A cheese-selling champion is crowned through sweat and tears.
At the Cheesemongers Invitational, there is a lot of competition, but there is also a strong sense of cheese community.
Before last Sunday’s 2022 Cheesemonger Invitational in Brooklyn, Cara Condon was a dark horse.
Even though she had been working in the field for more than a decade, she felt that her wrapping skills weren’t the best and that her cheese-and-beverage pairing wouldn’t be a hit.
“I know it sounds disgusting,” she said of her drink, which was equal parts Galliano coffee liqueur and pineapple juice with a dried orange slice on top. It was meant to go with the Alpine cheese she was given. “But the bitterness and maltiness of Challerhocker, along with the sweetness and soft acidity of pineapple, really go well together.”
Then it was said that she was in the top three.
Ten events had already been done by 24 competitors that day. The five finalists would be timed on how quickly they could cut and wrap a perfect half-pound piece of cheese in paper and seal the rest of the cheese in plastic wrap so it could be put back in the display case.
Ms. Condon didn’t win those heats, but she did win the trivia round. For example, she knew that halloumi has a protected designation of origin and that cambium is the inner layer of spruce bark that is wrapped around some cheeses while they age. At the end of the 10-hour competition, Ms. Condon was named the winner. She was covered in sweat and wore a Chicago Bulls jersey to represent the cheese shop where she works, Beautiful Rind.
The Cheesemongers Invitational started with the fall of a powerful Swiss cartel in 1999 and ended, at least for this year, at Brooklyn Steel, a concert venue filled with hundreds of screaming fans, the sound of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing “Under Pressure,” and the funk of a thousand cheeses.
Adam Moskowitz, a former rapper, actor, addict, and lost soul who found his life’s purpose in cheese, is the story’s main character. Since 2019, when he overdosed and missed the competition because he was in rehab, he has made it his mission to help other people do the same. On Sunday, that meant he had to dance onstage in a black-and-white cow costume with his sleeves ripped off to show his blue-ink tattoos and gold manicure while he ran the show.
A cheesemonger is similar to a sommelier in that he or she does not make the cheese but instead interprets, advises, and sells it. The job requires a strong knowledge of geography, history, and microbiology, as well as a sense of taste and smell. The American Cheese Society is a trade group of American cheesemakers that was started in 1983. It certifies cheesemakers and holds a cheese competition every year. It has helped make “artisan” and “farmstead” cheese a booming part of the $35 billion U.S. cheese market.
But there weren’t many events or ways to learn for cheesemongers until Mr. Moskowitz combined his longtime dream of being an entertainer with his new job at his father’s dairy import business in Queens. In 2010, he held the first invitational as a kind of party after the Fancy Food Show, when cheese makers from all over the world come to New York in large numbers. He said that the party at his Queens warehouse was a mess. “I can’t even tell you what happened.”
Now, there is a complicated point system, a formal panel of 14 judges, and a final round of competition that is open to the public. Dairies like Jasper Hill Farm, Uplands Cheese Company, and Caputo Brothers Creamery sponsor the competition and provide all-you-can-eat cheese for the final round.
Even though the invitational has changed over time, anyone who works as a cheesemonger can still compete. Mr. Moskowitz’s only requirement is that the contestants show up early for three days of tastings, lectures, and demonstrations. In fact, most cheesemongers are more interested in learning and making friends than in competing.
John Litzinger, the head cheesemonger at the Son of a Butcher in Birmingham, said, “If you live in Alabama and are really into cheese, you don’t have a lot of people to geek out with.” “It’s a great feeling to be around so many cheese people.”
In the salesmanship challenge, judges pretended to be customers and asked questions like, “I’m supposed to bring a cheese board to a barbecue tonight, but the hosts are only serving rosé and one of them is pregnant. What do you suggest?” In the blind tasting, they had to be able to recognize cheeses from all over the world by their taste and smell alone. They also had to be able to identify each cheese by its five main characteristics: milk type (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, or mixed); milk treatment (pasteurized or raw); style (washed-rind, bloomy-rind, cooked pressed, uncooked pressed, blue, or fresh); country of origin; and cheese name (such as Roquefort, Manchego or Asiago). Nathalie Baer Chan, who was competing for the first time, got the first-ever perfect score in that event on Sunday. Her Murray’s Cheese teammates cheered her on.
