Where Did The Cheese Snob Come From?
A Cheesemonger Is Born
It's not like I was born a cheese expert. At the age of five, my education began with Kindergarten; Cheesemonger Trade School wasn't presented as an option to me at any point during my schooling.
And like most suburban spawn, I grew up with psychedelic-orange, individually-wrapped slices of American cheese - and I gladly ate them, sometimes with ketchup on sliced white bread. I didn't like most cheddars - too acidic; Swiss cheese was too sour; muenster and provolone were okay most of the time; mozzarella - not fresh, but "pizza cheese," was just fine; and blue cheese was a tasty kind of dressing my Dad always got on his salad. That was the limit of my cheese knowledge until high school, when, because I attended a private school, I was introduced to brie. Beyond that, I knew barely anything else about cheese until September of 1995.
I was 21 years old and studying Sociology at Marlboro College in southeastern Vermont. During the summer of 1995, I began working for the Brattleboro Food Co-Op's produce department. I told my manager I needed more hours, but she hadn't enough to give me, so she recommended I talk to the manager of the cheese department.
That was Henry. I was intimidated by the thought of working in the cheese department, but I had to at least try. (If you want to know more about Henry, and trust me, you do , check out my story "Few Degrees of Separation: How is The Cheese Snob Related to Elvis Presley?"
Here's how I was hired:
Me: "Hi Henry, Kristen says you are looking for people to work in the cheese department, and I need more hours. I don't know anything about cheese except I like to eat it."
Henry: "Well, my Dear, what better place to start!"
And that was the beginning of my life as a cheesemonger. I was trained in the art of cutting slabs from blocks, wedges from wheels, and wrapping them all in a layer of plastic. Henry assured me that my knowledge of the inventory of 300+ cheeses (yikes!) would come, and not to worry about it. While the knowledge took some time, the obsession started almost instantly.
I had only been working at the cheese counter for a few weeks when one night, an hour or two before closing, two fellows from Neal's Yard Dairy showed up to talk to me about farmstead cheese. They probably wanted to talk to Henry, but I was the only one there, so in-between helping customers and cutting and wrapping blocks of Swiss, I looked at big pictures of cows and delighted in cheese-related conversation with charming Englishmen. At the time, I thought we were just having a nice visit. In hindsight, this was one of those pivotal moments that hooked me, because there were stories behind these wheels and blocks of cheese.
A few months after I started working in the cheese department, I was spending some, uh, intimate time with a boy I was seeing. As we were preparing to go to sleep, I started talking to him about cheese. I couldn't help myself. He either was amused, or did a good job humoring me. He didn't tell me to be quiet, so he must not have minded. Yes, I was really into cheese.
Must Work With Cheese
I worked for Henry from September 1995 until December 2002. Many times during that time my father pressured me to get a "real job," which meant leaving the cheese department for some airless office, but I always made sure to at least keep a shift or two with Henry, or at least cover for people when they were sick or on vacation. Getting non-cheese-related jobs didn't work out very well for me. I'd end up leaving after awhile. I'd get so bored. I realized what kept me at the cheese department was the continuous opportunity to learn. And maybe that cheese obsession I mentioned earlier.
Within that time, I was employed by a wholesale distributor of fine foods and cheeses; while there, I learned to work with chefs and department managers/buyers. It helped me understand the sale and use of cheese from a different perspective. At this place, I sat next to Dondi Ahearn, a fantastically fun and passionate food expert. From Dondi I learned about the importance of farmstead cheeses and artisan-made foods - Dondi is really into small-production goods. I count him as a major influence on my development as a cheesemonger.
A Cheese of My Own
After leaving that place, I was offered a job managing a cheese department at another co-op grocery store. Their cheese department was suffering badly, if "cheese department" could even be used to describe the creature I inherited. Oy! What a mess! Mark Harris, the general manager at the time, hired me to build up the department, despite my complete lack of managerial experience. With Mark's support and guidance (as well as the encouragement and good-natured humor of Ed Powers, Grocery Manager, and Otto Honigman, Dairy and Front-End Manager), I took a failing department, and within three months, increased the department's sales 30% and made it the second-most lucrative department in the store, trailing only behind the wine department.
I brought in a ton of new cheeses, got rid of the duds, and created a workable inventory system. To announce the changes (and more importantly, to amuse myself), I created a cheese newsletter, published more or less every week. In it, I not only described the new arrivals, but I also discussed general cheese issues, such as raw milk vs. pasteurized, categories of cheese (triple-crème, washed-rind, etc), cooking, and serving. It became quite popular, and I discovered I liked writing about cheese. Compared with what I know now, it was a bit primitive, but it was fun. Go here and check 'em out.
I totally loved that job and had a great time doing it. I learned a lot, and was happy to build a good cheese department in a good store. Again, a lot of my success was due to Mark Harris's encouragement - I didn't think I knew what the hell I was doing, and he adamantly disagreed.
Awhile later, I joined a collectively-owned café called "The Twilight Tea Lounge." My "department" was developing, creating, and serving cheese plates, and I made a menu of a few different cheeses along with their accompaniments. This was tough - I'd never had to calculate food costs and figure out prices and such. The challenge was worth it, and I still managed to have a lot of fun at The Tea Lounge.
