My Apology to Cheese Mongers

This post takes a personal turn compared to what I typically blog about at  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.


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

Family Farming Farmstead

People have a lot of reasons for choosing the artisan products they like most. Some who appreciate handmade foods care most about flavor and texture, others make their decisions based on how the well production animals are treated. Some people simply prefer foods that were produced by people they know, or a brand with which they are familiar. Like most people who prefer handmade foods, I make my decisions using a combination of similar virtues, but flavor is king. So, what makes something taste good? Sure, there are technical characteristics that “cull the wheat from the chaff”, but that is the most basic way any cured meat or cheese, for example, qualifies for shelf space potential, in the eyes of a skilled purchaser.  Things can get complicated when you start considering the nuanced virtues of the flavor of one quality product over another. Again, setting technical aspects aside with regard to general market trends (like whether or not truffles are liked or disliked by celebrity chefs in a given year, or whether a particular market would even consider products like flavored, or fruited cheeses, for example).  Let’s consider how we might pick what we want to serve. You can decide, “This is the spice or flavor notes that I like, and therefore I can express myself through what I serve.” Or, you move empathy to the forefront by trying to make decisions based on what you think your guests, or customers, will like most. (Or, you can advocate so strongly that what you like tastes so good, that your guests decide they think what you like tastes best to them, regardless of their initial, or isolated impressions. Manipulative? Yes. Bad?Maybe not?) In my analysis, considering that the appreciation of certain taste intensities and flavor compounds over others is influenced greatly by associations made over a lifetime of unique experiences, I rely on isolating the qualities of flavor that supersede those subjective complications (such as, I ate chocolate one time when I was a child, and a dog bit me, so I prefer not to eat chocolate as an adult, etc…) For this reason, I prioritize the expression of terroir.

For me, the more localized and isolated the relationship is between the final product and the land it came from, the better. Artisan products are handmade, yes.  However, this is just the beginning. Actually, any excellent craftsman will tell you that it is mostly non-human hands that effect the flavor of an artisan product. This is where the product’s identity becomes revealed. Now, you could say that there is virtue in a given product travelling all over the place in the hands of many different people in many different places still expresses unique qualities, identified specifically to that production chain. Okay, good for that chain, but it is not interesting to me that at one time, one thing was made, and the variables are such that the nuances of flavor variation are scattered like dust in the wind. What am I learning about this product that is revealed through it’s flavor? What are the underpinnings of my appreciation for such an arbitrary creation, and what can I rely on to make my choices in the future about what I like and who I support based on how that product tastes?  Something as impactful as seasonality can suddenly become much less significant as a control for the desirability of a product, when a product is moved between different locations throughout the production chain. Also, when factors such as raw material sourcing can be swapped out, even if at the whim of the producer, how am I to rely on the consistency of flavor?  I like to know that when I eat something, it represents the flavors of a place, specifically, the organoleptic characteristics of the air, earth, water, and things that live there.  From good land comes wholesome food, and expresses the flavor preferences of that land’s culture. This is how I appreciate food without needing to get mixed up with trendy flavors or ingredient fads.  I also can gain a broader perspective on the complexities of human culture, without going as far as travelling to that place, but with a more intimate experience than living vicariously through Rick Steves, as he travels through Europe.  The farmstead product I eat is like a snapshot that I view with more than just my eyes.  I can taste, smell, even feel the qualities of that place.  Is it likely that a guest will be looking for that experience from that place when they are eating such a product?  Well, unlikely, but sometimes.  Yes, sometimes someone asks for something specifically from a place.  Maybe they went to that place on vacation, or that place is their home.  Sometimes people want to share with others an experience that goes beyond flipping through pictures on your phone.  Sometimes it is a remedy for homesickness, bringing comfort to a traveler who has nothing else but external references and Skype to evoke the more dynamic sensory experiences of “home”.  These are special moments for both the host and the guest, or the retailer and customer, but this is not the only reason to stock shelves with farmstead products.  It is also important because time changes, and generations of life, especially bacterial life, can disappear in an instant.

The moment a product is not made anymore in a particular place, the lineage of that product can be broken forever.  Even if it is started up again, being made the same way in the same place, the bacterial cultures may have changed, and that can only start new flavors, it cannot bring back lost generations of old flavors, and that makes the product different.  Also, the farmers decide how to express the terroir of a land, and if those farmers call that place home, then they are integral to it’s terroir, as well, and that makes the flavor even more identified with the culture of a place.  A farm that is also a the family’s home encourages the family farmer to determine how it can most efficiently be cultivated and sustained over time.  Land that is tended by those who have more than capitalistic motivations, is stewarded rather than exploited.  I think it feels better to eat products made on loved, as well as farmed land.

