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…


Electric Watercress

It was 9 years ago.  I was working at the Tasty Singapore pavilion at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center in NYC. My buddy, Neil and I had some time to take a break and walk around the show for a bit.  Walking around such a large space filled with the best in gourmet and craft food from around the world is an awesome experience.  If you ever get the chance, definitely go to the Fancy Food Show.  Anyway, as we were walking around we came across a micro-green and edible garnish purveyor.  Micro-greens are basically baby versions of herbs and vegetable sprouts that are often used to finish a plate of food in a fancy restaurant (see the micro cilantro used to top off my perfect bite). Well, all of a sudden I hear this exclamatory yelp from Neil.  No sooner do I look up, when he presents me with a tiny flower.  The bud is tightly formed and bright yellow, just like a miniature sunflower, but spherical. It’s the size and shape of a very small marble. He tells me to eat it, and as I take it in my hand I see a menacing look begin to form on his face.  As he starts to grin, I hesitated.  He said, ” No man, it’s fine, it’s totally cool…  It’s like electricity.”

Wait…what? Why would I eat this?  I thought, What is the taste of electricity??

“It’s totally cool.  Just eat it.”

I felt like I was back in middle school being taunted to do something I would surely regret.  But then, what the hell… I popped it in my mouth.

My tongue LIT UP! Neil was right. The only thing I could think of was that I just pressed a 9-volt battery to my tongue.  It tasted…just like ELECTRICITY.  Then I realized that I have had a similar, yet much less intense sensation before.  If you have ever eaten a sichuan peppercorn, that is the sensation.  Slightly tart, almost spicy-hot, but not exactly.  The big differences was that it was like one hundred times more intense, and it was a fresh little bright yellow flower bud.  I remember the guy told me the name of the plant.  I know I asked all about it, and how to get more.  I probably even took the purveyor’s card.  I was really excited to introduce this new find to all my fellow cooks, friends and chefs. Then, we went back to hawking products for the Singapore Trade Commission.

After the show, Neil and I did what any sensible cooks in training do.  We sat at the end of a local restaurant bar, proudly ignorant and most inappropriately, still wearing our chef whites, and proceeded to drink our faces off.  (Here’s a pro-tip for budding culinarians:  if your at a food service establishment or event, and you are not a chef of said establishment or event, you should not be in whites.  And unless you are THE CHEF, or THE OWNER, you should definitely not be in chef garb at the bar.  It’s a real bone-head move) We were a couple of real bone-heads, and of course I remembered the taste sensation produced by that super cool flower garnish about a month later.  Of course, by this time I could not remember anything other than it being yellow and tasting like a battery.  Back then, this was not enough to go on for an image search on the internet, and the instances it came up over the following years were often during cook drink-fests when the subject of weird foods arose.  I would start to describe it, nobody would know what I was talking about, and I would have just enough info to make myself sound like a moron.  I literally brought this up intermittently for years.  Then, I went to Brazil.

