Whole Foods Spices Up Life in the U.S. With Israeli Paprika

Simone Cormier, spice coordinator for upscale U.S. supermarket chain Whole Foods Market, visits the source of the sweet paprika used by the chain.

Simone Cormier - jet black mane of hair pulled back, dark red lipstick and big, dangly silver jewelry - is wandering through the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, putting her nose into spice baskets. "Hmm," she murmurs appreciatively at some coriander. "Interesting," she says, rubbing cumin through her fingers. "Ah ha," she pronounces, to no one in particular, nodding at the oregano. "Ohhh" she continues, as she inhales a mustard-colored blend, her eyes closed.

The spice and nut vendors here, used, perhaps, to shoppers pilfering almonds or cashews or dried apricots as they walk by, but unaccustomed to visits quite like this, give Cormier her space. It is clear there is a professional in their midst.

As a kid, growing up on a farm in a Cajun-French family in Lafayette, Louisiana, Cormier was obsessed with exotic flavors and tastes - even though the nearest store to buy any spice beyond salt and pepper was four-and-a-half hours drive away, in Houston, Texas. As a school girl, she spent all her pocket money on cookbooks. And by the time she reached her teens, she was preparing four-course gourmet meals for her somewhat baffled family.

"I would do theme nights," she says. "Scandinavia or Albania or, say, the United Arab Emirates. And I would write up menus in the language of the country, and pair wines with the food."

It was inevitable, the neighbors always said, that the Cormier kid would grow up and do something unusual in life. Unusual, and, if one had to guess, food-related.

And so it was.

Today, Cormier is the national spice coordinator for Whole Foods Market, the upscale U.S. supermarket chain with 360 stores throughout the U.S., Canada and the UK, known for its organic and natural food.

A chef who started her career at Whole Foods, moonlighting the 5 A.M. shift in the seafood department at the Santa Fe, New Mexico store, to make some extra money, Cormier moved up the ranks, and across the country with the chain - until landing, four years ago, as the head of the newly-created internal spice company.

Her job today involves testing and tasting spices and blends from around the world - Whole Food sources from 27 different countries - and coming up with the right mixes for the chain's prepared food products, found at the salad bars, food counters and fish and meat sections. Her Denver-based team puts together - often through reverse-engineering - about 90 blends, which are used and sold at the stores, alongside approximately 90 single spices.

In this quest for spices and blends - only organic will do, incidentally - Cormier has traveled far and wide, from Turkey and China to India and El Salvador. This month, she came to Israel.

She visited the southern Negev, where Whole Foods works with local red chili pepper farms to procure paprika, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the North, where she scoured the markets for new tastes, smells, textures and ideas to take home.

The world traveler, who speaks five languages, and who, post-high school, spent four years in Europe, had never been to this country before. She had filed Israel in her "to do" folder and figured that, hopefully, someday, it might happen.

But when Joan Nathan, the iconic Jewish cook book writer and author, called Cormier to interview her about an article she was writing on cinnamon, the two got chatting about Israel, a country Nathan knows well and, as it happens, was about to visit. October, Nathan reminded the 'spice girl,' was paprika harvest season. Before the phone call was over, the women had hatched a plan to travel here together.

"The harvest was a great excuse, and I decided I had to do it," says Cormier. "For us at Whole Foods, it's important to meet the suppliers personally and see the working conditions - to really get a sense of how farmers live, and learn about their harvesting and processing."

Israel, which is one of the two foreign countries, along with Peru, from which Whole Foods sources its sweet paprika, offers a consistent and quality product, says Cormier. This, thanks to a combination of the temperate climate, the drip irrigation and the "impressively quick" turnaround between the harvesting and drying of the peppers and getting them into the industrial grinders for grinding into a fine powder.

Here in Israel, Cormier saw the fields and snapped photos of the desert blooming. She watched the drying process. She took notes on the combines. She leant down and felt the soil.

Gathering such information, she says, is part of Whole Food's philosophy. "Team members at the stores are really interested in the spices. They want to know more. It's not about just pulling spices off shelves and sprinkling them on food. They have questions. And customers have questions too."

One part of Cormier's job is writing an internal spice journal. "I try to come up with quirky stuff and historical background about the spices to go along with information on where they come from and what their flavor and nutritional characteristics are," she says. Last month, her journal featured fenugreek. This month it's star anise. And next month? Stand by for everything you ever wanted to know about paprika.

Such openness to and interest in new tastes is, says Cormier, part of the maturing of the American palate.

"When I first started working as chef in the late 90s, most people would still only order dishes with ingredients and spices familiar to them. There was this mentality that the unknown was frightening and no one wanted to be out of their comfort zone," says Cormier.

But things have changed unrecognizably since then - helped, in particular, she believes, by more immigrant restaurants and the surge of food and travel television, which have broadened customers' horizons.

And so, concludes Cormier, only half kidding, don't give up yet on the hawaij (a Yemenite ground mix used either for soups, or, alternatively, coffee) or zaatar blends crossing over. "It would be great to create some new food products that could go with some of the blends here," she muses, as she continues on her way through the market. "We can do exotic. We like exotic."

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