2018 marks my 35th year in the cheese business. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many incredible people over the course of my career, and I’ve certainly eaten more than my share of world class cheese along the way. My job has enabled me to travel the globe in the search for new dairies and to be a cheerleader for products I truly believe in, as well as witness the revolution of American cheese from a front row seat. In short: cheese has been very, very good to me.
A bit of my history: my family acquired a restaurant in 1983 in Norman, Oklahoma that had a small retail element featuring an unpretentious cheese counter of about 25 European cheeses (a rarity in those days). We immediately replaced the cheeses with more in-demand items, but so many customers requested we bring the cheese back that we eventually relented. I knew next to nothing about cheese then, but as I was progressively exposed to many contrasting varieties, my love for it grew quickly and has never diminished.
As I look at the state of artisan cheese today, I’m thrilled by what’s out there. The sheer variety of both domestic and imported cheeses currently available in this country is pretty mind-blowing. Distributors are now experts at buying, storing, and delivering cheeses in pristine condition, which certainly wasn’t the case in 1983. And there are countless great retailers: traditional cheese shops, strong cheese programs at larger food retailers, and meticulous e-commerce suppliers who will deliver immaculate cheese right to your door. All of these buying options are headed by passionate, highly educated cheese mongers.
But above all, the most exciting element of the future of cheese in America is the current generation of cheesemakers. Now more than ever, cheesemakers have to be artisans, scientists, and businesspeople. They often do tough physical labor, and yet must have the ability to handle young cheeses with an incredibly delicate touch. They have impressive intellects; the ability to perform alchemical processes on raw milk and create something wildly delicious is always inspiring. But that’s only half of their job – they have to plan, lead, manage, and control their operations, as well as make their businesses profitable and sustainable. They have to be salespeople and marketers as well. As the saying goes, there’s rarely art without the associated commerce.
Thankfully, there are so many organizations, educational institutions and individuals who are devoted to making great cheese available to all. I can’t wait to see – or, rather, to taste what’s next as I plow ahead into the next 35 years of my career in cheese.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.
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