It’s just under 150 square feet — smaller than most walk-in closets in Santa Monica Canyon — but second-generation cheesemonger Kurt Gurdal has managed to squeeze close to 1,000 different products into the Canyon Grocer. Everything from beans, pasta, vegetables, cheese, juices, meats, nuts, sauces, vinegars, oils, olives, condiments, flowers and books that stack up to the ceiling have their own reason and story for being there.
“The majority of the products here have stories that are close to me,” Gurdal, who grew up in his parent’s famed Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells L.A. Weekly. “I carry one brand of pasta that my family has carried since I was a little kid, Rustichella d’Abruzzo. I remember going out to dinner with the importer when I was very young and he taught me to mix greens with my hands so I wouldn’t bruise the lettuce, and I’ve always loved his pasta ever since. It’s good quality and it’s close to me. On the other end of the spectrum, I carry my wife’s favorite beef jerky from Bishop, California. We were ordering by the pound during the pandemic and realized we should just carry it at the grocer. Bonnie’s Red Pepper jelly started out in copper pots in my family’s kitchen on Sundays. I also have a selection of local products from around here like Ely’s honey, who got his start right up the street and other people I’ve met along the way. There’s an abundance of really great local producers, so I base it on taste, who these people are and what I think the community needs.”
Being the first recorded grocer in the Santa Monica canyon, the tiny pantry is a welcome gift for the neighborhood that would otherwise have to drive through traffic to pick up that forgotten carton of milk. He also carries frozen pizzas, caviar and bread. Gurdal picks up frozen Peads & Barnetts sausages from the Santa Monica farmers market every Wednesday and sells them without any markup. He also loads up on berries and stone fruit for neighbors who can’t make the market.
The shop opened Labor Day of last year, after a few months of doing a pop-up in the courtyard of his current space on West Channel Road, where he created cheeseboards from his vast knowledge and experienced cheese lineage.
While the UC Irvine graduate still creates those cheese boards for customers, he’s got a cheese-of-the-month club and advice on how to make your own.
“It’s like trusting a barber or a stylist, you trust what they’re going to do for you,” he says. “A local cheesemonger or butcher is the same thing, you trust them to get the job done correctly. Secondly, remember what you like. Start breaking cheeses down to different styles rather than actual names. There are only so many styles, but so many different producers. Once you’ve got your styles, you can pick them out based on sight. I always recommend to go out of your comfort zone and try one or two new styles every time you make a cheese plate, just so you’ll know whether or not you like it.
“Some of the cheeses here are from producers I really like and would use for a cheese plate at home and standard things that people really love like a good triple creme or cheddar,” Gurdal says. “You mix textures, strengths, milk sources from Indiana to California to Wisconsin to France, Spain and Italy. I have a few staples I love and then I’ll switch up six to seven different varieties here just because of the space.”
In addition to his cheese obsession, Gurdal also is a second generation volleyball player, a perfect fit for the canyon crowd, which includes customers like olympic champion Sinjin Smith and wife Patty. Gurdal’s father Ihsan came to the U.S. as part of the Turkish Volleyball team and later coached at Harvard.
“I’d carry more if I could,” he says. “I just applied for my beer and wine license and have no idea where I’m going to put them. I guess I’ll have to hang them from the ceiling.”
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