A truly legend-dairy event
Upon entering The Cheesemonger Invitational at the Brooklyn EXPO Center, I very quickly learn that cheese people love puns. A man walks past me wearing a “Straight Outta Comté” t-shirt. Sponsor Vermont Creamery has “Dairy to Dream” and “Go for the Goat” pins available at their booth. The DJ wears a shirt that says “Last Night a Cheesemonger Saved My Life.”
Held for the first time in 2010, the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) welcomes approximately 45 cheesemongers from all over the country to compete for $1,000, a trip to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and a trip to Neal’s Dairy Yard, one of the most well-known cheese shops in the world, among other goodies. CMI takes place twice a year, in New York in the summer and in San Francisco in the winter, and there are no special requirements to enter: all you have to do is be a cheesemonger, which is, as the competition says, “like a sommelier, but for cheese!”
The competition tests all the skills involved in being a cheesemonger. While the competition welcomes the public one day, mongers are tested on cheese knowledge via written test, a taste test, an aroma test, and a salesmanship test prior to its doors opening. Then, having been assigned a cheese a month before--all cheeses come from the event’s hosts, or sponsors, like Jasper Hill Farm and Murray’s Cheese, among others--competitors prepare their Perfect Bite (an amuse bouche-sized appetizer), Perfect Pairing (of their cheese with a beverage), and Perfect Plate (of their cheese with complementary accoutrements), which test mastery of flavor combinations. Perfect Bites, also prepared en masse for CMI patrons, are served on several tables throughout the venue. After tasting competitors’ wares and tabulating their previous tests, judges calculate the top scores and select six competitors for the finals, which take place on stage in front of the audience.
At this point, the top six discuss their favorite cheeses in exactly one minute, participate in cheese trivia, wrap a variety of oddly-shaped cheeses in 60 seconds, cut precise 1/4 pound wedges of cheese, and discuss cheeses to pair with pre-selected condiments.
And even though the prizes are serious, on the day the competition is open to the public, it’s also serious fun. Hosted by CMI founder and respected cheese importer Adam Moskowitz, who that day has affixed a temporary “Cheese for Life” tattoo to his neck, wears a cow suit, and goes by “Mr. Moo,” the crowd is full of cheese industry professionals and cheese enthusiasts who love a good party. They cheer during the quarter-pound wedge cutting competition when every wedge reaches exactly .25 on the scale and audibly mourn when it’s mere fractions away. They applaud every correct trivia answer, and erupt into applause or oohs and aahs when a cheesemonger slices a wedge in a way that’s different from their competitors. Even from standing in the audience, you get the sense that cheese is not just a job for these folks, but a way of life.
According to former cheesemonger and current cheesemaker Lilith Spencer, who won at CMI’s Winter 2016 competition, the cheese industry draws so many different kinds of people because there are so many facets to appreciating cheese. “It’s political, it’s historical, it’s culinary, it’s science,” she says. “I think because there’s so many angles from which anyone could approach cheese—study it, work with it, sell it—that’s why this community has grown so much and there are so many interesting cheese jobs and people who can stay engaged with it for a long time.”
Another successful person drawn into the cheese world is Eric Schack, a cheesemonger at New York’s Eataly Downtown. Schack has been a cheesemonger since 2004, but only started competing in 2015 in hopes of networking and bettering his craft. He won the competition on his fourth try, having prepared for six months from the time the last competition ended (he placed second in Winter 2018 and sixth in Summer 2017). “It really became a game of golf and [judges are] so good about giving feedback and how you can improve yourself,” he says. “I just thought it was an amazing tool to continue to improve and improve and learn and get better at what I do.” He made a spreadsheet of every cheese with a Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, from Europe and started memorizing facts and details about them.
Schack’s hard work paid off, and in a spray of champagne, he won this summer’s competition.
“This industry saves lives,” he said through tears onstage after winning, “milk” and “salt” written across his knuckles, a giant gold trophy bearing the word “Champion” in his hands. Swarms of cheesemongers gathered around him and showered him in hugs and handshakes and kisses. “It makes people incredible.”