Jing Tio opened Le Sanctuaire four years ago for a selfish but sensible reason. The 34-year-old Indonesian, an amateur chef who came to America in 1991 to study accounting at UCLA, started his business after discovering that no single shop in the greater Los Angeles area carried the quality and array of kitchen products that he wanted. Take blenders, for example. By his reckoning, most stores sell models that are underpowered (their blades spin too slowly to render sufficiently smooth lobster bisques and guacamoles) and have plastic or glass containers that are flimsy. He eventually found a suitable blender at a restaurant supply store that carried the Vita-Mix, which has a top speed of 3 horsepower and a polycarbonate container Tio describes as “really, really durable.”
Le Sanctuaire, which is located in Santa Monica, Calif., stocks the Vita-Mix blender as well as dried abalone, shark’s fin, caviar, foie gras, and truffles (when they are in season); a range of Chinese pu-erh teas, some of which have been aged for half a century; gold-plated serving utensils and decorated silverware from Spanish chef Ferran Adrià (of El Bulli fame); hundreds of cookbooks; and a 21-piece ceramic tea service designed by potter Eva Zeisel. The service is so elaborate that the Saint Petersburg, Russia, factory that produces it can yield only two sets per month. In January, Tio debuted another shop, in San Francisco, but it is open only to culinary professionals. The store carries exotic ingredients as well as restaurant-quality appliances, cookware, china, cutlery, and books.
At the Santa Monica location, in one stop, pros or amateurs can collect everything needed for an authentic version of Thai hot-and-sour soup: fresh Kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, a copy of David Thompson’s definitive cookbook Thai Food, and a traditional Tom Yum serving bowl, made from brass or gold, plus any knives, pots, or ladles that the cooks might require. “For garlic, you can go to any grocery store,” Tio says. “But Kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce are musts for Thai cooking, and they can be hard to find. I am most likely to have them.”
The store’s selection constantly changes—“It’s about whatever hits me that day,” says Tio—but spices are a constant. He carries more than 150 varieties, many of which he imports from Indonesia, where his mother, who still lives there, negotiates with local farmers. Tio sells spice blends of his own making, including 10 different variations on Vadouvan, a type of French curry that he first tasted in Paris. One of these blends, priced at $64 per pound, includes toasted shallots, turmeric, ginger, and bird’s eye chile.
Le Sanctuaire’s success rests in part on Tio’s ability to locate novel products and quickly add them to his wares. Two years ago, he began offering Versawhip, an egg white substitute, within days of hearing about it from Wylie Dufresne, the chef who serves experimental cuisine at Manhattan’s WD-50 restaurant. “If I see potential [in an item], I need to start introducing it to people,” Tio says, noting that a sufficiently skilled chef can employ Versawhip to make a meringue from carrot juice. He still carries the product, but demand for it is not as strong as it was initially. “In the beginning, it was all excitement. But now it’s passé. It’s nothing special anymore,” he says. “Chefs are hungry to try new stuff.”
While he enjoys introducing his customers to unusual and sometimes unique ingredients, Tio eventually would like to be cooking with these items in the kitchen of his own restaurant. “I got sidetracked when I was researching equipment,” he says. “I got so far off, oh my God. Eventually, I do want to open a restaurant. But [here], I continue to learn new stuff every day and meet new people every day.”