Blue Cheese or hot dogs?

Many young New Yorkers are exchanging their wall street jobs for an apron and an appetite for cheese-making.

by: Verena Dobnik | 06 Nov 2006

Day after day at work, Brian Ogden found himself sitting in front of a computer and staring at the lower right-hand corner – the tiny clock on the screen ticking on, all too slowly.

"I was bored out of my mind," said the 32-year-old database expert.

So he quit his job at a Massachusetts high-tech company and moved to New York to start an unpaid internship – to learn all about cheese.

And not just any cheese. Ogden works at the Artisanal Cheese Center, a 10,000-square-foot (900-square-meter) space on Manhattan's West Side that is evidence of a growing trend in the United States. Gourmet cheese production has expanded dramatically, with people like Ogden getting into the business.

While many young men and women in the European countryside – Spain, France, Italy, Germany, England – are leaving their parents' centuries-old, labor-intensive craft of cheesemaking for easier jobs, Americans are eager to take up the slack.

"We have more cheesemakers who have decided to ditch their Wall Street jobs and want to start over, finding a piece of paradise on a farm someplace," says Vermont cheesemaker Allison Hooper, president of the 1,200-member American Cheese Society.

The Artisanal Cheese Center supplies cheese to restaurants, hotels, shops, cruise ships and individuals. Hundreds of cheeses mature in the center's second-floor "caves" – five temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers with doors as airtight as those of a safe.

Outside, a high-tech air purifier kills any "aromas" that might otherwise reach tenants above (it's an industry no-no to say that some of the best cheeses stink.)

"Cheese is a living, breathing food that needs tender loving care: It needs to be washed, patted and turned over to mature to its greatest potential," says Max McCalman, a "maitre fromager," or cheese master.

The new cheese aficionados are helping promote a food whose U.S. production has doubled in two decades, according to Dick Groves, who publishes the Cheese Reporter in Madison, Wisconsin. The average American eats more than 31 pounds (14 kilograms) of cheese a year, up by almost 40 percent since the mid-1980s.

"I love food – so why not take something you love and turn it into a career?" Ogden said on the third day of his three-month internship at the Artisanal center.

McCalman oversees operations at the center that was opened in 2003 by star chef Terrence Brennan, who also owns two fine Manhattan restaurants – Picholine and Artisanal. At Picholine, Brennan installed what is billed as the first real cheese cave in a U.S. restaurant.

On any given night at the restaurant, McCalman can be seen wheeling out a cart filled with the finest cheeses made from the milk of cows, sheep and goats. Some are gooey, others almost rock hard; some cream-colored or yellow, others snow white. There are ones with black crusts, or covered with fig or cherry leaves.

As he walks behind the cart, the 53-year-old cheese master's face beams with monk-like concentration. When serving, he is also called upon to suggest what wine to order with the cheeses that often replace dessert. He once couldn't quite figure out what to serve with the Spanish blue cheese Cabrales. It's taste is so "mean" – or even "macho" – that some men order it to impress their dates in restaurants, says McCalman. "It's so aggressive that it can walk away."

Finally, he discovered that it went best with a Spanish sherry. It's the kind of know-how anyone can get at the center, where a small group gathered one evening for a seminar called "Wine and Cheese 101," at $75 (?59) per person.

At the other end of the same floor are the caves filled with cheeses in various stages of "affinage." That's French for the ripening process that involves "washing" a cheese with wine, brine or brandy, rotating it, scrubbing it or brushing it, depending on what creates optimal taste in each case.

Some cheeses even get a massage – a patting down that smooths out the crust.

Entering the cave area is a procedure akin to walking into a hospital operating room. Everyone must put on sterile medical slippers and the kind of cap usually worn by surgeons to ensure cleanliness. It's a stroll through a windowless landscape that's strangely cool and humid, like a real cave – and sometimes very stinky.

The center stocks up to 100,000 pounds (45,000 kilograms) of cheese a year, while also offering educational programs for professionals and amateurs, a private-events space and a telephone crew that takes orders from across the country.

Each day, hundreds of packages lined with inflated plastic and ice packs protecting the cheese are loaded into trucks for delivery – some in the greater New York area, others to flights at Kennedy International Airport. Among Artisanal's clients are Air France and British Airways, which fly French and British cheeses back to where they came from, serving them during the flight across the Alantic.

Another client is Walt Disney World, where McCalman recently taught a seminar.

"Call it the Great Cheese Revolution," McCalman writes in his second book on the subject, "Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best."

"The discovery of fine wines has proceeded at a steady pace over the past quarter century," he writes. "Now it's cheese's turn."

On the Net: Artisanal Cheese Center:

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