I was asked to go to São Paulo to help set up a cheese counter – very exciting stuff – totally exotic place with super weird, yet fascinating foods, especially plants and fish and meats, actually all the food is strange if you are from New Jersey, like me.  Well, there’s all kinds of cool stuff because most of the stuff comes from the garden out the back called, the Amazon Jungle.  One of the coolest things for me while working the counter was enjoying some amazing aged artisan cheeses that were incredibly well crafted and super tasty!  The coolest thing about them is that they were also totally illegal to sell.  Now, I knew the producer and the cheese itself was even pasteurized, not that this necessarily makes them safe, it’s just that the milk treatment was not the issue of legal concern, in this case.  You see, the government of Brazil makes it very challenging to sell cheese across state lines.  These cheeses were produced in Minas Gerais and our market was in São Paulo.  These cheeses were very small production and came from the best milk producing area in the country.  Most of the milk produced in São Paulo is produced on a commodity scale and much of it comes from zebu.  Zebu in Brazil give poor milk, shitty for use in cheesemaking or drinking or really anything.  So, if you want good cheese, you have to go the wink-wink, nudge-nudge route.  The problem I faced was that I had made a commitment to building the most impressive artisan cheese offering in the city, so 2+2= We are going to buy and sell contraband from small producers in Minas Gerais.  Now, the reality is that there are only a couple of other cheese shops in town and they do the same thing.  You come to discover that the laws seem to be more or less a deterrent to moving mass quantities of cheese from outside the state, keeps the commodity producer lobbyists at bay, and the laws don’t seem to be enforced anyway. Well, that justification seemed good enough for me.  This was very good stuff, and I was very excited about it.  The other thing that I was excited about, was CULATELLO DI ZIBELLO P.D.O..  If you don’t know CULATELLO, look it up, find some and eat it.  It’s the crown jewel of Italian cured meats, the Jupiter of the Salumi Pantheon.  Basically, it’s the most prized muscle of the prosciutto, seamed out with just the correct amount of fat cap remaining, seasoned, stuffed into a pig’s bladder, tied, cured and dried. If it’s done best, the texture is like butter and the flavor is like Parmigiano Reggiano DOP.  If it’s done poorly, it tastes like dried out, salty prosciutto.  One thing is for sure, you pay premium prices either way.  We were selling the PDO product from Emilia-Romagna, and unlike in the USA, this stuff was actually legal to sell in São Paulo!  Go figure.  Cheese from a few miles away, contraband. Cured meat from the other side of the planet that isn’t legal at home, NO PROBLEM.  What a strange place, Brazil.

We got the counter ready, and the market open (that’s a story!). In came the first rush of Brazilians, with their mouths drooling and their wallets open!  I decided to work the counter, since I knew the cheeses, wait not really, and I spoke the language, wait not at all, and the counter was set up – I lied before, it wasn’t.  Actually, it just made sense because as little as I had to go on, I was still the only person prepared to actually sell a piece of cheese.  The scales didn’t work right, we had no usable plastic wrap, and most of the cheese was illegal.  I was smiling.  I was excited.  I had knives, a cutting board, paper, tape and a marker.  What else do you need, other than customers, and here they came!  One of the first people I encountered was a small woman with a huge smile and a lot of moxie!  She was very curious about Culatello di Zibello.  I was amazed that anyone in the country even knew what Culatello di Zibello was, and she wanted to taste it.  So, of course, I shaved off a paper thin slice for each of us and we discussed it’s merits.  I sliced her a couple hundred grams, and then we started talking cheese.  She obviously was a gourmet and I was super excited to share some of the tasty aged lactic set ashed goat cheeses made by a skilled woman in Minas Gerais.  We tasted through a few, and she made a couple of purchases.  Then, I introduced her to my friend Fiorenzo and while they had a conversation, the manager of the counter took me aside and said, “Do you know who that is?”

“No”, I said”

He said, “She is a very important chef in Brazil.  Her name is Jodie Foster (that’s not her real name). She owns a number of important restaurants, and has her own television shows!”

I said, “Well she’s really friendly, and she seems to really like shopping for good food, so she’s awesome in my book!”

Then she came back to me, along with Fiorenzo, and asked the manager to take a picture of all of us in front of the counter.  Next, she invited us to dine at her house the next evening.  We both agreed, we exchanged contact info and let her on her way to continue shopping.  The next evening Fiorenzo was not feeling well, and so I decided to go alone.  I hopped in a taxi and we made our way through the city to Chef Jodie Foster’s house (I don’t want to use her real name, but you get to see her picture). When I got there it was like a jungle fantasy house.  She had a rock path leading through her entry way to what looked like a banyan tree growing out of her living room floor.  All around me were one of a kind pieces of native art and crafts.  Her kitchen was appointed with various indigenous cooking implements, some on the stove being used to prepare our meal.  Along with her sous chef, she had prepared a meal for myself and two other guests, a beautiful female friend from Trieste, and a world renowned lighting expert – though he usually does commercial and entertainment design, he designed the lights in her house to follow a scheme which reflected her mood at any given time of day.  I think the mood that evening was fucking awesome jungle tasting menu for four!  The meal started off with a rare roasted palm of a varietal only legally sold to natives, followed by a  her own special feijoada, complete with indigenous rice, hand delivered by the cultivator that morning, and two of her own unique blends of farofa.  We finished with a ganache spoon, with a chocolate straw over an espresso flavored liquor.  And then came the digestive.  She broke out the cachaça.  LET THE PARTY BEGIN!

