In April of 2015, Krista Jacobsen did what she describes as “probably the dumbest thing I ever did.” She relocated from California to New York City to accept an internship “with no guarantee of any kind of job afterward.” The job was with Murray’s Cheese, and it would be her first professional foray into the industry. After earning an undergraduate degree in animal science, Jacobsen spent years as a zookeeper before pursuing a Ph.D. and diving into the world of dairy. “My vice has always been cheese,” she says. “I thought—well, if I can’t beat the vice, then I might as well make it my job.”
After completing her three-month internship, Krista’s gamble of moving to the Big Apple paid off. She was hired onto the full-time staff and now serves as assistant caves manager at Murray’s, home to one of the few independent cheese aging facilities in the country.
In 2004, Murray’s opened its first set of cheese aging caves: a set of tiny rooms underneath the company’s flagship store in Greenwich Village. Then in 2013, the program crossed the East River to a facility in Long Island City. This larger space is made up of a temperature-controlled production area, a drying room, and the four caves. “Each cave is essentially a walk-in cooler that’s not as cold as a refrigerator would be,” explains Jacbosen. Inside, humidifiers and fans join forces to create the ideal ecosystems for four styles of cheeses: alpine, bloomy rind, washed rind, and natural rind.
Jacobsen’s scientific background serves her well in the caves, where experiments with different treatments are a common occurrence. “Like any science experiment, you may have an epic failure or you could have a happy accident. We’ve had both.” Caves Manager Peter Jenkelunas says that testing out different aging techniques is the most enjoyable part of the job, explaining that while “the main styles of cheese have been handed down for centuries, everyone puts their own twist on the craft.”
Given the emphasis on experimentation, scientific training can be an asset for people applying to work in the caves. But there’s one interview question that supersedes all the rest. “It may seem like a very simple question,” ventures Jacobsen, “But it’s, ‘Well, do you actually really like cheese?’ Because if you don’t, you’re going to get sick of this. It is a lot of repetitive work.”
The caves crew—a small but mighty team of five full-time employees and an intern—spends most of the work week on their feet. While each day varies depending on whether cheeses are arriving or rotating out, “it seems like we’re always flipping and washing,” Jacobsen remarks. The Monday–Wednesday–Friday routine involves flipping the cheeses in the bloomy rind cave and brushing the washed rind cheeses by hand. Meanwhile, Tuesdays and Thursdays are most often spent in the natural caves. On those days, you’re likely to find the team miting cheddars or washing the alpine cheeses to prevent dehydration.
While Jacobsen jokes that she lives in both a literal and figurative cave, Jenkelunas and Jacobsen do keep tabs on the outside world. “I think the most important thing to keep an eye on is advances in food safety,” asserts Jenkelunas. “As we learn more about the pathogens that can potentially contaminate cheese, we need to keep up with the trends of how to prevent, identify, and monitor contamination.” Jacobsen says that she stays up to date on technical information through recent publications in the Journal of Dairy Science. She also relies on her colleagues in the Buying and Wholesale departments to keep her posted on the state of the market, what customers are asking for, and what other producers are making.
The American cheese landscape is one that continues to grow and evolve. While Jacobsen reports that the amount of cheese in the caves has increased exponentially since her intern days, “there are still people who hear ‘American cheese’ and think you’re talking about Kraft singles and Velveeta.” But with every wheel of cheese that is hand-washed and flipped, the caves team is working to change that perception. And when the final products leave the nest, Cheese Specialists like Texas-based Adrianne Mingea are there to help “spread the word of the curd” across the country.
As compared to other cheese companies, Murray’s is uniquely positioned to take up this mantle on a national level. “Murray’s has done something other places haven’t,” explains Mingea. “That is: taking a small Greenwich Village cheese shop and copying and pasting it into over 400 Krogers nationwide. The idea of having a true speciality cheese shop, with knowledgeable and passionate mongers, in a local grocery store is unique to Murray’s.”
Looking ahead, Jacobsen says that she and her team have their sights set on further contributing to the industry by presenting at a conference one day. “Someone else would think that’s boring,” she speculates. “But we think it’s really awesome.” Until then, Jacobsen feels “eternally grateful” to be spending her days in the caves surrounded by her collaborative coworkers and, of course, hundreds of wheels of cheese.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.