The Big Cheese

At 9:30 on a recent Saturday morning, in a Long Island City warehouse that smelled a bit funky, fifty-two people sat at two long tables, hunched over exams. At each seat was a sign with the test taker’s name and place of business, a slate slab, and a cutting board. The proctor, Adam Moskowitz, walked down the aisle, his steps echoing in the vast space. Suddenly, something caught his eye, and he squeaked to a halt.

“Murray’s Cheese, yo! Who’s worked at Murray’s?”

About ten hands went up.

“Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Lineage. Lin-e-age.”

The first hour of the fourth annual Cheesemonger Invitational was underway.

Moskowitz, thirty-nine, is the founder of the Invitational and the president of Larkin, a New York-based importing company that has been introducing Americans to specialty foods since his grandfather, Ben, founded it thirty years ago. Heavily tattooed and a self-proclaimed artist, entertainer, rapper, and d.j., he was reluctant to take over after Ben’s death because he “thought the cheese world was just a bunch of old, creepy men.” But after a six-month stint working at Formaggio Essex, on the Lower East Side, he changed course.

“There’s a paradigm flaw with cheese,” he said in his windowless office at Larkin, as the participants finished the test outside. A turntable sat nearby. “Two aspects make a cheese a cheese: the flavor, and the story. By the time you get the cheese into your mouth, the packaging is off, there’s no label, no story. The cheesemonger knows that story. And nobody is celebrating him.”

There are similar cheesemonger contests in Europe, most famously the International Caseus Award, in which affineurs, or the people who age and sell cheese, compete in a blind taste test, oral and written exams, dish creation, and the ability to perfectly portion a given weight of cheese with one cut—though Moskowitz considers it “super French, like, super wack.” So his invitational is more lax. There are still written and blind taste tests, and, for the ten finalists, a cutting test, a wrapping test (how many pieces of cheese one can wrap in thirty seconds), and a beer-and-cheese pairing portion. But a d.j. is involved. Drinks flow freely. This year, shirts were on sale that read “Holla for Challerhocker” on the back, promoting a Swiss cheese.

Despite this American-ness, Moskowitz and Liz Thorpe, the author of “The Cheese Chronicles” and a former vice-president of Murray’s, and an Invitational coördinator, managed to entice some of the biggest cheeses in French fromagerie to judge. Rodolphe Le Meunier won the title of Meilleur Fromager at the 2007 International Caseus Awards, and received the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, France’s culinary Pulitzer, for his work. The collar of his white chef’s coat has blue, white, and red stripes on it to signify the honor.

Another judge, Roland Barthélemy, the chairman of the International Cheese Guild, also wears a white coat, with “Ambassadeur du premiere fromage” stitched onto the pocket. Laura Werlin, the James Beard Award-winning author of “The All American Cheese and Wine Book,” was also on the judging bench. A thousand people purchased tickets to attend the evening’s finals.

D.j. and beer aside, the morning’s events were serious. The written test had a few straightforward questions (“What is desiccation?,” “Name the breed of this cow” next to a photo of a sultry bovine), but canted heavily scientific:

Lipolysis is desirable in hard Italian cheese because it:

A) Makes the cheese glisten with triglycerides
B) Coagulates proteins to firm up texture
C) Liberates short chain fatty acids that contribute to flavor
D) Excretes fat globules for a lower overall fat content

The blind tasting round, during which each competitor had to triangulate the names of six cheeses, was a stumper. The highest score was thirty-one out of fifty-five, a solid F.

Sophie Brickman for The New Yorker

Anne Rucker