If I was cheesy before …


I was a pastry chef before I was a food writer, but if the ol’ journalism career ever goes kaput, next time I’ll jump back into the food industry as a cheese monger. Like a lot of folks in Atlanta, I woke up to the vast world of artisan cheese when Raymond Hook was hired as the opening Star Provisions cheese shop manager in 1999. Hook not only fostered strong connections to procure the finest regional, national, and global cheeses, but, like a dairy-obsessed Scheherazade, he also told bewitching stories that kept customers coming back.

For the past two days, I’ve been learning exactly how much product knowledge and business savvy it takes to make a cheese-oriented business fly. I was invited to sit in on the first three-day Institut du Fromage sponsored by Atlanta International Foods, an event where cheesemakers, retailers and a couple cooking professionals came together to talk shop and take their cheese prowess to new levels. AIF has hosted such get-togethers before, but this one was bigger, more tightly organized, and featured some of the biggest names in the cheese biz. (Yes, within its ranks, there are cheese celebrities.) The company plans to make the Institut a semi-annual event.

Here’s a rambling report:

The series started with a lecture on the evolution of cheese and closely related products in America, including wince-inducing slides recalling our former proclivities for wine coolers and Riunite on ice. We sampled Kraft slices and hunks of Cracker Barrel for perspective. The quality of the cheese tasting improved exponentially when John Greely and Todd Druhot, two judges for the American Cheese Society competition, took us through a detailed judging of eight different cheeses. Turns out there are two categories of judges — those that grade only on what’s praiseworthy about the cheese, and those that focus solely on what’s detracting. It isn’t so easy to stick to one perspective, and there were several folks on the positive side in particular who couldn’t help but carp.

On Day Two, Tim Gaddis, Star Provision’s current cheese monger, and Saxon Brown, a former cheese shop owner who’s on staff with AIF, taught a class on merchandizing. My favorite tip from Tim: “Popping a new wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano for an in-store display is the equivalent of flashing a Krispy Kreme sign.” Saxon (in the picture above) demonstrated how to revive the rind of a travel-fatigued Taleggio with a brine bath.

The Mateo Kehler spoke. I’ve heard more than one person refer to this guy as the future of American cheesemaking. He and his brother run Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. They make dazzling cheese—their molten, almost-out-of-season Winnemere is a personal compulsion—but Mateo spends equal time figuring out how to make Vermont’s dairy farmers more profitable as a community. The Kehlers have built a state-of-the-art, 22,000-square foot aging “cellar,” where small-scale farmers can deliver their cheeses to be aged. Jasper Hill then handles not only the care of these cheeses but the sales and marketing aspects.

Lucky for Atlanta, Mateo is sticking around for a few days. He’ll be at Star Provisions, offering a tasting of Jasper Hill Farm cheeses, this Saturday, May 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Yesterday concluded with a droll talk by Max McCalman, maitre fromager and dean of curriculum at new York’s Artisanal (a restaurant with an adjunct learning program) and one of the most knowledgeable characters in the industry. Max loves to shatter myths around cheese nutrition. His talk was interwoven with a crash course on wine and cheese pairings. (Hint: the more aged/the harder the cheese, the more flexibly it matches with different types of vino.)

Laura Werlin, author of several excellent books on cheese, taught the final class this morning on how to ease the intimidation factor that shoppers feel when faced with a case full of strange and whimsically named cheeses. I feel seriously informed at the end of all this. Maybe I should start some sort of online cheese concierge service.

I also snagged some leftover cheeses as the symposium ended, which are sitting in my office, coming to room temperature and no doubt alarming my colleagues with their pungency (because of course I took the funky washed rind cheeses). After eating dozens of different cheeses for three days, I can’t say I’m jonesing to dig into them … but I’m not quite ready to stash them in the fridge, either