Big Cheese Needs Big Apple
After 12 or so years in Vermont, I knew it was time to move elsewhere. I decided New York City was the "elsewhere" I wanted to be. It may sound cliché, but I knew big things were waiting for me there.
Just before moving, I recall having a conversation with my old friend David Lawver. I told him I wanted to get a job at Murray's Cheese Shop, and then I would climb my way to the top of the stack of cheese: I wanted to be the cheese expert, with accompanying fame and fortune. David didn't believe me. He didn't think I could do it. Although I forgive him for being so pessimistic, I say this to him, wherever he is: "Nyah nyah, I'm right and you're wrong. Told you I would!"
June 1 st , 2003, I spent my first night in NYC, in my apartment on Court Street in Brooklyn.
July 7th, 2003, I had my first day at Murray's on Bleecker Street, working behind the counter as a cheesemonger. It was a bit of a shock. Here I was, thinking I knew it all, coming from Vermont ! Boy, did I have a lot to learn. I had never heard of about half of the 250 or so cheeses I was suddenly responsible for selling, and this is after I arrived rather cocky, because again, I came from Vermont ! I'm not fond of humility, but I had to get used to it if I was to shut up and learn anything from my talented co-workers - notably, Anne Saxelby, Cielo Peralta, and both the male Sasha and the female Sasha - she of Cheese By Hand.
On my second day, Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's, called me into his office and, looking at my resume, told me I could do whatever I wanted at Murray's.
Well... it took a few years, but he was right.
Out From Behind The Counter
April 2005, Rob promoted me to the position of Murray's Writer, and my main responsibility was to write descriptions of every single item for sale in the store: cheese, cutting boards, t-shirts, olive oil, chocolate bars, dried pasta...This was an incredible opportunity for me, and I had a ball. I felt so lucky. Every single day, without exception (no I'm not being hyperbolic here), a co-worker told me a customer complimented us (read "me") on the signs in the store. Yes, I wrote the copy for Murray's infamous cheese signs. Go down there and read 'em.
In addition to writing copy for the signs, I also wrote press releases, classroom notes for cheese classes Rob was teaching, and copy for pretty much everything that needed to be written. The P.R. director called me "the voice of Murray's." Not bad!
At some point, the work ran out. All the signs were written. I could have stuck around, waiting for the occasional new product, but that didn't seem like a very secure choice.
Cheese Goes Uptown
January 2006. As luck would have it, at the same time that my work was ending at Murray's, Zabar's was desperately in need of a cheese writer. That venerable Upper West Side shop was in the process of expanding its on-line cheese store, and had nobody to write descriptions of their 700+ cheeses. As Stanley Zabar put it, "It's like you dropped right out of heaven."
Olga Dominguez, the cheese department manager, is the woman responsible for making the department what it is today; when she took it over, it was barely anything worth mentioning. Zabar's is one of the original shops to begin carrying fine, imported cheeses from Europe - partly because Olga imported them. This was back in the 1970s, when Brie was still considered exotic in New York City. Amazing. And Olga became my boss. What a fantastic opportunity to learn from one of the original cheesemongers.
I wrote descriptions of about 787 cheeses. And I redesigned their signs (from making the signs at Murray's, I learned how to lay them out). And I wrote a bunch of cool stuff for the website.
But the most fun I had was teaching a near-weekly series of Cheese Seminars to Zabar's customers. I got to pick the topic, do the research, choose the cheeses I'd serve, promote the seminars, write the booklets given to each attendee, and then finally, teach the seminars. I got to wear a long white coat while I taught, too. More like a lab coat than a chef's jacket. I looked rather fetching in it. I received excellent feedback from the attendees, and I learned an incredible amount about cheese, dairy animals, and food history during my research for the seminars. Some of the seminar topics were: "Get Your Goat," "Safe For Vegetarians," and "The Pecorinos You Don't Know."
Alas, the work ended at Zabar's, too. After I'd written all those descriptions and made all those signs, I knew there wasn't enough to keep me excited and justify a full-time paycheck. Olga and I spoke about what to do, and rather than change my job to something less creative and more workaday, she encouraged me to do something I'd wanted to do for a long time: take my act on the road. Olga assured me I could do whatever I wanted in the world of cheese, because I have the passion, the knowledge, and the ambition, and staying in one store wasn't going to be enough opportunity for me. But she didn't want to completely let me go because we still have some work to do together. So, I go to Zabar's once a week and train her staff on the intricacies of cheese, work on marketing strategies, offer my opinions on potential new cheeses for the department, and of course, write descriptions of new items for the newly-designed cheese signs.
So What Now?
Tons. In addition to developing a subscription/licensing program for my new line of cheese department signs, I'm also teaching upcoming cheese seminars with an English cheese expert, creating a line of guided cheese tastings to present to people and their friends in the comfort of their own homes, and working with a production company to develop the first television show about cheese. And who knows what else...
Stay tuned for the further adventures of Cheese Snob Wendy!
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