Cheesemonster
Alice Bergen Phillips
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Adventures in Cheese

Cheese, cheese, and more cheese. Sometimes wine.

Cheesemonger. Invitational.

As some of you know, a few weeks ago, I competed in the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) – a cheesemonger competition held twice a year, once in New York and once in San Francisco. Well, this summer’s CMI has come and gone, and I only have one thing to say about it – it was a truly incredible, inspirational, and humbling experience that I feel so lucky to have been a part of. It was fascinating, terrifying, and I absolutely loved it.

 Bada Bing, Bada Boom

Bada Bing, Bada Boom

Okay, I lied. I have way more than one thing to say about it. Let me set the stage for you: Fifty of the curd-nerdiest cheesemongers from all over the country – from Vermont to Louisiana, New Mexico to Chicago – converged upon the Larkin Cold Storage facility in Long Island City, Queens. There were people from myriad backgrounds – some who had been working in cheese for 10 or 15 years, and some who had been in the game for only a few weeks. Some work at really well known, long-standing places like Murray’s in New York, DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and others work at much smaller, newer counters. Many people had competed before, and a few of us hadn’t. Regardless of our differences, the camaraderie felt between all of us was amazing – everyone there loved their job and couldn’t wait to geek out with a bunch of other passionate people who spoke their language.

The first day was an education day where we spent 8 hours in small groups talking to cheese producers – farmers, cheese makers, affineurs, importers, and everybody in between. There were people from Neal’s Yard Dairy, Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont Creamery, as well as the producers of the Manchego, Gruyere, Comte, Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano, and many of the Swiss cheeses that I have at my counter. There was a lot of discussion about tradition and culture, but also a ton of hard science – chemistry and biology talk about various bacterias, microbial processes, and the like. It was really incredible access to people who are generally pretty inaccessible. By the end of the day, all of our brains were full enough to burst.

 If this is education, sign me up

If this is education, sign me up

The second day, Saturday, was the competition – nine preliminary challenges, followed by five final challenges for the top six competitors. Everyone was extremely nervous – I got to Larkin a full half an hour early, thinking that I would beat the crowd and settle in, but found that about half of the competitors had had the same idea. As on edge as we all were, however, the feeling in the room was nothing but supportive. For me, this was the best part of the whole event – everyone was there to cheer on their peers and help each other out. For example, the edible flowers that I brought for the Perfect Plate Challenge got soaked in ice water the night before competition, which rendered them completely useless. Another cheesemonger heard about my plight and gave me a whole bunch of extra flowers that she had brought for herself so that I could complete my plate.

The first nine challenges were hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. There was a written test, blind taste test, aroma test, cutting perfect 1/4lb pieces, wrapping in paper, wrapping in plastic, salesmanship, perfect beverage, perfect plating, and perfect bite. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and by the time the crowd of about a thousand got let in for the party and to watch the finals, I was sure that the hard part of my day was over. I was sure that I would be standing in the crowd with my mom, watching the finals. I grabbed a beer and started to relax.

Then they called my name.

I made the finals.

I had not prepared for this.

Sure, I had looked over the handout they’d given us of what the finals would entail, but I had decided to focus on the challenges I knew I was going to have to perform rather than the ones I probably wouldn’t be required to do. All I can say is that it seemed like a solid strategy at the time.

 Oh man, that's a lot of people...

Oh man, that's a lot of people...

So, I winged it – I got up on stage and had discuss my favorite cheese, come up with a cheese pairing on the fly when given a random accompaniment, talk about a cheese that epitomizes a randomly assigned country or region, cut as many perfect 1/4lbs of cheese as possible off of a large wheel in 60 seconds, and wrap as many small, soft cheeses in paper as possible in 60 seconds. It was exhausting, but I have to say, by the time it was all over, my cheeks ached from how much I was laughing and smiling. It was a blast.

I ended up getting 6th place, which is an unbelievable honor. To be listed under the words “Summer 2016 Champions” on the CMI website literally gives me goosebumps. And to be one of only a few cheesemongers from DC to ever make the finals is just icing on the cake.

You better believe I’ll be back next year.

Toodles,

Alice

Alice Bergen Phillips