top of page

Purveyor of necessities or successful entrepreneur?

"one who provides necessities and supplies" Online Etymology Dictionary

The book on the left is one I am considering placing in our street library. I can't think when I last opened it and for that reason when I redid the kitchen and rearranged my cookbooks it was placed on a high shelf with the other underused items.

I'm not sure if I have ever cooked anything from it although it has recipes within from various well-known Australian chefs. At random I picked out a 'shortcut' from Tony Bilson:

"Spread mashed potato over a shallow, buttered ovenproof dish. Lay anchovy fillets across the top, in a lattice fashion. Sprinkle lightly with grated parmesan and nutmeg and bake at 180ºC for 20-25 minutes."

Which, if you like anchovies, is probably not a bad thing. It was featured in the section on anchovies so I checked the price of said anchovies - well they are all Ortiz of course - from Spain - and cost $18.75, $20.75 or $37.50. Please note you can buy the cheapest of these for $16.00 in Coles. The very same item - still expensive of course, but if you want to impress ...

Or here's another 'shortcut' from Neil Perry: "Spread a piece of Meredith blue cheese on a slice of sourdough bread and drizzle with honey". Nothing clever about that is there? Well not these days. Interestingly as I went to check the price of Meredith cheeses at Simon Johnson stores I found no reference to cheese at all. It's interesting because this is where the man started his empire - selling cheese to his chef mates, like the said Neil Perry. And the cheese room was a feature of his stores. He only expanded into other areas when those same chef mates asked him to supply him with other rare/quality stuff.

Simon Johnson, the man, is originally from New Zealand where he began his working life as a chef. When he came to Australia he decided it was less stressful to source goodies for other chefs and he built up such a successful business that in 2011 it was sold for an estimated $20 million to Manasseh Foods, who in turn, sold on to the Chinese Bright Food Group. Johnson stayed on with a management contract but I think has possibly now retired, although it is difficult to find this out. I assume the company remains in Chinese hands. I wonder if the Toorak set who shop there would continue to do so if they knew it was Chinese?

I once visited the store that used to be somewhere off Brunswick Street, looking for Christmas presents. And indeed, for me personally, there is nothing nicer than a Christmas gift of a selection of 'posh' foodie things. My elder son and ex partner have done this for me for the last couple of years - a great delight. And I did buy some of those kind of things - things you could not get locally when I visited that store all those years ago. But nowadays you can get a lot of those things in your local supermarket, some of them hidden away, some not - like the Meredith Dairy cheese. And if you can't get them there, there is probably another source somewhere between the stratospheric prices of Simon Johnson, The Essential Ingredient et al. and the local Coles supermarket.

In the course of 'researching' this post I came across one of those discussion threads in which people were talking about the expense of it all. Here are a couple of examples:

"when you have a niche in the market you can charge what you like."

"I sometimes come away with the impression that these stores aren’t for people that like food or take cooking seriously but are for people that want to spend a lot of money on things."

Indeed in the Introduction to the book Leo Schofield says that in the 80s, we stopped cooking on a grand scale - those dinner parties I talked about recently - because of lack of time, and people like Simon Johnson stepped in to provide us with ready-made quality ingredients - short cuts to impressive meals that didn't require long labour in the kitchen to produce things like Julia Child's pancake stacks. It's a trend that has only grown apace, but the short-cuts have come from commerce in general and from innovative recipe creators so that the emphasis now is exactly the opposite - use up everything you have and only what is cheap and in season.

I suspect the Johnson's niche may be shrinking. Well not shrinking in the sense of wanting quality food - that's probably growing. It's the niche supplier that is shrinking, because it's not longer quite as niche. Many of those things are now available elsewhere. I remember I bought a Charmaine Solomon curry paste on my long-ago shopping trip, and I'm sure I have seen that elsewhere, if not in the supermarkets, then in much cheaper delis and Asian stores. But then again I also read that his major business - where he really made his money was in the wholesale side of things - supplying restaurants and catering services. And the Chinese. Let's not forget the Chinese.

So back to the origins of provedores - sometimes spelt providore. The root of the word is the Latin providere - to provide, via Spanish, Portuguese and Venetian dialect. The origin of the profession of provedore was "(in the Venetian republic) a senior civilian officer in charge of supplies, provisions, and artillery for the city". It was in most use as a term between the mid 18th and 19th centuries. And that definition at the top of the page "one provides necessities and supplies" is another way of putting it. In fact when I think about it that's what my father's job was. He was a Chief Steward on P&O cargo ships which also carried a few passengers. It was his job to supply everyone on board with their daily needs. He ordered them, stored them and then handed them out as needed - "a purveyor of necessities".

These days a provedore is definitely not a purveyor of necessities. He or she is a purveyor of luxuries. And Simon Johnson, in Australia anyway, is the most famous of them.

But back to the book. It is beautifully produced with high class photography and design. I suspect that this is why I bought it. As you know by now I'm a sucker for beauty in all its forms. Or maybe it was just after that Christmas visit which I had much enjoyed. Now that I contemplate it more reflectively I see that really it is a big glossy catalogue of what you can buy in Simon Johnson stores - although no prices are given. It is divided into chapters which cover each category of food that is sold there - such as this one - Charcuterie. Within each chapter there are little boxes about specific producers and their products which are sold in the shops; you get a few recipes and 'shortcuts' from all of those chef mates, and you also get a bit of text about the goods themselves, and associated things like definitions, a bit of history, basic processes like cooking rice or making tea and so on. So it's not a complete waste of time. I read it all once and probably absorbed a small percentage of it.

But here's another thing. I'm not at all sure who wrote it all. Simon Johnson himself? The Introduction is by Leo Schofield - and in the Acknowledgements, Johnson himself says:

"For their assistance with the text, thanks go to my good friends and colleagues ..." Did they write or merely edit?

So yes, I have convinced myself that this is for the street library. I fundamentally disapprove. Maybe somebody else will be seduced by its beauty. But if you want to visit one of the stores you will have to go to Toorak - or Sydney.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page