant for Michelin. For the foreseeable future, though, six people will be doing exactly that, producing the first L.A. version of the guide.

Michelin inspector is just the latest new job description in the nation's rapidly expanding food universe, right behind beer sommelier, cheese affineur, mixologist and culinary philanthropist.

Careers are evolving that were unknown a decade ago, or at least before the Food Network brought out the inner Emeril in so many Americans and food became not just sustenance but entertainment, politics, culture, artisanal opportunity and national obsession. Other industries may face downsizing, but the business of eating and drinking has never seemed more vibrant. Dinner cannot be outsourced to India.

Jobs are opening up with farmers markets, in culinary tourism, in television, with Slow Food-style advocacy groups and especially with anything involving artisanal food and restaurant drinks. Consider the specialty Christina Perozzi has carved out for herself. She calls herself a beer sommelier, doing for microbrews what a traditional sommelier does for Super Tuscans. She says she "geeked out" on beer while working at Father's Office in Santa Monica, a bar known for its extensive selection of beer, and now her "biggest passion is teaching people how beer pairs with food." And so she helps restaurants and bars develop beer lists and train their staffs, organizes pairings with chefs at public events and teaches beer classes.

Perozzi has a blog (christinaperozzi.com), is writing a book ("Beer 4 Chx") and says she would also like to branch out into beer tours, any one of which would have been job enough at one point in time.

Sommeliers galore

BEER sommelier is a natural, given that the first tea sommelier popped up less than a decade ago; now it is not unusual to hear the job envelope being pushed as far as salt sommelier and water sommelier.

Affineur -- refiner -- is another position with a French name and origin that is sounding very American as cheese becomes a national obsession. It refers to the person who improves the flavor of a cheese through aging for a few months or enhancing by some method such as washing in brandy. As director of affinage at the Artisanal Cheese Center in New York City, which sells cheese and gives classes on how to appreciate it, Alex Garcia chooses which types to import and to buy from American farmsteads, then decides how to handle them. Affinage, he says, "is 50% art and 50% technique."

At any one time, the refrigerated "caves" at the center hold 160 to 180 different kinds of cheese, some destined to be sold right away and many more in the affinage line. Garcia set out to be an artist and was seduced by "the handmade and artistic aspect of cheese" while working at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, which is also owned by his boss at the center, Terrance Brennan. Garcia now oversees a cave manager and a couple of interns who do the tasks such as turning cheeses as they age.

Other new culinary jobs have evolved from traditional ones. Karen Beverlin of Fresh Point, a California produce distributor, used to be a buyer who dealt only with wholesalers. Now she spends every Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, hand-picking the best beets and lettuces and peaches to truck to restaurants nationwide.

"My role has morphed into more of a forager," she says, "someone who gets out to look for something exceptional." Her title changed, from general manager to vice president for special sales, as her duties did. "I have no administrative chores anymore," she says. "I've eliminated all the nonfood, nonfun parts."

If Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in Manhattan wants perfect carrots, Beverlin will go vendor to vendor to taste every possibility. While many Los Angeles-area restaurants send staff to the market to shop, she said, "I want chefs in Orlando to have access."

Then there is Jing Tio, owner of Le Sanctuaire, a "culinary boutique" in Santa Monica and San Francisco, who spends most of his time out-of-state peddling exotic spices to chefs looking for the next hot flavor. He and his sister Fanny also give seminars to other chefs on how to use the right equipment with hydrocolloids such as xanthan gum, the thickeners of choice for discerning cooks who have outgrown gelatin.

The Internet has created scores of food jobs, and not just for bloggers who earn income from advertising. It would be hard to imagine a business such as Heritage Foods USA, to take one example, employing directors, a staff and contract farmers raising rare-breed hogs and turkeys if online shopping did not provide it with a national customer base.

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