What It’s Like Competing in the Cheesemonger Olympics

Last month, on January 13 and 14, I competed in the olympics of cheesemongering. If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you may have seen posts about the Cheesemonger Invitational (#cmisf).

The invitational usually happens twice a year, during the Fancy Food Show. The winter edition is in San Francisco in January, and the original summer edition in New York is in June. (There is also going to be a third event in Chicago for the first time this spring.)

Last fall, I started talking about Cheesemonger Invitational with Tailor, my friend and co-worker. We decided to compete in the winter invitational—which is a tall order since you don’t first get a break after the holidays, the busiest time in the cheese year.

Somehow, thanks to the support of our co-op cheese buyer at PCC Community Markets, Robin Cantor, and our sales rep at Peterson Cheese, Julia Powers, we actually managed to pull it off.

We signed up for the invitational in mid-December. Two days after the deadline, we learned about the schedule of events at the invitational, and we learned our assigned cheeses for the food service pairings.

We wanted to have our assigned cheeses in hand so we could taste them and practice our pairings, knowing what we were doing before the competition. But since we were each only able to get one of our cheeses in the Seattle area, we spent the next few weeks preparing to do a year’s worth of sales at work and then going home to write vendors and distributors, having cheeses sent to us and asking for samples of things we thought might go well with some cheeses we had never tasted. Tailor ended up having to drive six hours round-trip to Portland to get her last cheese from Cheese Bar; I ran home on Thursday and Friday expecting to find cold boxes from the East Coast on my doorstep.

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Finally, exactly one week before the competition, we both had all of our cheeses.

That following Monday, five days before the competition, we gathered a panel of local cheese people who would be near the store and had them test our pairings. The practice run was incredibly helpful, because it forced us to actually prepare our pairings in real life and put us at the mercy of other peoples’ discerning taste buds. Our panel gave us valuable feedback, helped us figure out what we needed or didn’t, and tried to make us feel like we didn’t need to be at home baking gourmet corn chips and reducing sauces the night before our flight.

After all, preparing for the Olympics doesn’t just involve tweaking food service pairings, figuring out how to present them, and having signs made; it also involves studying cheeses, reading cheese books, and tasting and smelling everything we could. Although we work as cheesemongers every day, we needed to concentrate our everyday knowledge into a mastery of what we knew, our senses of smell and taste, and our ability to layer flavors successfully—oh, and perfect technical skills in precise cutting and wrapping.

Time flew, and before we knew it we were flying to San Francisco early on Saturday morning after nearly missing our plane. Once in the Bay Area, my former home, we went directly to The Midway, an event space tucked away in the industrial streets of San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. It was there that the Winter 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) took place.

Thirty-four cheesemongers were there to compete. The majority came from California, but a few traveled from Utah, Texas, Ohio, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. We were among just five representing the Pacific Northwest.

While most competitors were behind-the-counter mongers like Tailor and myself, a few worked on the food-service side of cheese. There was a one-woman catering service, and another person was a chef.

What united us all was a passion for cheese.

And the first day of CMI helped stress that through cheese education. So much of the attention given to CMI is on the competitive aspect, but really the event’s main goal is to enrich and feed cheesemongers, to bring us together, and to celebrate our profession. That profession wouldn’t be possible without the people who make, refine, and export the cheeses we sell.

On day one, hosts rotated among tables of mongers, striving to teach us something in 30-minute “Meet the Maker” presentations. All of the presentations were interesting, and we tasted a lot of delicious cheese. My favorite roundtables were by Essex Cheese, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Uplands Cheese, and The Cellars at Jasper Hill.

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Photo by Essex Cheese

During the Essex presentation, educator Rachel Juhl had us taste cheese and record what we tasted. Then she had us smell 10 vials of ingredients—like chamomile, vanilla sugar, corn, and salted butter—to calibrate our palates. Then we tasted through the same cheeses, noting what we tasted differently. Rachel showed us exactly how most of what we taste is related to what we can smell.

