Behind the Scenes at the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational

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Jess Piskor, a cheesemonger from Lucky’s Market in Traverse City, Michigan, stands behind a desk loaded with seven giant wedges of cheese. He’s wearing almost head-to-toe black, save for a brown, leather-looking belt strapped around his waist, which holds four cheese knives in holsters, giving him the aura of a cheese-counter cowboy.

A woman approaches his desk. She’s hosting a party and needs some cheese for an appetizer plate. They make small talk for a moment; Piskor asks what they’ll be drinking (beer), how many people she’ll be serving (10), what type of cheese she generally likes (sharp, but with universal appeal), and who will be at her party (mostly friends and, oh, one of them is pregnant). He motions to a hunk of Cabot Clothboundcheddar and a neighboring wedge of L’Amuse Gouda; out of the cheeses at his small stand, he thinks these two would go best with a beer-heavy meal. He mentions that they’re also both pasteurized, which makes them safe for her pregnant friend.

By all accounts, this resembles a relatively normal day behind the cheese counter for Piskor, but this sale comes with significantly more pressure than he’s used to. The woman standing in front of him is a judge at the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational, and she’s currently grading Piskor on his salesmanship—just one event in an extensive competition that will ultimately crown the best cheesemonger in the country.

 The winner of the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational, Rory Stamp of Dedalus Wine in Burlington, Vermont, participates in the salesmanship portion of the competition. Judges grade the cheesemongers on their ability to answer customer questions and to articulate the tasting notes of various cheeses. Photo by Ellen Cronin.

The winner of the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational, Rory Stamp of Dedalus Wine in Burlington, Vermont, participates in the salesmanship portion of the competition. Judges grade the cheesemongers on their ability to answer customer questions and to articulate the tasting notes of various cheeses. Photo by Ellen Cronin.

Part Competition, Part Party

I’ve been lured to this odd little event in San Francisco partly on the promise of all-you-can-eat raclette and an MC dressed as a cow. But all of that will come later, when the invitational opens its doors to 700 ticket holders that evening. The bulk of the competition takes place in privately judged events and seminars over the course of two days.

So far the 31 mongers competing have endured a written exam, a taste test, an aroma test, and technical evaluations of their ability to cut cheese and wrap it in both plastic and paper. Once the salesmanship trial finishes up, they’ll move on to the three creative competitions: best beverage pairing, best plate, and best bite. They’re competing not only for the title of the country’s best monger but also for a slew of prizes, including cash, a weeklong apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and trips to visit cheesemakers in Wisconsin and Vermont.

The Cheesemonger Invitational is the brainchild of Adam Moskowitz, a third-generation cheese importer who owns Larkin Cold Storage and Columbia Cheese in New York City. Though cheese importers typically play a very different (and better-paid) role in the dairy industry than mongers do, it’s clear Moskowitz is big into all things cheesemongering. The slogan of one of his companies is “maker to monger,” and when I meet Moskowitz (who will later suit up in the aforementioned cow costume for the evening’s festivities), he’s donning a tote bag that reads “Last night a cheesemonger saved my life.”

For the Love of Cheese

As the last of the mongers wrap up their salesmanship exam, the rest of the contestants are preparing for the juried portions of the event. For these last three tests, the mongers have been assigned standout cheeses from the event’s sponsors—from a classic Parmigiano-Reggiano to the funky Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm, which has been described by the cheesemaker as tasting like “garlic butter on Brussels sprouts.” Many of the mongers have been practicing for weeks, trying out their pairings and bites on coworkers, friends, and customers.

The aura in the room is one of an academic summer camp: The group is congenial, knowledgeable, and scrappy. At one table, Joshua Santamaria (who, as it happens, is lactose intolerant and forgot to bring his dairy pills to this all-day dairy-eating extravaganza) of Foragers Market in New York hammers a nail into a wooden sign for his cheese pairing with an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle. In another corner, Monica Kusaka Herrero of Fisher’s Cheese + Wine in San Francisco situates tiny plastic goats atop a small diorama of animals climbing a Cremont mountain. From another pocket of the room, someone yells to the crowd, “Does anyone need any endive?” “No,” another monger answers, “but what a great idea. I wish I had thought of using it!”

 Cheesemongers prepare various elements for their best beverage pairing, best plate, and best bite with ingredients they’ve transported from home. Photos by Ellen Cronin.

Cheesemongers prepare various elements for their best beverage pairing, best plate, and best bite with ingredients they’ve transported from home. Photos by Ellen Cronin.

Few mongers are sponsored by their stores; most have paid for their own transportation and accommodations and taken off from work to be here. They’ve supplied all the glassware, plates, and food for their entries—including enough ingredients to put together 200 or so of their signature “perfect bites” for the evening’s public event. For them, it’s a unique chance to rub elbows with cheesemakers, importers, and star mongers from across the country. When I ask each of them why they decided to travel to San Francisco to compete, many cite Moskowitz’s mentoring and the opportunities that can come from the event.

