When it comes to the cheeses we love most, we generally think of farmers, cheesemakers and, well, cows. But there is another person, perhaps the most important in the equation: cheesemongers. They are the experts that help us determine what cheese we are looking for depending on our mood, food and drink pairings, or event. There is art, science and wildly precise skill to what they do. The Cheesemonger Invitational finds the best of the best. It's a daylong competition to crown the best cheesemonger in the land through a series of brutal, exacting tests. We sent reporter Ryan Kailath there to check out this intense event.
Francis Lam: You have just come back from the wilds of Cheeselandia, The Cheesemonger Invitational. This is a cheese trade show basically, but it's also become this place where dreams come true and hopes are dashed against the rocks. What exactly is it?
Ryan Kailath: It's funny. I feel bad because you're always talking to fancy chefs and culinary experts. And I'm just a dude who went to a thing; I have no food knowledge whatsoever.
FL: That is what makes one an expert.
RK: But this thing, The Cheesemonger Invitational, is open to the public. So, it's maybe a thing that I would get dragged to as a member of the public, and on that side it seems very simple. You show up at three or four in the afternoon, eat some cheese for a few hours, drink some beers, have some of the food that's out and then you go home.
What I saw going to this for The Splendid Table was all of the literal scaffolding behind that. I was there at 8:00 a.m. when they were building the stage – there was scaffolding up and they're building this whole thing – and that's when the cheesemongers arrived. They had actually already been in town for a couple of days. They were preparing, they were up till 4:00 a.m. making pastry doughs to prepare for their presentations and bites and things like that. So, the behind the scenes, the underneath the water part of the iceberg, on this thing was huge.
FL: And before the guests arrive, there's this huge competition. What are they competing on? What are the skills they're trying to show off?
RK: I will have to look at the list because there were so many tests. But, it’s better if you hear the guy who runs the whole thing talk about it. His name's Adam Moskowitz. He's like a third-generation cheesemonger, a cheese world person. Here he is talking about the day.
[BEGIN TAPE OF ADAM MOSKOWITZ]
Adam Moskowitz (on tape): Right now we are in Brooklyn, New York City. It is Saturday morning. We just started the competition rounds for The Cheesemonger Invitational. We got about 45 cheesemongers inside. They're taking a written test and then they're going to go into a taste test and then into an aroma test.
From there, they're going to jump into the technical rounds. They're going to cut a quarter pound, they're going to wrap a quarter pound, and then they're going to wrap a half a wheel of cheese. From there, they're going to jump into the food service rounds where they're going to do a beverage pairing with a preassigned cheese and then a perfect plating on a slate with a preassigned cheese. Finally, they're going to bring a perfect bite, like an amuse-bouche with cheese being the center of the plate.
At that moment, we're also going to be open to the public where we have the finest purveyors of the specialty cheese showing and sharing their wares – basically the finest cheese on the planet!
Ryan Kailath: So, you can get a sense of this dude Adam Moskowitz is basically powering this whole entire thing with the energy of his personality. At one point he was wearing a cow onesie with a cowbell around his neck and a baseball cap, pumping his fist in the air, pumping up the crowd.
Francis Lam: He names off written tests, aroma tests, and taste tests. What are some of these tests that stood out to you?
RK: The one as a lay person – and I guess for a cheese person, this is not difficult at all – but the aroma test where they had cheeses hidden inside a canister with cloth over the top; they just had to smell it and name the cheese very specifically, not just the family, not like, “This is a Gouda.” They had to name the brand, et cetera. That was cool.
Then, of course, there was the cutting one, where you have to cut a quarter pound exactly. And I think this all of us can relate to because whether it's at the butcher or the cheese counter or whatever. It's always awesome when you order a quarter pound and you watch them cut it and throw it on the scale and it's actually 0.25 pounds. That's amazing! You and that person share a little moment. [laughs].
FL: Ding! Ding! Ding!
RK: They were judged on how often you can hit 0.25 exactly on the scale.
FL: That's so interesting. There's also a salesmanship test.
RK: Yeah. The salesmanship challenge, which all of these guys and women had to go through, is basically selling cheese. And this is the part that I had not considered before. Because obviously the cheese gets center stage. And also I think with the cheesemaker, there’s a lot of prestige there. The person who does not get a lot of attention is the person that most of us deal with, the person at the cheese counter selling it. The salesmanship challenge find out how well can you sell?
