Book reviews of Cheesemonger seem to be pounding your “former punk rocker” image pretty hard. Is that getting annoying?
Yeah. The further it got away from the original Chelsea Green Publishing press release, the more absurd it became. I still go to [punk rock] shows, I’m just more discriminating about the ones I go to.
How have things changed in cheese since you started at Rainbow in the mid 90s?
We’re in the midst of an explosion of high-quality U.S. cheese. When I started, the new cheeses for people were Saint-André and Jarlsberg. Now people are looking for stronger cheeses, cheeses with interesting stories, more U.S.-made cheeses.
What cheeses are you excited about?
Oregon cheesemaking is getting really huge. Some of my favorite cheese are coming out of Rogue Creamery, Tumalo Farms, Pholia Farm, and Three Ring Farm.
You talk in your book about the physical toll of being a cheesemonger, including carpal tunnel from cutting so many wheels, and you also describe a horrible accident…
Yeah, that was 12 years ago. We had some fake hay on our Parmesan display, and somebody dropped a toothpick from the free sample area into it. I didn’t see the toothpick hiding in the hay, and when I put this giant wheel of Parm down on the display, my hand got caught underneath, and the toothpick went right through my finger. My coworker had to cut it out with a razor blade. I still have the scar.
One of the funniest aspects of Cheesemonger is the nontraditional dynamic between customers and employees at Rainbow. There is a sign, for instance, that states that people are not allowed to make jokes about the Le Farto cheese, and that is a rule that gets reinforced rather sternly.
In a worker-owned co-op, there’s a different kind of customer service. When you know there’s no boss, it creates a different environment in the store. We try to be respectful, but don’t ask that employees allow themselves to be completely disrespected by the customers either. During the dot-com boom, this one time we were out of a cheese we usually had, and this guy said “I’m going to bill you for my time coming here today!” We were like, “You could have called?!”
You mention that men sometimes feel emasculated by fancy cheese. Why is this?
I think for a while, knowing a lot about cheese was seen as…faggy somehow. You know, like 10 years ago, as I say in my book, during 49ers games the announcers would say stuff like, “We may be near the Napa Valley, but the 49ers defense sure isn’t playing like a team that had quiche and Chardonnay for dinner last night.” But that attitude is changing as interest in food has grown exponentially.
Are there cheeses that have gotten majorly trendy since you’ve been in the biz?
Explorateur [a triple-cream French cheese] was on an episode of Sex and the City, and then everybody was asking for it. But in general, there are more micro trends than macro. Farmers markets tend to drive demand, like if people see a new cheese at the farmers market, they’ll come in asking for it. But oftentimes it’s in limited supply, or was just a weird mistake on the cheesemaker’s part.
What do you think about the New York chef that’s allegedly making breast milk cheese?
I’m relatively ambivalent. It’s obviously a publicity thing. I mean, unless you’re going to start a factory of lactating women, you’re not going to get much volume… Also, human milk is lower in proteins than sheep, milk, or cow, and it’s hard to make cheese out of and get it to set properly. Is he mixing it with cow’s milk? Anyway, I do like the way it shakes up the way people think about milk. I’d try it –I’d try anything once.
Are there any downsides to people becoming more interested in fancy foods, like expensive cheeses?
I love talking about food, but making it too precious is alienating to people who don’t have unlimited amounts of time and money to seek out the most interesting blah blah blah. It seems like the food world sometimes is based of prestige and bragging rights. But hey, the $3.99 a pound Monterey Jack is still our biggest seller. We got through 240 pounds of that a week!