The food lovers guide to cheese in Atlanta

Meet the cheesemongers

Leon WillisLeon Willis
Whole Foods in East Cobb
You’d think that a childhood spent snacking on Wisconsin cheese curds would lend you special insight into the world of fromage. But when Willis, a native of northern Illinois, joined the cheese department at Merchants Walk Whole Foods in East Cobb five years ago, he was overwhelmed by the store’s selection. “I had no idea so many cheeses existed,” he says. To make up for lost time, he ate his way through the entire case of 80-plus cheeses in two months. Today he’s a certified cheese professional, a title that requires passing a three-hour exam that covers everything from import regulations to dairy regions. Find cheese samples throughout the store, often placed around sensible pairings—think smoked seaside cheddar next to russet potatoes. The Merchants Walk location is particularly well stocked with Gouda (look for the rich, tangy Robusto), but the stores cater to all customers, from Germans seeking quark to Brits who ask for clotted cream.

His pick: Willis appreciates the strong earthy flavor and creaminess of Spring Brook Farm’s Reading.

Carolyn BenderCarolyn Bender
Star Provisions
Bender’s selection is flat out the best in the metro area. Charged with buying cheese for not only Star Provisions but also all of Anne Quatrano’s restaurants, including Bacchanalia, she carries around 200 varieties on an average day—up to 300 during the Christmas season. All are carefully wrapped and stored properly (yes, a rarity these days). Bender was a cheese newbie back in 2012, when she joined the counter at Alon’s. “I learned everything on the job, then I’d go home and keep studying,” she says. Nearly two years later, she jumped ship for Star Provisions to train under Tim Gaddis, who had made the shop’s cheese program a citywide destination. When Gaddis left two months later for Many Fold Farm, Bender took his place. Like her predecessor, she champions Southern cheeses, maintaining a stockpile that surpasses any other local seller. The best days to shop: Tuesdays, when the case has just been stocked with the week’s deliveries, or Fridays, before the weekend rush.

Her pick: “I’m currently hooked on medium to mild firm cheeses that are nutty, buttery, and sweet,” Bender says. Try the Rupert by Considered Bardwell Farm.

Wheels on Wheels
The double-decker cheese cart at Bacchanalia first rolled through the dining room in 1999. Today it’s one of the city’s last remaining cheese carts, laden with a dozen curated rounds and wedges, divided among sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, and blue cheese. A selection of five ($22) comes with sliced bread, Marcona almonds, a date cake, and olives. All are available for purchase at Star Provisions on your way out.

Mary IngersollMary Ingersoll
Alon’s in Morningside
Ingersoll spent her childhood in upstate New York farming country, where she says cheese was a staple. “My grandmother would dust fresh cheese curds with herbs for an after-school snack,” she says, “and a dish of cheddar was always sitting out on the counter.” After working at a creamery and in the kitchen as a line cook, where she honed her razor-sharp palate, Ingersoll joined Alon’s in Dunwoody in 2010. In 2014 she moved to the Morningside location, managing the store’s stock of about 125 cheeses. Look forward to her spot-on tasting notes and pairing suggestions, from sour cherries to pickled veggies, which she’s likely to offer up before you’ve even thought to ask.

Her pick: “I prefer bold, savory cheeses, like goat and cheddar,” she says. Try the Monte Enebro, an aged Spanish goat cheese that tastes like a blue.