My Apology to Cheese Mongers

This post takes a personal turn compared to what I typically blog about at knowurfood.org.  However, I thought this was the best forum to communicate my explanation for why I declined my invitation to compete in the Cheese Mongers Invitational Masters competition this weekend.

I competed to be proclaimed the best cheese monger in America¹ in January of 2015.  I had worked as a retailer of specialty cheese for four years. Through that year and some months prior, I had been working as the opening manager of Eataly Chicago.  Only six months earlier, my previous colleague and friend Emily had become the first female to win the competition, and I knew that my opportunity to prove my worth was at hand.

I have since left that position, and after accomplishing many goals, and still lamenting over recent lessons, have found myself another path to follow.  You see, much of the passion I derived from being a cheese monger was in the craft.

Like many people I know, I sacrificed many moments and relationships in order to find my place in the food world.  As a professional, I found myself working with the greatest cooks and restaurant people in the industry. But it wasn’t till I became a cheese monger that I realized I could be an example as a professional at the top of my field. As a culinary student I was afforded the opportunity to meet Grant Achatz, a legend, and certainly at the time my idol in the kitchen.  I was one of the first 50 people to pre-purchase his book, and so had a distinct copy, which I treasure to this day. He was kind enough to inscribe it, “ Refine and Redefine”. This spoke to my truth, and I so honor those who follow this pursuit. I realized that if I left the kitchen, and learned to operate efficiently and with finesse as a cheese monger, I could have greater potential for a meaningful, and more direct influence on our food-system.

I became a cheese monger November 13, 2011. In fact, earlier on the day I was hired to work at Eataly Flatiron, I was also hired as a sous chef at an exciting new Italian restaurant in the West Village, called Spasso.  Having just came back from Los Angeles, and feeling very insecure about my financial future, I decided to take the cheese monger job.  Eataly was run by a large business group with the most successful Italian restaurateurs in NYC, and Spasso was run by a small, three restaurant group, which is historically a relatively bad bet for a consistent paycheck.  I felt taking the job at Eataly was the responsible thing to do. And frankly, it seemed considerably less physically and emotionally stressful, at the time, as well. I did continue to work as a stagiaire at Spasso for a few months, coming in about once or twice a week to try out a recipe, help out my buddy Adam with some event, or just to work service.  Eventually, it was apparent that those days were over. My passions had shifted, and I had new goals.

The market at Eataly Flatiron is a monster.  It’s interesting to look at a monster from the outside and realize that, if it’s all you know, then of course the monster becomes your “normal”.  That brand of normalcy allows a student time to hone their craft in a unique atmosphere. The pace caused more experiences to be jammed into less time that concepts like “five customers deep”, or a line of a thousand, or $70k weeks at your counter become “normal”.  Attention tends to wane if not busy. Though, if it is almost always “busy”, what remains to pique ones interest, espescially if you are a student of your craft, are the less apparent observations that attend to the rarest teaching moments. Refined finesse can only be found in practice, and theoretically, many cheese mongers can imagine what it it like to face multitudes on a daily basis, with literally hundreds of cheese at your fingertips, making perfect cuts and wrapping, labeling and pairing with efficiency, like a retail monger machine. If you want it, if you like it enough to work there, this is reality in the market at 23rd St and Broadway.²

I was hired by one of the most celebrated cheese mongers in America.  His name is Greg and though I didn’t know him then, I since have considered him one of my closest friends in our industry.  One of the reasons I decided to leave the chef world to become a cheese monger was to listen to the lessons someone of his skill and experience could impart. Fortunate for me, just about the same time as I was hired, another cheese monger named Colter was brought on the team. Our paths didn’t cross for a little while, since we worked different shifts. It was, however, apparent to the crew that this was the person that would become our next Assistant Manager, having just come from a managerial position at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.  Maybe most importantly, he previously worked for a number of years under Juliana and Alma at the highly respected The Pasta Shop in San Francisco.  Then, working alongside Colter, was the first time I caught wind of the Cheese Monger Invitational competition. Colter was the obvious choice for representation from our shop. We had been working the closing shift together for a few months by then. I spent every day-off traveling to the various great cheese counters of NYC, and being NYC-centric and biased toward our market, I was convinced that our counter was the the pinnacle of the industry. I also thought, Wow! What a coup for the winner to be the guy that is only allowed to sell Italian cheeses!  Colter came in top ten, but did not win. Still, without haste I got my hands on Colter’s written exam questions, and during breaks between rushes I took the exam, scored a 77, and decided I could win some day. The following year, getting ready to start up my own team in Chicago, I saw two cheese mongers from our counter that wanted to compete and, though Emily was awesome, Colter was the person in my opinion who best held the promise of bringing glory to our underdog counter. Of course it was never my decision, since I was only a supervisor then. I knew though, that if had decided to stay in NY instead of opening up Chicago, I too would be vying for the opportunity to become CMI champion.  That competition passed, and though well represented, Eataly did not win. The following January of 2014, about a month after we opened in Chicago, Perry Soulos became the first West Coast Champion in San Francisco. CMI now felt more nationwide, and from then on would concur with the Fancy Food Show on each coast: summer in New York, and winter in San Fran.

