The name Le Sanctuaire suggests a place that soothes the soul. But at this extraordinary kitchen boutique in Santa Monica, a visitor is more likely to get fired-up. No other shop in America offers such a remarkable mix of ingredients, cookbooks, equipment and high design or is such a magnet for innovative chefs. Says Ron Siegel, the chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, "If you come to Le Sanctuaire and you're not inspired, you need CPR."
The owner of this store is Jing Tio, a slim, bespectacled 33-year-old. A native of Surabaya, he always tells people that he is from Indonesia so he doesn't have to answer the inevitable follow-up question about where Surabaya is. He presides over a sleek, spare space that looks like it should sell couture rather than kitchenware. On one table is a 1949 edition of the culinary bible The Physiology of Taste. On another is an immersion circulator, a motorized, whisklike device that experimental chefs use for sous-vide cooking. A case displays Tio's favorite Japanese Nenox chef's knives—perfectly weighted, with gorgeous Corian handles. This is a store with a sensibility, where shelves have been curated rather than stocked.
Standing in front of a huge blackboard on which he has written the names of the 150 or so spices and seasonings he carries (from agar-agar to za'atar), Tio talks about his food-and-design fixation. He came to Los Angeles in 1994 to go to college and eventually took an accounting job, but he found himself spending all his free time in the kitchen. "I would buy a mixer for $250 and after three months the blade would get rusty," he says. Against the wishes of his investment-banker father, Tio opened Le Sanctuaire in 2003, filling it with spices from his mother's family's export business. His story is not exactly a hardscrabble one; to raise money for the new boutique he had to sell his six cars, including a Mercedes and a BMW. He now drives a 15-year-old Honda Accord.
Chefs regard Tio as more than a merchant; they see him as a collaborator. Ludovic Lefebvre of Los Angeles's Bastide has spent hours with Tio playing with liquid nitrogen. The two men share a design fetish; recently Lefebvre fell for the Raynaud Cristobal china Tio sells. Its lobster-pink pattern inspired him to create a luxurious lobster dish tossed with udon, bok choy and a tart-sweet sake sauce.
Ron Siegel, an F&W Best New Chef 1999, is another one of Tio's groupies. The respect is mutual; Tio even hand-delivers ingredients to Siegel in San Francisco, like La Amarilla de Ronda Suave organic olive oil from Spain. Siegel uses the elegant artichoke-accented oil to marinate a garlic-and-chile-rubbed flank steak.
Tio's kitchen at home is filled with items from Le Sanctuaire. Esther Tio describes her husband as "obsessive every day" when he cooks: "He will keep trying until he gets it—whatever it is—perfect." He uses his computerized L'Equip food dehydrator to make orange powder for a favorite party dish, crab salad with green onions. After dinner parties Tio usually serves rare p'uerh tea with a simple dessert like financiers, the little French cakes. He favors a tea set with swooping swan-neck handles designed by the 99-year-old Hungarian-born potter Eva Zeisel; only two sets a month are turned out at Lomonosov, a famous porcelain factory in St. Petersburg.
One day Tio hopes to own a restaurant. For now, he's happy to keep his shop stocked with amazing finds. He considers a huge table-size slab of salt, leaning against a brick wall at the store, that someone brought him from the African desert. "I'll clean it up and cut it down into soap-size bars," he says. "Then, I'll sell it to chefs and they'll grate it at the table."
Le Sanctuaire, 2710 Main St., Santa Monica, California; 310-581-8999.
Laurie Winer is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times