Michel Lemmerling, owner of the Bon Appetit gourmet food store in Princeton, wonders whether his love of food retailing might be genetic. “I like to conduct business with people, to see different people every day, and to interact with people — it’s something you have in your blood,” he says.
The line of gourmet food businesses in his family started in 1887 with his great-grandfather Jules Lemmerling’s market in Leuven, Belgium, a university city similar to Princeton. Of course it is not just genes that make for a great retailer, but also the wisdom passed down from father to son — his environment, as it were.
As Lemmerling did last year, he will be part of the American Heart Association’s Chefs With Heart event on Thursday, June 5, at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick. The event benefits the American Heart Association New Jersey. Lemmerling will join more than 35 restaurants and vendors including, also from Mercer County, Rat’s Restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, the Brothers Moon and the Blue Bottle Cafe in Hopewell, the Lawrenceville Inn in Lawrenceville, and Tre Piani, Mediterra, and Salt Creek Grille in Princeton. This year Lemmerling will offer a cheese, a meat, and a sweet. Guests will enjoy signature dishes from the restaurants and will sample fine wines, liqueurs, and microbrews, a cafe bar, pastries, desserts, and more.
Lemmerling started working with his father at the market in Belgium at age 16 or 17 — at first whenever he had a day off from school, and after the army, fulltime. That gave him lots of time to absorb his father’s business acumen.
He remembers one early lesson that grew out of living in a town where two cultures coexisted and townspeople varied culturally and economically. “I remember that my father always told me to take good care of all the customers,” says Lemmerling. “Don’t make any difference between customers — if they are Flemish or French speaking, a worker or the president of the university — take care of everybody the same way.”
Another memory of his father’s wisdom harks back to the days of the first supermarkets. One opened its doors some 200 feet away from the Lemmerlings’ business and a year later another arrived 500 feet away in the opposite direction. Lemmerling remembers expressing concern to his father, saying “This is really going to hurt us.” But his father just looked at him, smiled, and said, “You’ll see.” And what he saw was that people stopped at the Lemmerlings shop to buy fresh and specialty items as they made their way from one supermarket to the other.
His father also taught him to buy the best products, even if they were not high-end items. “You can have a young gouda that has no flavor and one that is outstanding,” says Lemmerling. “He taught me to buy the outstanding.”
Lemmerling was drawn to the United States by his brother, Luc, a Princeton gynecologist who did his medical internship in the United States and decided to stay. He liked life in the States and his brother and American friends used to urge him to take over a store here. “In the beginning it was just words,” he says. “Then I started to think about it and thought maybe I should try something new.” The European tax structure also gave him a push. “In Belgium in those days and still today,” he says, “you are harassed by taxes. You work more for the government than for yourself.”
With some financial help from his brother, Lemmerling bought his new business from the Andersons, the Danish couple who had founded the store 40 years ago.
Lemmerling’s decision to move to the United States in 1989 was a good one businesswise, but it may also have ended the father-to-son line of gourmet retailers extending back to 1887. The four children who emigrated with him, ranging then from ages six to twelve, have since gone their own ways, as Americans are wont to do. Lemmerling has a fifth child, with his second wife, who is a junior in high school.
Because of the increasing interest among Americans in good food, starting in the late ‘80s, Lemmerling’s only regret is that he did not immigrate 10 years earlier. Lemmerling’s personal specialty is in cheese and, as did his father, he has the professional recognition of “taste de fromage,” comparable to the “taste de vin” in the wine world, which attests to his knowledge about cheeses and how to present, serve, and cut them and pair them with wine and drinks.
Lemmerling offers a monthly cheese class, where regulars and new visitors get to taste eight new cheeses with bread and fruit, and Lemmerling talks about the cheeses. He also raffles off a cheese platter. “My two daughters come and help me out,” he says, then adds, “but none will take the business over.” To get on his e-mail list for the classes, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.
