Cara Condon was a darkish horse heading into the 2022 Cheesemonger Invitational in Brooklyn final Sunday.
Although she has been working within the subject for greater than a decade, she felt that her wrapping expertise weren’t within the prime tier, and apprehensive that her cheese-and-beverage pairing wouldn’t be a success.
“I know it sounds absolutely disgusting,” she stated of her creation: equal elements Galliano espresso liqueur and pineapple juice, topped with a dried orange slice, designed to set off the Alpine cheese she’d been assigned. “But the bitterness, and the maltiness, and the sugar and soft acidity of pineapple really works with Chällerhocker.”
Then she was introduced as a finalist.
Two dozen rivals had already been by 10 occasions that day. The 5 finalists can be speed-tested on on a regular basis cheesemongering expertise: eyeballing and chopping an ideal half-pound wedge off an enormous slab; deftly wrapping the wedge in paper; and sealing the rest in plastic wrap for the return to the show case.
Ms. Condon didn’t win these heats, however she had received the trivia section, nailing info like whether or not halloumi has a protected designation of origin (it doesn’t) and the title of the interior layer of spruce bark that’s wrapped round sure cheeses throughout ripening (it’s cambium). And on the finish of the 10-hour competitors, Ms. Condon — shining with sweat and carrying a Bulls jersey to signify the Chicago cheese store the place she works, Beautiful Rind — was topped the champion.
The story of the Cheesemongers Invitational started with the 1999 collapse of a robust Swiss cartel, and culminated, a minimum of for this 12 months, at Brooklyn Steel, a live performance venue stuffed with tons of of screaming followers, the sound of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing “Under Pressure,” and the funk of a thousand cheeses.
The throughline is Adam Moskowitz, a recovering rapper, actor, addict and misplaced soul who discovered his life’s goal in cheese. He has devoted himself to serving to others do the identical, particularly since 2019, when he overdosed and missed the competitors as a result of he was in rehab. On Sunday, that meant dancing onstage in a black-and-white cow costume, sleeves ripped off to point out his blue-ink tattoos and golden manicure, shouting encouragement by the mic as he ran the present.
A cheesemonger is to cheese roughly as a sommelier is to wine: not a producer, however a educated interpreter, adviser and vendor. The job consists of parts of connoisseurship, salesmanship, sensory coaching and a agency grasp of geography, historical past, and microbiology. The American Cheese Society, a commerce group of home producers based in 1983, supplies certification for cheesemakers and holds an annual cheese competitors, and has helped remodel American “artisan” and “farmstead” cheese right into a booming sector of the $35 billion U.S. cheese market.
But there have been few occasions or academic alternatives particularly for cheesemongers till Mr. Moskowitz mixed his longtime desires of being an entertainer together with his then-new job at his father’s dairy import enterprise in Queens. In 2010, he staged the primary invitational as a type of after-party for the Fancy Food Show, when international cheese producers descend on New York en masse. “It was debauched,” he stated of the occasion at his Queens warehouse. “I don’t even remember what the events were.”
Now there’s an elaborate level system, a proper panel of 14 judges, and a last spherical of competitors that’s open to the general public, sponsored (and equipped with all-you-can-eat cheese) by dairies like Jasper Hill Farm, Uplands Cheese Company and Caputo Brothers Creamery.
The invitational could have developed, however there has by no means been a barrier to entry; any working cheesemonger can compete. Mr. Moskowitz’s solely requirement is that the rivals present up beforehand for 3 packed days of demonstrations, tastings and lectures. In reality, many of the cheesemongers prioritize the schooling and camaraderie alternatives over the competitors.
“When you live in a place like Alabama and you’re super into cheese, you don’t have a lot of people to nerd out with,” stated John Litzinger, head cheesemonger on the Son of a Butcher in Birmingham. “Being around so many cheese people is a very elevating experience.”