The Neal’s Yard Dairy presentation was given by Jason Hinds of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, along with cheesemakers Graham Kirkham and David Clark. It was a great illustration of the food supply chain from the traditional cheesemaker to the selector, affineur, and cheesemonger or exporter.

Jason explained Neal’s Yard Dairy’s important work, which has saved many English cheesemakers: Neal’s Yard buys cheeses at above-market rates, helps cheesemakers develop desirable flavor profiles, ages some of their cheese, sells some of that cheese at shops in London, and exports the rest around the world. The company’s emphasis is on British Territorials, cheeses named for the regions where they were created.

Graham’s grandmother began producing Kirkham’s Lancashire on their family farm, and he carries on the two-day process of making the only raw-milk, farmstead Lancashire in the world. And when David Clark and his wife began making Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, no farmstead Red Leicester had been made in England in over 70 years—so they had to create their own recipe from books and handwritten scraps of old recipes that people brought to them at the farmer’s market.

Graham and David shared with us two ages each of Lancashire and Red Leicester, along with a taste from a third Red Leicester that had never been refrigerated. Jason explained that these cheeses were never meant to be refrigerated, and the harshness of a cooler is detrimental to the wheels. It was pretty special to taste a traditional cheese as it was intended.

The presentations by Uplands Cheese and The Cellars at Jasper Hill were exciting because we heard some of the US’s best cheesemakers—Andy Hatch of Uplands and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill—explain their philosophies for making cheeses based on the places where they produce them.

Andy only makes seasonal cheeses: Pleasant Ridge Reserve in summer, and Rush Creek Reserve in autumn (which I wrote about in December). He is one of the few people making cheese on a farmstead in southwestern Wisconsin, which is hilly and more extreme in weather than the flatter parts where most of the state’s famous dairy farming happens.

Mateo and his team in Vermont rescue farmland and create jobs, helping small farmers and cheesemakers thrive in a depressed agricultural economy. As Mateo and Zoe Brickley explained to us, Jasper Hill Farm uses milk from their own herd to make raw-milk cheeses, and they pay farmers twice the going rate for milk to make pasteurized cheeses.

These and the presentations by Columbia Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods, Vermont Creamery, Gruyère Switzerland and Sel des Alpes, and the Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Association, gave us plenty to contemplate. All of the learning was capped off with a happy hour by Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery—which involved tasting notes and drinking beer, of course.

Tailor and I ended the day hopping from Cheese Plus to Bi-Rite market and every convenience store in between in search of ingredients for our challenges that we couldn’t bring with us on the airplane, like fluid milk, cranberry juice, and the elusive perfect cracker—which Tailor still hasn’t found. We had schlepped 70 pounds of supplies in our checked baggage—things like glassware, flatware, kimchi, chocolates, mango pickles, and a hot water kettle.

And then we started the next morning off by trekking to Whole Foods to track down last-minute ingredients that we hadn’t found the night before. This, all before 10 a.m., when we had to be back at The Midway to start competing.

Day two is the competition part of CMI. Basically, 34 cheesemongers complete a series of tasks with no audience for most of the day, they are judged and scores are tallied, and then an audience is let in late to watch the finalists finish competing.

From what I understand, CMI is slightly different every year.

This CMI was particularly different because the competition’s famed host and founder, Adam Moskowitz, was home sick in New York. Perhaps it wasn’t an authentic CMI without him bouncing around in a cow costume, yelling and leading chants of “moo, baa, maa!” but the hosts had made cardboard cutouts of him, and his empty cow suit hung at the front of the stage, channeling his support and energy.

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The first round began with a written examination. Next, we took a taste test—tasting five European name-protected cheeses and guessing each cheese’s name, milk type, treatment (raw or pasteurized), and country of origin—and then a blind aroma test—smelling 10 covered cups and determining what was in each.

The second round was technical challenges: each person had forty-five seconds to cut two perfect quarter-pound wedges of Gruyère, forty-five seconds to wrap those wedges in paper, and then forty-five seconds to wrap a half- and a quarter-wheel of cheese in the worst saran wrap on the planet.