Task #1: The Perfect Pairing

Somewhere from the loft above, a judge calls time, and there’s a flurry of action as the mongers run their offerings for the first creative event—a beverage pairing—up the stairs to the judging panel. I find myself pinned against a wall in the stairwell as 30 cheesemongers rush past. As in any well-run restaurant, there are sharp calls of “behind!” and “corner!” as the cheesemongers navigate the winding stairs and attempt to find their spots on the long judging tables. When the mongers have added their final flourish and retreated downstairs to prepare their “perfect plates,” we’re given a chance to walk around and see the offerings.

This isn’t your average wine and cheese pairing. In fact, I spy only one wine among the 30 or so entries. Many mongers have produced elaborate cocktails: a preserved Yuzu vesper with a rose bubbleback to accompany a wedge of Cremont, or a purple concoction of apricot vodka, Meyer lemon, and honeyed apricots paired with Challerhocker. Other offerings emphasize surprise and simplicity: coffee and Winnimere, sparkling vinegar and Swiss Gruyère, bone broth and Wagon Wheel.

 Left: Bone broth and Wagon Wheel. Right: Coffee and Winnimere. Photos by Lauren Savoie.

Left: Bone broth and Wagon Wheel. Right: Coffee and Winnimere. Photos by Lauren Savoie.

The judges move in to sample the beverages with the cheeses, and we’re whisked downstairs to rejoin the cheesemongers as they prepare their “perfect plates.”

As they work, Moskowitz takes the mic to lead the group in an enthusiastic chant that, on first listen, sounds a lot like “Muahaha” (though we’ll later learn that the chant is actually “moo-baa-maa,” a mashup of the sounds made by a cow, a sheep, and a goat, respectively). He tells the mongers he’s been moved to tears by their beverage creations. “When I’m proud, I cry,” he says. “And I’m crying my eyes out looking at these. Let’s hear a ‘moo-baa-maa’ for that!”

“Moo-baa-maa!” a room full of cheesemongers calls back.

Task #2: The Perfect Plate

A few minutes pass, and the flurry of activity starts all over again as the mongers rush their plates up to the judges. For this task, each monger has been asked to pair their assigned cheese with a selection of accoutrements. Each offering is like a little diorama. There’s Kusaka Herrero’s Cremontain, which—in addition to plastic goats climbing a wedge of Cremont—features a bed of fake grass and plastic trees, dotted with more plastic animals grazing on candied walnuts and apple crisps. Another monger’s scene depicts a French Riviera–inspired offering of bread crumb–crusted Cremont accompanied by a sardine can filled with tapenade niçoise, as well as a mini palm tree and pink flamingo.

 Photo by Ellen Cronin.

Photo by Ellen Cronin.

Not everyone’s plate resembles an art project, however. One of my favorites is a simple display of shingled Challerhocker surrounded by a delicately arranged selection of chocolate, blackberries, hazelnuts, and rosehip jam—all finished with a sparkly coating of raspberry dust.

 Photo by Lauren Savoie.

Photo by Lauren Savoie.

Task #3: The Perfect Bite

The final competition of the afternoon is the “perfect bite.” While only the judges are permitted to taste the beverage and plate entries, the bites are available to the first few hundred ticket holders that are starting to trickle in. A more relaxed air takes over the room: Most mongers now have a beer in hand, caterers have arrived to set up a buffet of cheese-centric dishes, and the 28 sponsors are assembling promotional booths with heaping piles of cheese samples. Someone turns down the lights and pumps up the music. The venue suddenly takes on the atmosphere of the hippest farmers' market you’ve ever been to, where the cheese samples are unlimited and there’s not even a little pressure to buy.

I make my way around the buffet of perfect bites assembled by the competitors. There are tiny pink macarons with a sweet cheese filling, tiny bites of banh mi featuring mimolette cheese, and a lollipop-like creation of Cheez-It-dusted cheesecake with a shaggy confetti of grated Parm on top.

 Photo by Ellen Cronin.

Photo by Ellen Cronin.

The floor in front of the stage is soon filled with a tightly packed crowd reminiscent of an indie rock concert. The judges will tally their scores and invite five finalists onto the stage to repeat the highlights of the day’s events for the public, albeit in a looser and more inebriated setting. Moskowitz, now in full cow regalia, with a mic in one hand and an envelope in the other, takes the stage.

 Photo by Forest Kelley.

Photo by Forest Kelley.

“Moo-baa-maa!” he shouts.

“Moo-baa-maa!” a roaring crowd yells back.


Lauren Savoie for Cooks Illustrated

Anne Rucker