She said that one was very special and that I should definitely try it because it is infused with the flavor of a very unique herb that will make your palate dance.  Huh, I wonder what she means by that… then I saw the bottle.  Right there, on the label was the word JAMBU and under it was an illustration of a flower I had seen before.  Once I tasted it, I was immediately transported back to that moment, years ago, when I tasted electricity!  It was JAMBU!  I mean, maybe that was what the guy at the Fancy Food Fest called it, I still couldn’t remember, but this was definitely the flower!

We finished the evening and I even went back for another meal. She is an incredible person and if she gives me permission I will add her name.  In the mean time, I hope Jodie Foster doesn’t mind her inclusion in my story.  Everything else is true, and I sure learned the value of being a welcoming salesperson.  If I hadn’t cultivated a wonderful moment at the cheese counter with an enthusiastic attitude toward an interested guest, I would still be yammering on about some unidentified flower bud that tastes like a 9-volt battery, but it’s really good and cool, seriously!


Other uses for Jambu

A Game of Hide the Salami?

So, recently I was perusing the cured meat selection of a market with a very talented salumiere. We chatted about the merits of the products before us, and gossiped about the people who produced them, as you do. At one point, my buddy picks up a product, turns on his smartphone and types in the plant number on the USDA “bug”. The “bug” is the little circular stamp-like icon that indicates the FSIS approved USDA processing plant where that meat product was actually made. The results of this search reminded me that I really hate private labelling.

Now, private labelling is when a product line is given a brand by someone that is not the person who made it. Like a store brand. Hopefully, consumers underatand that A&P did not actually make “America’s Choice” products. Sure, they may have owned part, or eventually all of the business that crafted the given product. But it didn’t start out that way. A&P is a retailer. They are not starting up brick and mortar food production facilities. Maybe they invest in expansion, but the private label started off as its own business at a particular location.²

I like to know where my food comes from, and who made it. Private labelling is practiced with increasing frequency in the food business. It’s an audacious technique that pushes the trust relationship between a customer and a retailer to the shelves, asserting that you should trust them so much that there is no need to think about who made the product. We endorse it, so you should buy it. Private labelling justifies not thinking about the source of our food. Now, it encourages this kind of decision making by usually pricing these items lowest in the category. Is this the motivation? Probably not, but still that’s the result. Sure, the mechanism is that through these relationships between the retailer and the producer, there are commitments made that keep costs at rock bottom, and it is good that the retailer passes on the savings to the customer. However, it’s no accident that the private labelled line of products is marketed as the store brand. We all know the store brand is the least expensive, and it has always been obvious why. The trouble I see is two fold.  First off, it breaks down the transparency in understanding the source of our food, and shifts the power of choice from the consumer to the retailer. But my complaints don’t end there.

