Challenge of Cheese
Monger with the most wins the big cheese
“There’s the cheese; here’s a copy of ‘The Cheese Primer,’ now, go sell.”
This was pretty much the extent of the training I received when I started behind the counter at Central Market in Austin, Texas. The year was 1998, and specialty cheese education was not yet a ‘thing’. I learned by tasting a lot of cheese and cobbling together bits of information where I could.
My more senior colleagues offered me tastes and shared whatever little information they had gleaned… milk type and country of origin, raw or pasteurized, was about the extent of it.
They shared bites of their favorites — including a rancid aged goat cheese from Spain that drove my unrefined palate over the edge. It took me six months to try another goat cheese and like it.
My sincere desire to learn was somewhat of an anomaly because most of my colleagues weren’t foodies. They were there for a paycheck; the cheese was secondary. They were artists and musicians and other creative types, who, like me, an aspiring screenwriter, simply wanted a day job with benefits so they could focus on their art. It was not the sort of thing that became a calling for too many back then.
There was no path to knowledge, and we were hard pressed to find a community on that little foodie island in central Texas.
Fast-forward to 2015, and cheese is hip; cheesemongers are all the rage in food-savvy towns and cheese education has been remade to appeal to an entirely new generation.
In mid-January, this most dramatic shift was on full display as 35 mongers from across the country and cheesemakers from around the world converged on Public Works, an arts and music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District, to stage the fifth annual Cheesemonger Invitational.
Started in 2010, and described as “Fightclub meets WrestleMania of cheese,” it’s truly all that and more. The event is the vision of cheese promoter and importer, Adam Moskowitz, whose family warehouse in Queens hosts the East Coast equivalent every summer since 2010. Portland’s own Steve Jones of Cheese Bar won the top title in 2011.
Over the course of two days, competing mongers experience hands-on education and challenges, hear stories and ask questions, all while tasting tons of cheese.
Attendees gain direct access to top producers and importers sharing the human elements that go into making fine cheese. These tidbits are like gold when selling cheeses to customers back home in their own shops. Perhaps even more important, they access an energized community of like-minded people who feel their passion for great cheese.
Industry veterans serve as judges putting competitors through their paces in selling challenges and creating and sampling 100 perfect bites.
Competitors range from passionate newbies to seasoned professionals and all those in between. A colorful and creative bunch with tattoos and piercings and cheese-related swag everywhere, the group is collegial, supportive and looking to better improve and understand their profession.
Day Two is all about challenges and feats of mongering prowess: perfectly cutting and quickly wrapping, crafting flawless bites and promoting their favorite cheeses as a team of expert judges scores their efforts.
The experience culminates in a public party hosting about a thousand people. While the competition takes place on the main stage, guests mingle with producers and experience an unparalleled cheese selection, rarely on display in one setting.
In the background, the top 10 finalists — including Portland monger Katie Eshleman of Pastaworks — work through the challenges, cheered on by the crowd and their fellow competitors. They cut one-quarter-, one-third- and half-pound slices, earning points for accuracy. Next, they wrap and label as many as possible in a timed competition. Finally, they are challenged to pair one cheese with a beer selection and present the pairing to the judges for consideration.
As the dust settled, the top three winners were revealed: Matt Reilly from Eatlay Chicago claimed top honors; Jessica Beer from Cured in Boulder was second and Megan Beene of Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco took third. Winners received cash and a “Cheese Journey” to visit cheesemakers in England and Vermont to further their education.
Though no Northwest monger was victorious, the energy created will reverberate far beyond the evening as cheesemongers and an adoring public explored new and exciting ways to celebrate cultured curd.