By Caroline Benveniste
Walking through bustling Chelsea Market today it is hard to remember a time when it did not exist. In the early 1990’s, virtually the only restaurant in the Meatpacking District was Florent, and the High Line Park didn’t open until almost two decades later. The changes to the neighborhood began in 1993 when Irwin Cohen, a former lawyer turned developer, along with a number of foreign investors, bought the old National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco) factory. After pursuing a few failed ideas for the space, Cohen made the inspired decision to turn the building into a wholesale/retail food complex.
David Porat was an obvious choice for a tenant in the new market. He had been interested in gourmet foods even as a child, and over the years he pursued his passion with a number of jobs in the food industry. In 1996 he was running a business that represented food companies, and was approached by the owners of Chelsea Market with the idea of opening a small showroom for his products. When Chelsea Market opened in April 1997, David had an 800 square foot shop which he named Chelsea Market Baskets.
By 2009, Chelsea Market Baskets had grown to 2300 square feet and had become a popular destination in the market for chocolates, imported cookies and crackers and a host of other items—including the eponymous gift baskets, many of them incorporating foods from other shops in Chelsea Market. By 2015, David became concerned that the twenty year lease he had signed in 1997 was nearing its end. After negotiations with Jamestown Properties which had acquired Chelsea Market in 2011, an agreement was made for David to remain in the market but to move to an adjacent space. The reason for this was that David’s original space was well suited to a restaurant, but the layout of the new space was more challenging: it was narrower and on two levels. With over forty shops crammed into the first floor, Chelsea Market was fast running out of room, and Jamestown was eager to start using the subterranean level. To sweeten the deal, Jamestown agreed to a smaller rent increase compared with what David would have paid in the original space.
After a month of renovations, Chelsea Market Baskets re-opened in early September. While the old store had an endearing untidiness about it, the new store is better organized. Chocolates, still in the front, draw people in. The excellent Leonidas pralines remain prominently showcased near the register. On the right side of the store are seasonal items, currently featuring lots of pumpkin-flavored foods. David represents a number of British food companies and in the center of the store is an extensive section of British and other imported items. Behind them tasteful New York souvenirs are on offer. The souvenirs sell extremely well, not too surprisingly given the large number of international tourists who are part of the six million annual visitors to the market.
In the back of the first floor are pantry supplies, including oils, vinegars, salts, maple syrups, jams, honey, and hot sauces. Against the back wall is a bar section with bitters, cocktail tools and mixers. A small but unusual beer selection can also be found at the rear of the store.
Downstairs houses the non-comestibles: soaps and candles, a very popular section of baby items (and a smaller section of dog items), containers of all sorts, plus an area where customers can watch the baskets being prepared. The basket business is huge, so much so that during the holiday season over a thousand baskets a day are assembled, something that does not take place in the store but rather at a warehouse in New Jersey.
Given the large selection of high-quality products, the free samples and the friendly and knowledgeable staff, don’t be surprised if you come away from the shop with a number of impulse purchases.
Sidecar with bitters
The Sidecar is a Prohibition era drink that has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. Princess Diary fans might remember that the Sidecar was Grand-mère’s favorite drink. It is traditionally made with just three ingredients, Cognac, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice, but it benefits, like many other cocktails, from the addition of a few drops of bitters.
2 oz. Cognac
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
Orange bitters (available at Chelsea Market Baskets)
Add first three ingredients to a Mason Jar Cocktail Shaker (available at Chelsea Market Baskets). Shake over ice. Pour into a sugar-rimmed Martini glass and add a couple of drops of bitters.