The Spiceman Cometh
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
(page 1 of 2)
It’s mid-afternoon, mid-week, when a customer enters John’s Pantry, a gourmet food store in Cordova specializing in hard-to-find ingredients. John Moberly, who opened the store in 2011 with partner Pat Garety, greets her. She knows what she wants — a rub for chicken that is made in-house. As the sale is rung up, they talk about how the chicken will be cooked.
“A lot of people come in here and say, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s way too fancy. I don’t know how to do that,’” Moberly says. “I have a knack for taking a recipe and reducing it down to whatever level the customer comes in on.”
That knack is apparent as Moberly, whose most striking traits are a ready chuckle and a grey mustache that ends in Dali-esque curls, leads a tour of John’s Pantry’s products.
For those who don’t like to stress too much when cooking but still want dishes with flair, Moberly points to the dark chocolate linguine, which makes a smart appetizer when served with goat cheese and dressed with raspberry balsamic vinegar. The basmati rice conjures up visions of a rice pudding easily whipped up with coconut and almond milks that is “put me in a corner with a spoon” good. Those pink peppercorns — one inspiration for John’s Pantry — can be ground into a vinaigrette that is peppery and a pretty pink.
For ambitious cooks, the store offers saltpeter for curing meats and pickling spices for homemade pickles. Bakers, who simply must follow that British recipe to a T, will also find the caster sugar the recipe calls for.
Poppy seeds can be had by the pound at John’s Pantry — a convenience for those who’ve ever bought a dozen tiny bottles of the seeds to make a poppy-seed cake.
Moberly, who was born in Washington State, came to Memphis 12 years ago. Stints in the restaurant business and at a big-box store left him wanting more. He met Garety at a Christmas party, uttering the words that would eventually lead to John’s Pantry: “You know, Pat, I’ve got this dream.”
— John Moberly
Moberly explained his frustration with finding ingredients and described John’s Pantry. Garety’s response, Moberly says, was, “That sounds pretty cool.”
It was Garety who insisted that John’s Pantry include the Damn Yankee Bakery. The store needed a smell, according to Garety. The bakery offers cookies and cakes and freshly made breads, including a sourdough bread made with a 38-year-old starter.
Hard-to-find items at John’s Pantry include gluten-free corn pasta, white rye flour for breads, and coconut extract. Moberly also makes several spice blends in-house, including an Herbs de Provence and garam masala, and sells handcrafted rubs and soup mixes. A small refrigerated shelf offers five-bean, pasta, and macaroni salads, based on Moberly’s mother’s recipes that he says he “went through and fixed.”
Also available are locally made items — Tom’s Tiny Kitchen pimento cheese, McCarter Coffee, and items made by the kids in the Boys & Girls Club program Garden to Groceries.
Moberly is a big believer in supporting local goods, describing a chain of events with a karmic turn: “I knew Jim [McCarter] because I used to drive by his place all the time to get coffee. Through him, I got hooked up with Lee Cagle of Wolf River Honey, who then put me in contact with J. Brooks, who then put me in contact with Urban Farms.”
Moberly continues, “Barry Carter, who owns the Easy Way stores, was in Urban Farms and bought a couple loaves of bread, and the next day was out here and introduced himself and said, ‘Would you be interested in selling your breads in my store?’ and I said, ‘There goes an understatement.’”
For the past year, the Easy Ways in Bartlett, Midtown, and East Memphis have been carrying John’s Pantry’s breads and a selection of spice blends.
As for future plans, Moberly says he would like to start teaching small, in-store cooking classes. He also entertains the idea of opening another John’s Pantry in Midtown. He says that John’s Pantry is for “anyone who likes to cook and anyone who likes to eat.” The store marked its 10,000th transaction earlier this summer.
Susan Ellis is managing editor of the Memphis Flyer.
Be sure to check out Pamela Denney’s blog Memphis Stew at memphismagazine.com/blogs/memphis-stew