Cheesemonger Invitational 2018!
At the end of June, cheesemongers from around the country congregate in Long Island City, NYC for three days of education and competition. The Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) brings together cheesemongers, cheesemakers, distributors, importers and anyone else involved in the cheese world. Although the last day of the competition is a wild and crazy finale, winning is not the point of the Invitational. Adam Moskowitz, owner of Larkin Cold Storage (an importer plus more) and Columbia Cheese (one of our distributors), started CMI over a decade ago to bring attention and recognition to the job of cheesemonger, which hadn’t gotten much attention previously. He wanted to highlight that last step in the cheese chain, monger to customer, as just as important as the rest of the chain. Thus, CMI was born!
At the first CMI, 9 cheesemongers competed. This year, it was 45 passionate people intensely in love with cheese. My favorite day was the second day when we got to talk to cheesemakers who are at the apex of our industry. Betty Koster, affineur (cheese ager) of our Goudas, Giorgio Cravero from whom we get a Parmigiano, Jean-Marie Dunand, master cheesemaker of Gruyere 1655, Graham Kirkham of Kirkham’s Lancashire, David Clark of Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, and many others came to talk to us about their cheese. They are certainly very serious about their craft, but they also clearly find great joy in what they do. And this is why I like being around them; they remind me that I work in an industry with positive leaders like these.
The last day was full of competition. We started with a written test, full of technical questions about molds, cheese history, and any other random question they felt like asking. There was a blind taste test, a blind smell test, cutting pieces of cheese to a specific weight, wrapping those pieces in paper, wrapping a large half wheel in plastic, a salesmanship portion where you have to sell a piece of cheese to a judge pretending to be a customer, and so on. They were testing us on the things we do behind the counter. But since this was a competition and we were being timed, my hands were shaking like crazy, even though I do this stuff EVERY DAY!
The last part of the competition was the food service round where we made a cocktail to pair with a cheese, created a cheese plate with accompaniments for that cheese, and then made a perfect bite with a second cheese. After that, the competition was opened to the public, who ate our perfect bites and gorged on cheese, beer, charcuterie, jams, mustards, ice cream, and more provided by the many producers who had tables at the competition space.
Finally, the top 6 cheesemongers were announced, and we continued competing in front of the crowd. I was standing near the side of the stage with my friend Jen when they called my name. I looked at Jen in surprise, asked her to hold my rosé, then made my way to the stage. Once the 6 of us were on stage, we each had a minute to introduce ourselves and our favorite cheese. Throughout CMI, Adam kept telling us to just be ourselves. If we are reserved, be reserved. If we are crazy and wild, be crazy and wild! Each cheesemonger on stage let his/her own personalities shine. One cheesemonger gave a revival-style sermon, having the audience “Praise Cheeses!” Another talked about how she was a “Basic Ash Bitch,” and loved ash-ripened goat cheese. I fell back on what I know and love, teatime. I talked about Lincolnshire Poacher, a cheese from England that is earthy and sometimes has a pineapple zing because it is my favorite cheese to pair with tea. Talking on stage to hundreds of excited and cheering people was a rush! Even though I was tired from the day, the bright stage lights were boring into my eyeballs, and I was sweating because those lights are HOT, I was pumped to be up there! The next events were cutting perfect quarter pounds (as my mom said, watching a scale has never been so exciting), pairing condiments and cheese, trivia (my kryptonite), and wrapping oddly shaped cheeses in paper. In the end, I came in sixth, and by that point I was ready to have a cold beer, maybe sit down somewhere, and eat some more cheese.
During this whole event, there was an incredible cheering section for me. They were easy to spot because Brie made bright blue shirts with my face on the front. They not only made me feel like a celebrity, but they also kept me energized through the whole event, for which I am very thankful. Also! I have gotten so much support from you, our customers! From asking about the event, to offering your congratulations, you have made working at the shop extra fun and enjoyable, so thank you!!
CMI is an intense few days that reenergizes me about my job and the cheese industry. Next year, another one of our mongers will compete and I cannot wait to be part of the cheering section!
For the love of cheese and the Cheesemonger Invitational,