Chefon theaisle More grocery stores offer in-house pros to give advice, samples

Whole Foods salad bar supervisor Akhellah Lee works Friday in a kitchen with other cooks concentrating on keeping prepared foods supplied to the Mount Pleasant store.

One shopper wanted to know how to make French toast for vegans.

Others wanted to know what to do with squash.

“People see me cooking and say, ‘Ooh, what’s Maya cooking today?’ ” said Maya Morrill, a chef at Whole Foods Charleston.

“Our compliments to the chef!” might be an ovation most used in restaurants, but you could say the same thing in many supermarkets today. From the deli to the seafood counter, professionally trained chefs have joined retail grocery chains to up the culinary ante on ready-to-go meals and offer cooking advice to customers.

Morrill has been setting up shop in the aisles of the Mount Pleasant store for about four years, showing shoppers how to use the ingredients on the shelves around her to create culinary delights.

“I love my job,” she said. “I love being in a place where I can help people and teach them. There is so much great stuff to choose from. I want everyone to get excited about cooking and not stress about what’s for dinner.”

From the produce section to the spice racks, supermarket chefs pull from the same array of foods that shoppers have access to but might not know how to prepare.

“How nice to have an approachable chef that can answer questions on everything from proper cooking temperatures, particular ingredients, what side goes best with the entree they might be serving, wine pairings and advice on catering at home,” says John Szymanski, chef for Kroger in Atlanta. He and a team of chef colleagues cook in open kitchens at Atlanta-area Kroger stores for all the shoppers to see: “Our chefs love the fact that they can interact with customers daily.”

John Keller, a leader in the prepared foods department at the Mount Pleasant Whole Foods store, said he gets to interact with customers regularly, learning just as much from them as they do from him.

“Customers love to ask for advice, but they also love to give advice,” he said. “We like that. I like to help them open up their minds and use their imagination about food and what they can make.”

Chefs often encourage shoppers to try unfamiliar flavors, which is good for the supermarket’s bottom line and helps break down barriers to buying healthier foods.

“Some people are intimidated by things like squash,” Morrill said. “I love to show them the many ways they can use them.”

While indulgent comfort foods such as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes remain supermarket takeout favorites, Kroger’s Szymanski says, “The chefs are also seeing draws to grilled fish and chicken for the healthier alternatives. Whole grain, rice items and seasonal vegetable items are great movers as well.”

Looking over the seafood case at Piggly Wiggly’s Newton Farms store in Freshfields Village on Johns Island, vacationer Kathy Wilson was happy to get guidance on how to prepare her selection.

“We’re from West Virginia and don’t eat seafood that often, but since we’re here on vacation, it seemed like we should at least try it,” she said. “I’m not sure I would even know how to start, so I was glad for the advice. And if it doesn’t work out, there’s always pizza. I’m just happy to have my whole family here.”

That’s what Morrill, who has worked in restaurants and is also the daughter of a chef, adores about her job. “I love how food brings people together,” she said. “You can heal everything in your life with good food. Everybody needs to eat.”

MCT contributed to this story.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.