Matt Brichford and Leslie Jacobs are such farmers.  Their Hoosier Homestead Farm, nestled in the heart of the Whitewater Valley in southeastern Indiana, has been in Matt Brichford’s family for over 100 years.  Dairy farming is a very difficult business.  As a commodity, milk prices fluctuate greatly according to complex variables and market forces, all of which have nothing to do with what one farmer does to produce excellent milk on one farm. A few farmers are lucky enough to be paid a premium for producing excellent milk. Unfortunately, great milk cannot travel far, especially if it is to be made into excellent cheese.  So, unless there is a creamery nearby, your farm is compensated the same whether you make a relatively small amount great milk or a whole lot of okay milk.  Overtime, it became obvious to the Jacobs and Brichford family that sustaining excellent farming in the production of excellent milk on their land meant exiting the commodity milk market and adding market value to their milk.  They settled on turning their excellent milk into excellent cheese.  This meant keeping their herd of cows on open pasture, continuing to selectively breed for the best milk producing animals, namely a mix of mostly Jersey and Normande cattle, and building a cheesemaking facility on their farm. It also meant becoming students of traditional farmstead cheese-making, partly through farm and facility visits in Europe.  Their commitment to producing raw milk cheeses means that they would be connecting their product to their home terroir.  In the production of their soft, rich cheese called “Ameribella”, and their Alpine-style “Everton” Jacobs and Brichford soon gained the appreciation of cheese lovers throughout the midwest, and now can be found in the finest specialty cheese shops from coast to coast.

It always amazed me that when I go to trade shows I see so many artisans standing behind their tasting tables, sampling and selling their products.  Where do they find the time?  I have seen either Matt, Leslie, often both, or daughter Maize, or all three at once so many times, I am in awe that they also run a farm, make and age their own cheese – and some of the best cheese I have ever tasted in my life to boot! I called Matt the other day and he said he had spent the morning finishing off calving the last of his cows for the season.  This is what farmers do.  Then, usually, cheese makers make cheese, and salesman sell.  Jacobs and Brichford does all of these things, as a family, on the highest level, and with over a hundred years of terroir building and family history at stake.  This is what I think makes the most delicious artisan food.  Through an artisan food, I want to taste what the craftsman wants me to experience, as well as sense a portion of what they feel everyday in their world.  But I also want to know that what I am eating stands tall next to the finest crafted products in the world.  Matt Brichford told me that Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, approached his tasting table at a trade show once, and when Matt described his cheese as being “Taleggio-style”, Mr Petrini replied, “This is not like Taleggio, Taleggio is Taleggio. This is Ameribella!”  It was like Mr Petrini was saying that in it’s own way, and much more specifically than “Taleggio” can claim, Ameribella is unique and excellent and, since it is made from raw milk, expresses the Whitewater Valley, not the Taleggio Valley.  For flavor, I like Ameribella more than any Taleggio.  But for my guest or customer, I would want them to experience the contrasts and compare Ameribella to a farmstead, raw milk Taleggio, and develop an understanding for the importance of terroir.

Here is a link to learn more about Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese and places you can buy it:



Here are some more thoughts on the virtues of Farmstead versus Creamery, Cooperative Dairying and Affinage…



Most efficient in cheese production

Focuses on the talents of specialized artisans


An abstract, removed from the larger production chain that begins on the farm

Removed from the micro-flora colonies that resides on the farm, reducing the flavor connection to terroir




All stages of artisan production completed on the farm

A more pure expression of a specific or localized terroir through the product


Can be inefficient without a wide variety of skills and a huge amount of effort in production




Efficiently adds value to aged cheeses, especially

Very specialized and tends toward the most reliably successful aging of cheeses

Creates faster cash flow return to cheese makers

Can operate most easily as wholesalers, and can adjust most quickly to the specifications of buyers, creating increased potential for a more marketable product to consumers


Terroir connection is often relatively absent due to the effect cave dwelling cultures can have on the flavors of a developing product

Trace-ability is often compromised, either due to how many hands the product passed through, or because the affineur/wholesaler wants to protect or obscure the source of the product




An expression of general area terroir, due to the use of approved cultures, breeding, feeding, production methods, etc. in combination with an area’s terrain, general soil composition, weather, climate and even cultural flavor preferences

Most efficient and potentially sustainable structure for positive economic growth among all partners of the production chain


Inclined to pasteurization, mechanization, industrialization and commodification, which are at odds with the development of a terroir identity

Once milk is pooled, complete trace-ability to a single farm of origin cannot exist

“Hey-ya, Hey-ya, Hey-ya! From the good people at J & B Farmstead Cheese in the Whitewater Valley, comes Reserve Everton!”


My Favorite Cheese

For the past couple of years, I have been captivated by a special cheese from Tuscany. I had the rare opportunity to try it when I met Dr. Luigi Bolli in 2014, and since have never felt so connected with another handmade cheese in my life.  I have referred to it as the greatest cheese in the world, and according to my list for the qualities of excellent cheese, it leaves very few, if any boxes unchecked.  To highlight just a few: It’s sustainable, farmstead, made from raw milk, it is unique in appearance and flavor, it is an original recipe that cannot be duplicated in any other place, and it has been that way for over 800 years. But, the list goes on. I love the family that makes it, I love their home and I truly appreciate the flavor of the special land where they live. It is called Gran Mugello Ubaldino, and I produced this video to tell some of its story during the Fancy Food Show a couple weeks ago.  When I first tasted it, I knew I would buy and sell a lot of it in my life.  It was not until I learned the story, when I began to feel the honor that would come along with doing so…