Photo: Lee Pellegrini

The Gourmet Guru

Valerie Gurdal ’85 has been enlightening palates for decades at her pioneering shop Formaggio Kitchen.

Potato chips fried in olive oil and packaged in cheerful blue-and-white canisters imported from Barcelona. Heirloom cornmeal sourced from the Piedmont region of Italy. Mustard ground in ancient stone mills near Düsseldorf, Germany. And cheese—close to three hundred cut-to-order wedges and wheels from around the world.

For more than four decades, Formaggio Kitchen has delighted discerning Bostonians with specialty foods—and the stories
behind them. “We love and care about the products and the people who make the products, and we pass that on to our staff,” said Valerie Gurdal ’85, who owns the pioneering shop in Cambridge’s Huron Village neighborhood with her husband, Ihsan. And now, with a move a few blocks away to a bright new space almost twice as large, the couple can bring in even more beloved discoveries from afar: charcuterie, wine, and, of course, cheese.

Gurdal, who was born and raised in Miami, moved to Boston in 1980 to study criminology and accounting at Northeastern University, in hopes of one day working for the FBI. But soon, “food won out,” she said. Gurdal transferred to Boston College, where she took night classes in management while working during the day at Formaggio Kitchen, which was then owned by someone else. That’s where she met Ihsan, who was a manager at the store when he hired her in 1984. They assumed ownership of Formaggio Kitchen in 1999, and over time, have opened additional locations in Boston, Cambridge, and New York City.

From the first time Gurdal set foot in Formaggio Kitchen, searching for saffron to make paella, it reminded her of the markets in Madrid that she browsed while visiting her great-aunt as a 20-year-old. “She’d have her little wicker basket, and right next door there was an egg and chicken guy and a cart that came with vegetables,” Gurdal remembered recently, as we chatted among the wine bottles stacked in Formaggio Kitchen’s basement. “Then there was the fish person. I learned to shop with her like that and thought it was the most amazing thing.” So, from the beginning, she and her husband—who grew up around the bazaars in his native Istanbul—have worked to imbue Formaggio Kitchen with a similar spirit.

"I pinch myself all the time,” Gurdal said. “I see somebody walking down the street with a bag and I’m like, Oh, my God, they just shopped at our store."

Though the extra square footage of the airy new space has allowed the Gurdals to increase their offerings—among the additions are a butchery and a seafood department—the crown jewel is still the cheese counter, stocked with briny fetas, pillowy chèvres, and various vintages of cow’s milk Comté. The move also meant they could expand their cheese cave, where staffers age and care for some of the wheels for sale. Touring the shop, it’s obvious why Formaggio Kitchen keeps winning awards, including a coveted spot on the Financial Times’ list of the fifty greatest food stores in the world.

“I pinch myself all the time,” Gurdal said. “I see somebody walking down the street with a bag and I’m like, Oh, my God, they just shopped at our store.” Once, she was staying in Rome over the holidays and ran out to buy eggs. At the market, Gurdal overheard a little boy ask his father if they could get some jamón serrano. “And the father said, ‘No, when we go home we’ll go to South End Formaggio,’” she recalled, chuckling at the memory. It turned out that the family lived in Newton, Massachusetts.

Not only has Formaggio Kitchen fed and educated generations of Bostonians—including famous regulars such as the actor John Malkovich, J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Boston Bruins great Cam Neely—but several former employees have gone on to open their own restaurants, food businesses, and cheese shops. It’s a culinary family tree with branches around New England and beyond. “It’s nice to see when somebody likes what you like,” Gurdal said. “You’re passionate about it, you really believe in it, and they actually like it too.”

At 63, Gourdal said she’s hoping to step away a bit from the day-to-day operations of her stores, but that she and Ihsan will always be involved in the business in some way. “Food is passion,” she said. “People love it. We’re not picky—it may seem like we are—but it’s just sitting down and enjoying yourself with a piece of bread and a piece of cheese and a bottle of wine.”

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