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Selling cheese to judge Sarah Dvorak. Photo by Janee’ Muha.

In the salesmanship round, each cheesemonger had a mini cheese counter with unlabeled cheeses. We knew some of those cheeses before the competition, but there were also cheeses that we didn’t know, which presented an unexpected challenge. The goal was to sell our judge at least a quarter pound of cheese. (I sold my judge four different cheeses.) Then our judge pulled a jar of jam out of a bag and asked us to recommend a cheese pairing on the fly.

For the food service round, each contestant had to prepare a perfect beverage pairing, a perfect platter, and a perfect composed bite. (This is where the cheeses we had been assigned come in.) The beverage and platter would be tasted by the judges, but we had to prepare 150 bites for the judges and the public attendees.

The only things provided for us were our cheeses, a knife, and a cutting board. We had to bring the rest, hence those heavy bags Tailor and I had dragged on an airplane with us. (You can see Tailor’s and my pairings in the photo gallery at the end of this post.)

Everyone was very focused as we sat or stood at our tables, meticulously cutting cheese, preparing drinks, and building our pairings—and there were only a few moments of stress. In general, the room was filled with camaraderie. Even in the realm of competition, a feeling of family extends throughout the cheese community.

It was exciting to see what creative pairings people prepared for their cheeses. And as some of the contestants finished early, they went around and helped the others finish their perfect bites.

At 4:30 p.m., the doors opened and about 600 ticket-holding cheese industry folks, food professionals, and Bay Area foodies (including my best friend from grad school at UC Berkeley, Tara) were allowed in to eat cheese, drink, and merrily watch the finalists duke it out on stage.

The final round got underway as the evening’s host, Columbia Cheese’s Jonathan Richardson, announced that the top six cheesemongers were Alex Armstrong of Mission Cheese in San Francisco; Daniel McElligot of Allium Market in Melrose, Massachusetts; Jeffrey Forlastro of 109 Cheese and Wine in Danbury, Connecticut; Jill Zenoff of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, California; Luc Laurent of Joan’s on Third in West Hollywood, California; and Sarah Munly of Cheese Bar in Portland, Oregon.

Once onstage, the finalists’ first task was to introduce themselves and a “superstar cheese” of their choosing before moving on to a trivia round. (I will admit that we missed the trivia round, because we were in the “cheesemongers’ green room” picking up our packets of feedback from the judges.)

Then there was the famous “perfect cut” challenge, in which each person had under a minute to cut as many perfect, quarter-pound pieces of cheese as possible.

Next, the finalists had 45 seconds to wrap as many pieces of cheese as they could. After this, each finalist had to cut a perfect one-pound wedge of cheese. Then they were each presented a beer from Goose Island Brewery and had to give a pairing for it on the spot.

Can you imagine what it’s like to be in a room full of people cheering at someone for wrapping wedges of cheese in paper or hooting at them for picking a knife over a box wire as their weapon of choice? And how about being in the crowd while hosts throw wrapped wedges of cheese from the stage to whoever can catch them? Yeah, it’s a wild time.

When the winners were announced, Sarah was in third place, Alex was second, and Jill came in first—and she surprised the crowd by performing a song about cheese that she had written to the tune of an Indigo Girls song. I couldn’t hear what she was singing, but it was still a fun idea and the crowd loved it.

 

Although Tailor and I didn’t end up making the finals, we came away feeling more connected to our comrades in the cheese industry, empowered to be more “extra” at layering flavors, and determined to do even better at next winter’s competition.

We had made new friends, eaten a lot of cheese, shared an experience that not everyone has the guts to do, and lived to tell the tale.

Next year, we’ll be taking the less stressful route by driving to San Francisco with all of our crap in tow, and you can be sure we’ll bring the cooler with the built-in margarita maker—because CMI isn’t just a competition, it’s a party.

And there ain’t no party like a cheese party.

