“It was as if I was an apprentice without even having been hired,” she said.
In 1996, she opened a small wholesale outpost for chefs on what used to be a desolate stretch in the East Village, but as the area gentrified and food television brought a new level of awareness to home cooking, she moved to larger quarters in the same neighborhood to serve amateur cooks as well.
Now her store serves both worlds.
Bill Brasile, 48, a consultant and former executive chef at Minetta Tavern, walked into the store. “I met Atef in the late 1990s,” he said. “She would stroll into Le Cirque with 10 kilos of black Périgord truffles and her big smile.” Ms. Boulaabi offered him a kishu mandarin. “Taste this, Chef,” she said.
“I can’t go to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market every week,” said Charlie Izenstein, 38, who will be the executive sous-chef at Frenchette in Soho, a restaurant slated to open this spring. “Instead, I come here to taste and smell.”
Mr. Izenstein dug his nose into a jar of Louisiana Hot Sauce Powder. “I see that with a lobster salad,” Ms. Boulaabi said.
“Oh, this is my dream kitchen,” said Oliver Pavick, 30, an artist, as he entered. “Right now, all I have is a hot plate.”
Mary Vaughan, a bartender at Blue Hill, visited earlier in the day with a colleague to look for cocktail ingredients, but she had returned alone, this time shopping for herself.
“I am getting three different kinds of pepper,” she said. “I have decided to get things I am not familiar with and use them in my life.” She told Ms. Boulaabi that as a former baker, she was precise and recipe-driven. She wanted to free herself and learn to throw things together.
“You step into a shop like this,” Ms. Vaughan said, “and you’re transported around the world.”