I have a superpower. I can look at a ginormous display of cheeses and tell you, without fail, which ones are past their prime and which will taste like plaster. And when I met Raymond Hook—at Star Provisions, where he launched the cheese program in 1999—I knew I was in the presence of an exceptionally gifted individual, one who understands that it is not only where you buy your cheese that matters, but also how that cheese is managed throughout its life. Hook’s return to Atlanta after a long absence, and his opening of Capella Cheese in Armour Yards—a fulfillment of his dreams and one of the most ambitious specialty shops I have seen anywhere—are delicious news indeed for a city that sometimes struggles to be taken seriously as a beacon of sophistication.
Capella—the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga, thought to depict a charioteer holding a she-goat—is an apropos name for a place where discerning cheeseheads and newbies alike can follow the lead of a stellar purveyor of inspiring food. A debonair 58-year-old of Choctaw and Chickasaw descent, Hook grew up in the town of Norman, Oklahoma, where his parents ran a restaurant with a small cheese counter—and where Hook found his path in life preordained. An early decision to become a vegetarian influenced his career; at the time, Hook didn’t think he’d be able to work with meat, so rather than become a chef, he entered a hotel management program in Las Vegas, then moved on to the food mecca of San Francisco.
A chance encounter with a friend of Anne Quatrano brought him to Atlanta, where he helped open Quatrano’s gourmet market Star Provisions, building a community of fans in the process. Seeking a larger playing field, Hook returned to San Francisco, where he worked as a salesperson for a large distributor; he also began writing a monthly column about cheese for Colman Andrews’s website the Daily Meal. He never really gave up on Atlanta. “People in this town love high-quality cheese,” he told me recently, standing in the middle of his sleek new shop—which opened, to great anticipation, in early July.
Every morning at Capella, Hook peruses his temperature-controlled caves and decides what is at the peak of perfection. Bought mostly from European suppliers and the best of the best among American producers, cheeses here include bluer-than-blue Valdeon from Spain; huge wheels of creamy yet delightfully pungent Gorgonzola dolce; real alpine cheeses from the Jura mountains; Uplands cheeses from Wisconsin and Rogue River Blue from Oregon; and a huge inventory of bloomy-rind cheeses such as French Camembert in thin wooden boxes and Trillium triple cream from Indiana. One of the strongest attractions is the mozzarella program, including still-warm (if you show up at the right time) bocconcini and luscious burrata made on-site by Brittany Billups, who developed her skills at Eataly’s New York store.
I may have asked to smell the Camembert before buying it—it was perfect—but I mostly rely on Hook’s intimate knowledge of the cooperatives and family farms with whom he does business. Everything is properly labeled with its provenance and producers. If you once had a Manchego that tasted like earwax or an objectionably stinky Taleggio, that doesn’t mean you won’t be won over by the same style of cheese here, where it’s sourced and aged properly.
Thanks to ever-present samples, I have reacquainted myself with creamy goat cheeses and English clothbound aged cheddars. I discovered insanely good buffalo-butter crackers to snack on (called tozzetti, they’re from the Italian producer Casa Madaio); bought a better version of truffled brie than I thought was possible; and marveled at the presence of Indian paneer, Portuguese quince paste, and panforte prepared locally by the Georgia Sourdough Company according to Hook’s recipe. I tend to miss the weekly shipments of Poilâne bread, which sell out in an instant (shame on me as a Parisian!). I have also been relieved by the fact that not everything is an unaffordable luxury product.
In addition to the cheeses, Capella sells brilliant charcuterie, including ham from certified acorn-fed Iberico pigs, smooth prosciutto that passes through a Lamborghini-red Berkel hand slicer, and fennel-scented hard sausage packaged with a flush of nitrogen that keeps it from touching anything plastic. Rare spices, fruity olive oils, compatible wines, and a couple of daily sandwiches reinforce the bond between customers and store, and Hook’s mission—“to bring the best to people”—will soon include ecommerce.
This article appears in our October 2022 issue.