Damon Burke talks to his food. Or at least I imagine he does, and perhaps it talks back because he seems to have an otherworldly relationship with every product in his small, but carefully stocked grocery. He can tell you the history and uses of everything from ground mustard to Turkish olive oil in a way that makes them come alive. And don’t even get me started with his meats and cheeses, which have practically landed me in a 12-step program.
After working in the film business for almost 10 years, Burke was disillusioned and burned out. He left the set of “First Daughter” to work grape harvest in Walla Walla, seeking sanity and quality of life.
Burke and his wife, Colby, opened Salumiere Cesario to present products they were passionate about. Products to “expand and delight the palate,”
“When I came to work harvest, I made a mental list in the back of my head of everything I couldn’t find: out-of-area wines, prosciutto, cheeses that I had fallen in love with in LA, things I had become accustomed to. We started making a list and then it was just do it! Open a small grocery. I think I wanted to change the way people eat. Instead of having a
“ginormous” dinner with a 16-ounce steak, go with a 4-ounce steak, and a little salad and a little charcuterie before dinner and afterwards; instead of a piece of pie, do a little cheese.”
Burke combined Salumiere, which means grocer in Italian, and Cesario (pronounced CHE-sario), his grandmother’s maiden name, chosen as a way to honor her memory.
“She used to tell us bedtime stories, and no matter how many times I heard the same one, I’d never tire of it. That’s why I wanted to get into film — to tell stories — and in a way, I feel like that’s what we’re doing here.”
Where did the idea of the cheese closet come from?
BURKE: Did you ever watch that Kardashian show?
(Eyebrow raise. Where is he going with this?)
BURKE: O.K., so we don’t watch that show. But there’s this place they have lunch — (The) Blue Table, which we used to frequent. The fi rst time I went into their cheese closet there …
… and $150 later?
BURKE: I won’t say. I will tell you that it totally changed the way I viewed cheese.
What’s with all the salts?
BURKE: (laughing) I wish I knew. I started out with Gray salt for cooking and Fleur de Sel for fi nishing. Now we’ve got smoked salt, truffl e salt, lemon salt – put that on the rim of your margarita and it’s absolutely fantastic. We’ve got lime salt, green chile and habanero salt – those two on French fries (Burke rolls his eyes and tilts his head back) … unbelievable.
I notice you make your own pickles and have heard rave reviews. I’ve never liked pickles until they were used in a sandwich recently. I wouldn’t have eaten it without them.
BURKE: (pointing to me, touching his nose and pulling his earlobe like a baseball pitcher) You get it now, right? That’s what it’s about. It’s that thing that without it, it’s not the same.
BURKE: When people say, “Well, it’s good for Walla Walla.” Either it’s good or it’s not. I don’t accept mediocrity.
That sounds like a good motto.
BURKE: That and don’t ever half-ass anything. And, I don’t like fuss in food. If you can’t eat it (referring to garnish) why is it there? Seriously!
So people can sit and have a “meal” here now. I see this pickled cucumber Korean style on your menu, which seems unlikely for here.
BURKE: Do you want to taste it? (Pause while Damon brings a sample) Now imagine that with a cold beer. It’s not popcorn, it’s not chips, but it fills the same purpose (with no calories). Think about it: hot summer day, you’re sipping on your beer, a little oi kimchee and the world is right.
I can hardly wait.