Ryan Skrabalak is a cheesemonger at Cheese Traveler, a wonderful shop in the DelSo district of Albany, NY. In this guest post, he shares an insider’s look at the Cheesemonger Invitational, an event held in tandem with the New York Fancy Food Show which is part serious competition, part cheese nerd Woodstock—fueled by the antics of impresario Adam Moskowitz who wanders the premises in a cow suit.
The last two years Ryan was a competitor, this year a volunteer, assigned to stir a fondue pot over a grill until his “arm cramped up like a stressed relief pitcher”. But the experience was clearly worth it. Let’s cut (to) the cheese.
It’s the last weekend in June, and I find myself once again ascending the steps of the Hunterspoint Avenue station in Long Island City, Queens. It’s hot. In this part of town, once alien to me, there is no shade—except for a railroad bridge the sidewalk passes under at 25th Street. Heat radiates violently off of warehouses and storage units. And—this is sort of a rare thing in New York City—there isn’t a bodega or high-rise condo in sight. I keep walking through the humidity and high noon sun, finally rounding the corner on 27th Street. A colorful huddle of folks are out smoking in front of a nondescript brick building. I can hear their laughter from the intersection. I feel at home.
I’m here for the NYC Cheesemonger Invitational. This year, I’m on the other side of the scenes, volunteering. The two years prior, though, I competed in this deliciously esoteric, adrenaline-drenched, sweaty, hilarious, and supremely educational event that is self-proclaimed as “Fight Club meets WrestleMania,” aka “Cheeselmania,” aka “the best party on the Eastern Seaboard.”
It’s a beautiful thing, this sort of craft-kegger-cum-advanced-cheese-seminar. Curd nerds from across the world mix and mingle, trading everything from war stories of the World’s Worst Customers (“she literally emptied the entire sample plate of two year reserve Comte into one hand and took it all to the face!”) to shop secrets and tips (“use a toothbrush to clean that gross little spot on the Handee cutter”) to, well, just exhalations of joy and camaraderie. For many of these folks, this weekend is a reunion of sorts—the one time a year someone in Chicago can chat with their cheesemonger pal from Philly. Cheese (and its myriad vectors) naturally takes up the bulk of the conversations. It’s a time to geek out and drink up.
Two days of camaraderie and competition, all about cheese.
The Cheesemonger Invitational is actually a two day affair. The competition doesn’t begin until the second day. The first day is purely educational: about five or six hours of educational seminars with a sort of who’s who of producers, affineurs (people who age cheese), and importers. Much shop is talked. One gets a sense of the genuine closeness and unity of the cheese community. Not only do we cheesemongers sell the physical product—aged milk—but we also are purveyors of place, offering snapshots of countryside and the people who work in it and of it. We offer the preserved collective stories of specific landscapes, special folks, and happy animals.
As a community, we work together to offer the rest of the world these stories; this product, steeped in traditions intertwined with the relationships between humans, animals, and land. We make sure they are delivered as the cheesemaker intended them to taste and with the feelings the cheesemaker intended them to invoke. These are the sentiments that make a group of fifty cheese slingers downright giddy in a cold storage unit in Long Island City, Queens. The beer helps, too.
There’s a latent joy that buzzes about said cold storage facility, too. The competition on the second day is just about the only time all weekend where there’s a modicum of peace and quiet—competitors line long buffet tables, poring reverently and studiously over a few difficult written exams. This year, there was an aroma test (one hopes one didn’t do anything while out and about on Friday night to sully those nasal cavities). In years previous, there have been blind taste tests—sometimes focusing solely on American artisanal cheeses, sometimes regarding only European PDO/PGI cheeses (yeah, even those obscure ones, like the funky golden Czech button, Olomoucké tvarůžky—though if you’ve ever had it before, you’d recognize it pretty quickly). After the tests, mongers are judged at additional events. There’s a cutting trial, in which points are only awarded to those who cut cheeses of random density, height, and overall size within .01 or .02 of a specified weight. Then, mongers must showcase their cheese origami in a timed wedge-wrapping trial.
Finally (and this is where things start to really dazzle), the competitors begin to assemble their “perfect bites.” These are pre-meditated amuse-bouche that each cheesemonger has developed after being assigned a cheese about a month prior to the competition. Seeing these bites come to life is for certain one of the highlights of the weekend. Creativity oozes from every station—one runs across ingredients from candied ginger to dulce de leche, soba noodles to homemade biscuits, wafers, and jams, nutritional yeast to salmon roe. It’s an incredibly inspiring array of—well, when you really simplify it—cheese pairings. Competitors assemble mini fondue stations, brulee dollops of chevre, stack s’mores, you name it. “Has anyone ever paired ________ with ________ and ________?” Yeah, they have. And it was fucking delicious, too (Chocolate and Cheese isn’t just a great Ween album, okay?). Judges make their way around the tables, popping this and that into their mouths, at times eyes rolled back in ecstasy, at times nodding fervently. This year, additionally, there was a beverage pairing element (I was too busy to check most of these out, but I remember seeing a number of seriously hat-tipping combos. Mavens, I tell you).
Enter the impresario: Ken Kesey in a cow suit.
Scores are tallied, and as mongers’ emotions in Larkin Cold Storage begin to swell, and the sun begins to dip over the distant 59th Street Bridge, the doors open to the public. Even more cheese freaks. They’ve literally lined up around the block. Adam Moskowitz, the facility owner, event founder, and CMI’s bon mot-cum-impresario-cum-MC-cum-Merry Prankster (think of a hybrid Flava Flav and Ken Kesey, if Kesey had trays of Taleggio and Challerhocker instead of his normal party favors, and also dressed himself in a cow suit) begins to make his rounds, having transformed into his Mr. Moo avatar. Vendors, importers, producers, and the like have literally piled the best cheeses in the world on their respective tables, and begin slinging their wares. Beer flows like wine. Fondues bubble sexily. Raclette courses through troths that run the length of the warehouse (that was a lie. But there is a ton of raclette). The top ten cheesemongers (this year, the list had shortened to top six) are announced, to much applause.
Throughout the course of the evening, which delves deeper and deeper into cheese-and-beer fueled mania, the finalists cut and wrap more cheese, pair cheeses with food and drink splayed across the warehouse tables, and praise and acclaim their profession and the cheeses they sell. One hears stories of love at first bite and of love affairs with wheels of cheese. If you think that someone cutting a perfect third-pound wedge of 22-month Gruyere AOP can’t send a room full of 800 cheeseheads into utter chaos and ecstatic conniptions, too, well—you gotta just get yourself a ticket then.
The evening grows intense. Three mongers stand upon the stage, their brows sweaty, their sleeves rolled up. A few empty cans of beer frame the stage. Veritable mounds of perfectly-wrapped cheeses cover some of the tables. Mr. Moo has worked the crowd into a curd-fueled fever pitch. Maybe an instrumental of “Root Down” is playing. Loudly. A few people are literally spinning in the back of the warehouse, Grateful Dead style, their mouths full of Schnebelhorn and Stilton. The judges have convened in a back office. A winner emerges and is duly blessed Excalibur-style with—duh—a big ass knife to cut cheese with. The crowd roars, eats more (if they can), and dances some of those calories off. For a minute or two, you’d think you were in some underground club, maybe, or some raging disco. But the crowd parts a bit, and across the warehouse you can spy someone cutting a nugget of Montgomery’s Cheddar out of a golden wheel. This ain’t no disco. See you next year.