Some of these tests are like wine competitions, but those tend to be more serious and quiet. Mr. Moskowitz said, “Cheese is a simple food.” “I don’t want to make it hard like wine has become hard,” he said. He said that wine is limiting, separates people, and is classist.
Even though the job is changing, the wine merchant, who is usually a white man, has always been a symbol of authority and European tradition. The cheesemongers at Brooklyn Steel showed off their diversity and creativity by wearing things like body jewelry, vintage dresses, ear gauges, moto jackets, head wraps, and, in the case of Morgen Schroeder of Martha’s Vineyard Cheesery, a yellow pantsuit with Emmenthal-style holes.
“The goal of my job is to make people feel comfortable around cheese,” said Reese Wool, who came in second. She works at the busy Murray’s Cheese stall in Grand Central Terminal, which was great practice for the speed wrapping event. Ms. Wool started to change their gender during the pandemic. They said that they were surprised at how comfortable they felt going through the process in front of customers and coworkers. “I think the way we talk to them shows that we don’t judge,” they said.
Mr. Moskowitz is also not what most people think of when they think of a cheese expert. He smokes Parliaments in his office, says bad words, and has a graffiti art studio in a corner of the warehouse in Queens. But he is a dairy farmer in his third generation: His grandfather had a butter and egg business at Washington Market, the old wholesale produce market in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. His father started Larkin Cold Storage, the import and distribution business in Long Island City that Mr. Moskowitz now owns.
It looks like this is a well-worn path. But he took a lot of wrong turns: He was estranged from his father for most of his childhood, and he didn’t start working in cheese until he had tried many other jobs that an outgoing person with drug problems could do. He started out selling cheese at Formaggio Essex on the Lower East Side. In 2007, he carefully joined his father’s business.
He was still not sure if he wanted to work in cheese when, to his surprise, he got very involved in the Swiss farmstead cheese movement.
From 1914 to 1999, the Schweizer Kaseunion (Swiss Cheese Union) was in charge of almost every aspect of cheese in Switzerland. It was like a cartel that controlled the milk supply and allowed only a few high-quality cheeses to be made, like Emmenthal, Gruyère, and Appenzeller.
In the 1990s, a series of corruption scandals and legal challenges brought the union to an end, and a new generation of cheesemakers began to break with tradition.
One of them, Walter Rass, who makes Challerhocker cheese, became Mr. Moskowitz’s cheese muse and spiritual guide. Mr. Moskowitz first tried Challerhocker cheese on a business trip in 2008.
Last Friday, Mr. Rass, who has a soft voice, told a group of cheesemongers his story.
In the tiny canton of St. Gallen, Mr. Rass’s family has been farming and making cheese for a long time. He made a lot of Appenzeller cheese as part of the cartel, but he wanted to make a name for himself as a cheesemaker who worked on his own. “There was no room for ideas, for being creative, or for being an entrepreneur,” he said.
In 2003, he added Jersey cows to the family herd and used their rich milk to make Appenzeller instead of the skimmed milk he had to use from Brown Swiss cows. He changed the brine and put the cheese into his own cellars to age.
It got totally new tastes, like nutty, custardy, and floral. Mr. Moskowitz started bringing it into the U.S., which changed Mr. Rass’s life as well as his own. Mr. Moskowitz was openly crying at this point, but Mr. Rass kept going.
“We Swiss think we’re the bellybutton of world cheese,” he said, pointing his chin at the cheesemongers. “But everyone in this room knows more than any Swiss cheesemaker did 20 years ago,” he said.
“Guys, cheese is life,” Mr. Moskowitz said as he wiped his eyes. “You can always learn more.”