In the salesmanship problem, contestants fielded questions from judges playacting as clients, corresponding to: “I’m supposed to bring a cheese board to a barbecue tonight, the people throwing the party are only serving rosé and one of them is pregnant; what do you recommend?” In the blind tasting, they competed to acknowledge cheeses from around the globe by style and aroma alone, then determine every by 5 main traits: milk kind (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo or blended); milk remedy (pasteurized or uncooked); fashion (washed-rind, bloomy-rind, cooked pressed, raw pressed, blue or recent); nation of origin; and cheese title (corresponding to Roquefort, Manchego or Asiago). Nathalie Baer Chan, a brand new competitor, earned a first-ever good rating in that occasion on Sunday, evoking screams of help from her Murray’s Cheese teammates.
These exams have some similarities to wine competitions, however these are typically critical, hushed affairs. “Cheese is a simple food,” Mr. Moskowitz stated. “I don’t want to complicate it the way wine has become complicated,” which he described as limiting, segregating and classist.
Although it’s now evolving, the job of the wine service provider — largely occupied by white males — has been to mirror authority and European custom. The cheesemongers at Brooklyn Steel mirrored range and creativity, exhibiting off physique jewellery, classic attire, ear gauges, moto jackets, head wraps, and within the case of Morgen Schroeder of Martha’s Vineyard Cheesery, a yellow pantsuit perforated with Emmenthal-type holes.
“The goal of the profession is to get people comfortable around cheese,” stated Reese Wool, the runner-up, who works on the busy Murray’s Cheese stall in Grand Central Terminal — wonderful coaching for the velocity wrapping occasion. Ms. Wool started their gender transition through the pandemic, and stated they felt surprisingly comfy going by the method in full view of colleagues and clients. “I think the way we present lets them know that there’s no judgment,” they stated.
Mr. Moskowitz, too, doesn’t match the normal mildew of a cheese knowledgeable. He smokes Parliaments in his workplace, spouts profanities and has a graffiti-art studio in a nook of the warehouse in Queens. But he’s a third-generation dairyman: His grandfather had a butter-and-egg enterprise at Washington Market, the previous wholesale produce market in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, and his father began Larkin Cold Storage, the import and distribution enterprise in Long Island City, which Mr. Moskowitz now owns.
This would appear like a well-greased path. But he took many detours: Estranged from his father for many of his childhood, he took a job in cheese solely after exhausting many different skilled choices obtainable to a feisty extrovert with substance-abuse points. He began as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Essex on the Lower East Side and cautiously joined his father’s enterprise in 2007.
He was nonetheless doubtful a couple of profession in cheese, when — to his shock — he turned passionately concerned within the nascent farmstead cheese motion in Switzerland.
From 1914 to 1999, the Schweizer Käseunion (Swiss Cheese Union) managed nearly each side of cheese in Switzerland, functioning as a cartel that monopolized the milk provide and supported the manufacturing of just a few prized cheeses, like Emmenthal, Gruyère and Appenzeller.
In the Nineteen Nineties, a sequence of corruption scandals and authorized challenges introduced the union down, and a brand new technology of cheesemakers started to interrupt from custom.
One of them turned Mr. Moskowitz’s cheese muse and religious information: Walter Räss, the maker of Chällerhocker cheese, which Mr. Moskowitz first tasted on a 2008 enterprise journey.
Last Friday, the soft-spoken Mr. Räss advised a rapt viewers of cheesemongers his story.
Mr. Räss comes from an extended line of farmers and cheesemakers within the tiny canton of St. Gallen. Under the cartel, he was a prime producer of Appenzeller, however yearned to make a mark as an unbiased cheesemaker. “There was no room for ideas, for entrepreneurship, for creativity,” he stated.
In 2003, he introduced Jersey cows into the household herd and used their wealthy milk as a substitute of the skimmed milk from Brown Swiss cows he had to make use of for Appenzeller. He modified the brine, and began getting older the cheese in his personal cellars.
It developed fully new flavors: nutty, custardy, floral. Mr. Moskowitz started importing it to the United States, altering Mr. Räss’s life — and his personal. (At this level, Mr. Moskowitz was brazenly weeping, however Mr. Räss continued.)
“We Swiss think that we are the bellybutton of world cheese,” he stated, pointing his chin towards the cheesemongers. “But all of you sitting here know more than any Swiss cheesemaker did 20 years ago.”
“Cheese is life, guys,” stated Mr. Moskowitz, wiping his eyes. “There’s always more to learn.”