We have a clip of one of the contestants, David Myers.
[BEGIN TAPE OF SALESMANSHIP CHALLENGE]
David Myers (to customer-judge): How's it going today? You look like you haven't had a bite of cheese in a second. Would you like some little snacks while you look around? This is one of the last three completely traditional Cheddars left an entire world made by the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England, where Cheddar originally got its name. It tastes almost like mustard to me.
Customer-Judge: That maybe great. I'm looking for some picnic cheeses today. Can you recommend a great picnic cheese?
DM: Fantastic. This is one of my favorites for sure. But let’s see, how many people are you serving at this picnic?
C-J: It’s be about four.
DM: Four people? Alright. And do want to have leftovers?
C-J: It's going to be hot, so probably not.
DM: I really like this Roth Grand Cru Surchoix; it's perfect out under the open sky. It's got really nice Alpine, nutty, caramel-y flavors. This is made in the style of a traditional French and Swiss Alpine cheeses like Gruyère, and it tastes kind of caramelized. Really good crowd pleaser.
C-J: I like them both, but I think I might be looking for something in the goat's milk family.
DM: Absolutely. Try this one. It tastes like goat’s milk marshmallows. This is broad vendor. This is a goat milk Gouda aged about six months. And despite having no sugar or lactose in it, it has a flavor that is quite candy-like.
Francis Lam: So, how do he do? Was this good?
Ryan Kailath: I watched a lot of these. He was nervous.
FL: You can kind of get that vibe.
RK: He was sweating on the cheese a little bit. [laughs]
FL: That's a disgusting. Points off for getting sweat on the cheese.
RK: The judges were all cheese world professionals. In the back room machinations later, they were definitely tearing into some of these people. “I talked to this person, it was five minutes before they even offered me a taste of cheese. Grade F!” He did well with that; he immediately got this judge a slice of cheese and kept it going. Also, you heard in that clip, they weren’t selling to average people. This judge said, “I was looking for something more than the goat family.” That's not something I say at the cheese counter
FL: And this was a day-long thing.
RK: Yeah. I got there at 10:00 a.m., and they were still going when I left at 9:00 p.m.
FL: This backing up a bit, but what is a cheesemonger?
RK: Good question. It's really marketing and sales, but they've dressed it up with a much fancier and more pleasant term. The cheesemonger is the person who tells you what you want. Because, for me certainly, and probably for a lot of us, we show up at that cheese case, and it's overwhelming, it's intimidating. We don't know. And they tell us, “This is what you want!” Maybe it costs a little bit more than the other ones. [laughs]
FL: That's so cynical. So, the whole thing was a competition, and because I can't resist: Who won?
RK: Some crowd favorites started to float to the top. And one of the guys that I had my money on ended up being the winner. The way that it worked was, there's this battery of tests during the morning. Then in the afternoon the public is let in, and all of these cheese and drink pairings and cheese hors d'oeuvres and cheese plates are all coming out on like huge sheet pans. That's what the public got to enjoy, all these 45 different pairings from all of the different mongers in bulk. That's what the judges were trying, too. And then at the very end of the day, on that stage that was being built, they got the finalists up there and they did all the tests in public. They did the aroma test, they did the cutting test and the weighing test and the answering cheese trivia.
Now, at this point in the night the crowd was drunk on the free beer and wine and cheese. There were some friends and family that were paying lots of attention to the goings-on onstage, but most people were wandering out in a dairy coma of sorts.
FL: What are the stakes? Does it mean something for someone to do well in this competition?
RK: Yes. And this will get me to the eventual winner. What Adam told me is that the past winners have all had market jumps in their career. They've gone from cheese seller to cheese shop owner, or they've gotten a stake in a cheese making business or something like that. Magazine profiles, radio appearances, the kind of thing that can elevate their career. The winner – who, I don't know that I called it, but he was in my top five – was Eric Schack, a local guy from here in New York, from Eataly NYC Downtown. He was in tears when it won. He really put his heart into the competition.
FL: Good job, Eric Schack. Ryan, I help you too feel like a champion.
RK: Thank you for sending me. I'm a business reporter; it's not the kind of thing I ever go to, so this was a great day for me.
Ryan Kailath is a freelance reporter for public radio and podcasts.
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