Fine Dining Lovers

Welcome to 'Le Sanctuaire' of Spices

Meet Jing Tio, founder of San Francisco’s Le Sanctuaire and spice guru behind the sought after See Smell Taste range of exotic culinary seasonings

By Evangelia Koutsovoulou on August 16, 2012

If you consider experience, patience and prudence as key qualities for a blossoming career, the following story might prove you wrong. When in 2003 Jing Tio sold his six cars and quit his job as an accountant to found Le Sanctuaire, a high-end boutique selling all things gourmet, he didn’t have any of the three.

Now a supplier for the likes of Daniel Humm, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria, Tio humorously repeats that it’s his stubbornness and enthusiasm about the perfect spice that helped him introduce his discoveries to some of the world’s finest kitchens.

How did you become an expert in spices?
I don’t know if I could define myself as an expert. I’m always excited by fragrance and taste and basically that’s what I say to chefs: the aroma is great; see what you can do with it. I was lucky enough to have my mother establishing the contact with farmers and from then on I explored the offer. I’ve travelled a lot: I went to the Basque Country looking for the best pimento or to Tahiti for vanilla... but still today, when people ask me how to use those finds for cooking I answer that I don’t know! I’m the hunter – not the chef!

There are more than 500 A-list chefs in your records. What attracts them to work with you?
We concentrate on research and sourcing, we deal directly with farmers that share our own thoughts. The spice trade has a long history, it has been going on for the last 4,000 years, but it’s a commodity, people involved in the business are mainly brokers, so prices depend on supply and demand. We’re not interested in this way of working, that’s why we go directly to the farmer. It’s impossible not to notice the quality difference.

So how does the sourcing of your spices happen?
Sometimes it can be very frustrating, a slow pace... in what we do there’s no bibliography, there are not books out there talking about spices. I mean serious spices. Most books talk a little bit about the history, the usage and they end with a recipe. There’s a lot to discover.

Your spice blends are also very popular. What’s the most special one?
I just finished creating a new blend called “Swarnadwipa”, which means “Land of Gold” in Sanskrit. We have good response from a chef, you’re going to see it tested in a menu in New York this summer, it makes an interesting pairing with fish. After bringing awareness to the diners, we’ll launch it in the retail as we did with our Vadouvan mix, which has been very successful.

How do you create your blends?
It’s trial and error. Tradition often inspires us - the challenge in those cases is that there’s no recipe. For instance Swarnadwipa was inspired by a dish at least 800 years old: I went to see the locals, they didn’t have a recipe but they knew how to cook it, so I transcribed the process and then I tried to duplicate it and recreate the same result out of a dried mix. That’s actually my favorite part of the work: research. We have all shorts of equipment for this purpose, you see the tricky part is how you dry the ingredients: there’s no formula. As long as you memorize a fragrance profile, then the magic of execution comes through experience.

Which was the best compliment that a chef has ever made you?
It’s funny, you see I just received this letter by Thomas Keller showing his appreciation about our work and this is something very gratifying, because I think he’s the best chef out there.