It was a bag of high quality doppio zero semolina flour that changed Jim Feldman's life. Or rather the lack of it.
Four years ago, Feldman was looking for flour to recreate the kind of pasta that his nonna Flora used to turn out silky strands of pasta at her home near Alba in Northern Italy, where Feldman spent his well-fed youth.
After an exhausting tour of lackluster Upstate New York specialty shops turned up no suitable contenders, Feldman decided to reinvent himself as The Ingredient Finder: part spice detective, part ingredient evangelist, part pusher of rare and esoteric flavors.
"I realized that if I couldn't find something as simple as good pasta flour, there were many other people who couldn't either. And if they could find something in a local market, who's going to tell them if it's good or not?" says Feldman, a former luxury brand director.
Feldman now works with luminaries like cookbook author Hiroko Shimbo and spice master Lior Lev Sercarz , as well as on-the-ground local experts in Mexico, Korea, Israel and Morocco to source oils, spices, vinegars, seasonings and bottled whatnots from around the globe. For special finds from small producers, he helps connect mom-and-pop artisans with interested importers who can guide them through package design and FDA approval.
In addition to curated spice blends and smoked Maldon salt from Sercarz's La Boîte á Epice, the site carries olive oils from an ancient grove in Marrakech, white truffle flour, Basque piment d'Espelette jelly and a lot of other things that you won't be finding in your local grocer's spice aisle.
"These are small products from fine producers," asserts Feldman. "If they want to be in Whole Foods, the product is not for me. We're not Amazon and don't intend to be. You might be able to find it cheaper--but not fresher or better."
Feldman invited us to his office to try a few recent finds. Some weren't on the site yet due to importing hiccups, like a vivid green citron-infused mustard from France packed into a sleek aluminum tube and an Israeli coffee vinaigrette from a company that's also marketing olive oil specifically geared to the palates of toddlers (seriously). Others, like smoky soy crystals are available now and have become instant obsessions around our Test Kitchen.
"I want the wow. Otherwise, why bother?" says Feldman. With that, he unwrapped a round of hazelnut- and fig-studded panforte he'd gotten in from Siena, popped a piece in his mouth and confirmed his suspicions: "Wow."