In Chicago, our team had just constructed, and was operating one of the largest high end specialty cheese counters in America. My team was happy and cohesive. The previously untested, certainly unorthodox team management methods and counter operations our team had put into practice were proven effective, even elegant, and I was thinking this could be an opportunity to put my cheese monger skills to another test. I remember being called by Emily in the afternoon on the last day of registration, and asked the question, “Would I be competing?”  Of course, I decided to register. Now it was on, and I was going to show my mettle. During my prep, many people were rooting for me, but the fact remained that the more experience the person had in our industry, the more likely they were to say that there was no way I would win the competition. I guess it’s possible that there was some reverse psychology at play (maybe I fantasize that that was the case), but the reality was that Emily had just won for Eataly on the East Coast, not only as the first female to ever win, but also the first New Yorker. She surprised many, even though she had previously worked at Beecher’s and Murray’s, having spent her formative cheese-mongering years at Eataly, where the cheeses were either Italian, or esoteric (at least esoteric enough not to be recognized by Italians, as not being Italian cheese!)  There was little chance judges would allow for a back-to-back coast-to-coast win by an organization that shunned Swiss and French cheese, right?³ I remember five weeks prior to the competition, while preparing I decided that as part of my offering my “Perfect Bite” of Rogue Creamery’s “Pistol Point Cheddar” I would include a finocchiona salame, which at the moment I was about ready to stuff, ferment and hang to dry, just in time to be a point for the competition. I got a phone call in the evening, my gloved hands wrist deep in sausage mix.  It was Greg in NYC. As he often did, he imparted some wise, if not earth shattering advice.  “Nobody wins by pairing salame and cheese”. As soon as he said it, I understood. It didn’t seem debatable.  It just made sense to me. Yeah, so obvious. Too obvious! By the time I got off the phone, I was sure that there was no way the salame I was about to make oh-so-perfect, would be a component of my “Perfect Bite”.  I had to come up with a different plan. The salame worked out, in the sense that when I presented my perfect bite to the 1500+ crown that Sunday in January, the salame was in my bag, and I was happy to sample it out to anyone who would taste it.  It was a fennel pollen salame. It was awesome, but my Puffed Pistol Point Nacho was better.  I did tie to win that category, scored higher than most in every other challenge of the 2015 West Coast Cheese Monger Invitational, and I prevailed as champion. During that first year and a half in Chicago, I developed my methods and honed my craft in order to give the best experience to our guests, best honor our producers, and set an example for my coworkers and peers.  At the CMI, I was on stage with some of the best cheese mongers in the country. And, on that day, after years of training at my craft, often with the CMI in mind, I came out on top. I know what it takes to lay your craft on the line for the most discerning judges’ scrutiny. That was almost 4 years ago, and much of my life has since changed.

I have not worked as a cheese monger at a specialty counter for a few years now.  This is not a regret, since my life has taken other turns.  However, if afforded the right environment to operate on the highest level as a retail cheese specialist, and had I decided to make cheese mongering my priority over the weeks leading up to this weekend, I believe I could have been a formidable competitor.  This would conceal my admission that those who have prepared so well to test their professional skills, not just for CMI Masters glory, but the opportunity to represent the USA in Tours next year to compete for the best in the world, deserve to go up against the best right now. I am too aware of the commitment necessary to put myself on their level. There are certainly many other cheese mongers in the country that have that eye of the tiger, and the tools to be “the best”. Though from time to time I might call myself a cheese monger, right now I am definitely not “the best”, or even one of the best operating today.  For these reasons, and with utmost respect, I apologize for declining my invitation to compete in the Cheese Mongers Invitational Masters Competition. Even more, I would regret to consider myself even a peer, even before assuming some spectator might view me as one of the best of the best in the country just because I am standing on that stage. Plus, I find it strange to compete without the intention to prevail as a champion.

I want to be clear that nothing I said above should be construed as an excuse for not representing the great craft of cheese mongering, which truly I do love. I was invited to compete to be called the best of the best from America†, and I decided to turn it down.  For this, even if for no one else’s approval, I hope that those who have heeded the call to sling the best aged dairy across a busy counter with intention and finesse will accept my sincere apology for being unprepared to perform right now.

Sincerely,

Matt Reilly

‘Nduja Artisans Salumeria

¹ The title, “The Best Cheese Monger in America” doesn’t really exist, and it is agreed by those informed that winning a competition does not qualify anyone for that title. CMI is certainly not a comprehensive assessment of all cheese mongers in America, or even necessarily a test of all the traits and skills that might qualify one as being “The Best Cheese Monger in America”.  That is only what it felt like I was training for, and was a factor in my intention to compete in CMI, fueling part of my desire to win the competition.

² I believe this is a key reason that many mongers who worked at Eataly have seen such success at The Cheese Mongers Invitational, where skill in operational craft weighs heavy in the judging.

³ Of course, that’s not really how the competition works, but I didn’t know any better then.

The top 3 competitors will travel to the Loire Valley in France to compete on the world stage, representing America in the “Concours Mondial du Meilleur Fromager” (“World Contest of the Best Cheesemonger”) in June 2019

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