How A Chef Really Shops: An Annotated Grocery List : The Protojournalist Chef John Manolatos shares his thoughts on bagged lettuce, paper towels and culinary nostalgia.
NPR logo How A Chef Really Shops: An Annotated Grocery List

How A Chef Really Shops: An Annotated Grocery List

John Manolatos, co-owner and head chef of Cashion's Eat Place. Avery Trufelman/NPR hide caption

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Avery Trufelman/NPR

As co-owner and head chef of the critically acclaimed Cashion's Eat Place in Washington, D.C., John Manolatos — who works most days from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. — doesn't have a lot of down time. And the last thing he wants to do is cook for himself.

Nearly every Monday — his day off — Manolatos heads to his neighborhood Safeway to pick up groceries that will last through the week. We asked if we could tag along and take some notes about how a chef really thinks when he shops, and get a sense of his must-haves and do-not wants:

The Things Chef WILL NEVER BUY From A Grocery Store

  • Tomatoes: "I'm just never sure. Tomatoes are such a finicky product."
  • Lettuce: "It always feels weird to buy lettuce in bags."
  • Bread: "It's so soft and mushy." He buys bread at an Italian deli.
  • Berries: Manolatos avoids the modified "frankenberries" that have been shipped from afar.

For his restaurant, Manolatos aggregates all kinds of ingredients. As The Washington Post points out about Cashion's Eat Place: "This is a kitchen that does every season proud, and while John Manolatos nails almost every cuisine he serves — try his light tempura or zesty gumbo sometime — the chef's Greek is always great."

So when Manolatos shops for himself, he shows his Greek side. He keeps a few simple staples around the house: salt, pepper, olive oil, garlic and lemon — foodstuffs clearly informed by his childhood meals and his heritage, as well as the frugality he's developed in stocking his own restaurant. "You're always looking at that price," he says, "so I can't bring myself to pay that extra 25 cents."

Factoring in daily exhaustion, thriftiness and a hearty dose of nostalgia, here are:

The Things Chef WILL BUY From A Grocery Store

  • Green beans: They're cheap, they're in season, they're classic, he says.
  • Grapes: Because they are easy to transport without smushing.
  • Sour gummies: The Cashion's kitchen staff pops these for a sugary energy kick near the end of the night.
  • Taylor pork rolls: When he discovered the pork rolls at Safeway, he hadn't had them since he was a child. His family used to vacation in New Jersey, where boardwalk vendors sold fried pork roll with eggs on hamburger buns. "I don't even know what's in it. It's really delicious and horrible."
  • Greek yogurt: Manolatos goes for Fage — "the expensive Greek stuff."
  • Organic milk: Because the shelf life seems to be longer than that of regular milk. "I don't know how they do that."
  • Viva paper towels: Usually thrifty, Manolatos splurges on these expensive towels, since they are almost luxurious in contrast to the cloth towels he has to use again and again at the restaurant.
  • Progresso lentil soup: Manolatos is not so big on canned food, but if he can't whip up a soup himself, he'll turn to this can, which reminds him of childhood. "Greeks eat lentils like they're going out of style."
  • Generic olive oil: Even for a big believer in olive oil, Manolatos finds "the generic brands have really seemed to catch up with the name brands" and he doesn't splurge on fancy oils at home.
  • Honey Roasted Honey Bunches of Oats: Does he want to try the new Honey Bunches of Oats with Greek yogurt bits? "Nope."
  • Frozen edamame: Manolatos prefers frozen food to canned food and frequently pops edamame in the microwave with a little salt.
  • Chocolate peanut butter Haagen-Dazs: "It's a must-have, must-try."
  • Gatorade and Vitamin Water: In the kitchen, it's all about "energy, energy, energy."
  • Wheat Thins, Triscuits and big boxes of Goldfish: Manolatos is really looking for "things I can put in Tupperware containers, and sit on the couch and stare at Jon Stewart as I'm going to bed and snack on" at the end of the day.
  • Corona beer: Manolatos prefers light beers. "When I'm eating, I don't like to have too much influence from the drink onto my food. My business partner, Justin, will tell you the opposite, that food needs wine. I think if we didn't have wine in this world, we'd still want food. But that's chef versus sommelier."