If you’re not a cheese maven, but want to put together a cheese platter, Lemmerling offers this straightforward advice: select one cheese from each of the five basic types — soft and creamy; semisoft; harder; goat; and bleu — remembering that cheeses from each category can range from very mild to very sharp. “After the basic types, your personal taste starts to play,” says Lemmerling.
To understand what kinds of cheeses will please his customers, Lemmerling plies them with questions in order to narrow the field. Are you looking for something firm or very runny? Pungent or milder? Are you a little adventurous? Would you like to try something a little different than classic? “Depending on the answer, I try to find out what people want, then give them some tasting,” he says.
It is the tasting that gives him the most direction. If the customer rejects a pungent cheese, for example, all its strong-tasting relatives also drop from consideration. Same thing if a cheese is pronounced too dry.
Lemmerling carries the classic industrial cheeses — Jahrlsberg, Emmenthaler, classic cheddars, and goudas that can be made mechanically, on a large scale, without being touched by a human being. But he also carries the natural, artisanal cheeses, from small dairy farms where cheese makers make cheeses with their bare hands.
The process of making cheese, says Lemmerling, involves warming the milk; adding rennet to coagulate the cheese and separate the mass from the whey; and aging. The aging process, which can last from a few weeks to months or years, gives the cheese its consistency and flavor.
Artisanal cheeses are made in small quantities, following strict rules about how and when they are made — milk cows, for example, produce very different milk in May when they are grazing outside than in the winter when they are eating grains or hay. To ensure consistency and quality, farmhouse cheese makers use milk from their own herds. “They will pay attention to the type of foods they give to animals so that the milk they produce is what they want and is constant,” says Lemmerling. By contrast, industrial cheeses will mix together milk from many places.
When Lemmerling took over the store, he completely renovated it, putting in new refrigerators, expanding the salad and meat departments and adding a bakery department; the cheese department was already strong.
From the beginning he added “a little European touch.” “It worked very well,” he says. “We doubled the numbers in a year.” But he adds ruefully that he did not have a single day off during the first two years.
Early on he added a corporate gift basket department, which is run successfully by his sister-in-law, Deeann Lemmerling. And recently he hired Lorena Fister, who has already begun to expand that business.
The business is thriving, with customers coming from as far as Philadelphia, Somerset, and Morristown. The cafe is crowded during breakfast and lunch, and the Romeos (retired old men eating out) stop in every day. Schoolteachers often gather at the cafe for meetings.
Trying the new cheeses from all over the world provided by his eight or nine vendors is, of course, essential to Lemmerling’s business, and he eats cheese daily, whether for business or pleasure. He likes old cheeses and tends to go with more flavorful cheeses rather than softer, milder, creamier ones. In fact, he is a bit fearless in the world of cheeses. “I prefer cheese with a little bite,” he says. “I’m not afraid of cheese that is a little stinky.”
Chefs with Heart, Tuesday, June 5, 6 p.m., American Heart Association, the Heldrich, New Brunswick, Fourth annual food and wine tasting event features delicacies from area vendors including Michel Lemmerling of Bon Appetit in Princeton, Dee Elkins of Bistro Blends in Hightstown, and Vicki Robb of Miele in Princeton, as well as restaurants including Tre Piani, Blue Bottle Cafe, Rat’s Restaurant, Lawrenceville Inn, Brothers Moon, Mediterra, Salt Creek Grille, Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant, and Christopher’s at the Heldrich. $99. Register at 609-223-3711.
Cheese Tastings at Bon Appetit, once a month on Wednesdays, at 7 p.m., Princeton Shopping Center. 609-924-7755. May 28: Creamy and Mild Cheese. June 25: U.S. Novelties. August 27: Wine Soaked Cheeses. September 24: Cheddars. October 22: Cooking with cheese, with a guest chef. November 19: Holiday Cheeses. $50 per person. BYOB. Reservations required.