  • And just like that, a dream had become a reality.
  • R&D ahead of the competition: trying to figure out what things work together.
  • Two days after we got our cheeses, we presented our perfect pairings to a panel of local curd nerds for their scrutiny.
  • While searching for the perfect cracker and other things, we stopped at Cheese Plus to adopt an Alp.
  • While searching for the perfect cracker and other things, we stopped at Cheese Plus to adopt an Alp.
  • After the first day of CMI, we had an important cheese meal at Mission Cheese, where the amazing staff always hooks it up. After a day of eating cheese, we ordered the Raclette, of course.
  • Also on the menu at Mission Cheese after a day of eating cheese and having melted cheese for dinner: a monger's choice cheese board.
  • Day 2 at CMI: the competition begins. Everyone stakes out his or her own table.
  • Mongers anxiously watching the technical challenges as they awaited their turn.
  • The PhCheese cutting her perfect wedges of Gruyere--0.24 and 0.27 pounds, respectively. Judges took off 0.1 for every point you were off from 0.25 pounds on a cut.
  • More technical round: Courtney Khoshafian wrapping in plastic, Daniel McElligott wrapping his perfect cuts in paper, and Derek Glazzard cutting perfect 0.25-pound wedges.
  • The final three mongers (alphabetically, of course) wrapping and cutting in the technical round: Stephen Dahlgren on paper, Tailor on the cut, and Wade Johnson as the last man on deck.
  • Everyone waiting to start the food service round.
  • My Perfect Beverage pairing: Essex Brabander with a chocolate lavender cream fizz (Theo drinking chocolate, lavender Dry Soda, local Straus Family Creamery milk).
  • My Perfect Platter featuring Vermont Creamery Bijou: an exploration of pairings from the Pacific Northwest and how they each and all interact with the aged goat cheese from Vermont (B&E Meats' candy smoked salmon, Orasella maraschino cherries, Theo ghost chili caramels, Macrina cranberry hazelnut crisps, and a palate cleanser of cucumber Dry Soda and Firefly Kitchens' probiotic tonic). The idea was sort of a map of Washington state, with a sea of salmon to the west, a mountain range of chocolates in the middle, and "fields" of cherries and hazelnuts to the agricultural east.
  • The only photo Tailor got of her perfect Beverage and Perfect Platter. Her Beverage paired Cowgirl Creamery's Clabbered Cottage cheese with a refresher of cranberry and lemon juices, chiles, and honey; she used dried pineapple wedges as "spoons" for the cottage cheese. Her Platter featured Jasper Hill's Bayley Hazen. In a forest theme inspired by the bark-like rind of the cheese, she paired it with "flowers" of orange crisps, honey comb, a stream of balsamic vinaigrette, and logs of country-style Pate.
  • My Perfect Bite: Esquirrou Ossau-Iraty or Hardbite Drop'n Mad Beets beet chips with Girl Meets Dirt quince cutting preserves and a few sprigs of Firefly Kitchens' Ruby Red Kraut.
  • Tailor's Perfect Bite: Kirkham's Lancashire on Firehook seeded baked crackers with Girl Meets Dirt Shiro plum preserves and Indian mango pickle.
  • Perfect Bites (mine on top) waiting for the crowds.
  • A crowd of spectators, vendors, and cheese lovers!
  • The finalists take the stage
  • The final round is about to begin as the hosts explain what's about to happen.
  • We did it! Tailor and yours truly after CMI.

5 thoughts on “What It’s Like Competing in the Cheesemonger Olympics

  1. Thank you so much for this amazing article. I had a couple of people recommend that I do it so I signed up for the spring CMI in Chicago. Every time I get overwhelmed I read an article like yours and remind myself that cheese fam is the best fam and it’s anout my own growth and not winning. It sounds so amazing and I can’t wait to go and compete. Thank you for your very uplifting article.

    1. Hi Greg, thank you for your kind comment! I’m glad my post helped you feel more comfortable. CMI is a great experience, and I hope you really enjoy it. It looks like a really good group of mongers will be there. I wish you the best of luck, and I will be watching the internet to see how y’all do. Cheers!

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