As a buyer of artisanal products, I thought it was my duty to exalt the producer. Think about it. Setting up a lemonade stand is easy and cash flow turnaround is relatively quick. Growing a lemon is hard. To start with, the turnaround on your cash is the time it takes to grow a lemon tree and then becomes time it takes to produce a lemon each season. And if you have to set up the stand and grow the lemons, that’s really tough.¹ Many of these producers are either just getting started in business, or are carrying on a long standing family tradition. Some producers are creating artisan products to get out of the commodity food supply side of the business, so they can either aspire to higher principles, or more likely save their family farm. I like these people. They are reaching for the American dream, sometimes in a final attempt not to become pushed aside by our food supply industrial complex overlords. So, yes, I want to recognize them. They are on the front lines of the fight for increased production of wholesome and hand crafted food, over source obscured, pooled, commodity food production. So what happens when a “good” food retailer comes along and says, I will buy a quarter of your yearly production, if I can remove your name and put my company’s label on it instead? Well, many times that producer agrees. My argument is not with the producer. I don’t know their problems, or certainly why they think they need to make such a compromise. My issue is with the obscuring of the source. This private labelling business is stupid. Go ahead, still put your stamp of approval of the package. Make your store brand big and bold. But why obscure the source. On the surface, the retailer is taking credit for an artisan’s craft. Worse, this further disconnects the public from understanding the who, what, and where our food comes from. I feel like there is a lot more to talk about here. I know there are many more points to be made against private labelling, but let’s wrap this up, for now.

When Josh (my buddy’s name is Josh) entered the processing plant number on the bug into his nifty app, we discovered that the producer was not the same as on the package of bacon. In fact, it was the same producer as the bacon being sold right beside it in the same store! Josh did the same with another package of bacon, and it was the same as the only other bacon in the store. To be clear, it appeared as though there were four different producers, making four distinct products, but the store was only actually selling two different bacons! Now, this was not a store brand, but is an example of how private labelling obscures and misrepresents products and their sources. Also, this was happening on the wholesale level, and was passed down to the retail shelf. It makes me wonder how much more often private labelling is being employed than is apparent to the retail consumer. Boy, it seems even the lines of obscurity are becoming obscured!  I am glad there is an app, made by our government no less, that helps to bring clarity to the source of our food, and move the power of choice back toward the hands of the consumer.

Here it is:

Android App

iPhone and iPad App

USDA Plant Number Website Lookup


¹The “Local Honey” stand on the homepage was on the curbside of the house where the honey was produced, in my hometown on West End Ave, right in their own back yard. We are talking about the suburbs of NYC, in New Jersey. I loved that. West End Apiary. How cool!?

²A&P is now bankrupt, and last year Minneapolis based Supervalu acquired the “America’s Choice” brand, further obscuring the source of that given can of green green beans, or package of bacon. Also, the bacon discussed in the beginning was hand crafted, and that retailer was not selling “America’s Choice” products, to be clear.

Title Note: “A Game of Hide the Bacon” just didn’t have the catchy ring I wanted, but I am sure there are plenty of terrible examples of private labelled salami out there.

“‘Nduja” is Not ‘Nduja

Well, I guess we should answer what it is before we consider what it is not, right? Okay, so first of all, what is ‘nduja?  ‘Nduja is spreadable, spicy, fermented, aged and sometimes smoked sausage¹.  ‘Nduja is made from the soft fats and off cuts that typically are not used in the production of other salumi² when a family has processed a hog.  These other salumi include lonza, prosciutto, fiocco, coppa, pancetta, guanciale, spallaccia, a few others including salsiccia, and yes, sopressata and salame.

Not all salumi are typically fermented. ‘Nduja is fermented. You can identify fermentation in a cured meat by the taste of acid.  Acid produced by bacterial activity lowers the ph to the point that pathogens find the meat inhospitable.  It is one way (or in HACCP speak, a critical limit) that salumiere use to help keep the product safe and even shelf stable³ for consumption.* Nduja is cured, but uncooked. This occurs during the aging process, when the sugars in the sausage mix are metabolised by the cultures present, producing lactic acid. When   These can be added, like a powder, they can be present enough in fermented products like wine which can be used to inoculate the sausage mix, or they can be incorporated through a process called back slopping**.

Nduja is spreadable.  That’s an easy one.

‘Nduja is spicy.  Now there is merit to the debate that nduja should only use calabrian chilies.  However, I think that argument does not consider the practicalities of production and somewhat dishonors an essential aspect of Italian cuisine.  Is it practical or efficient to acquire only calabrian chilies for the production of a calabrian style product here in America?  Well, if you want to get down to the nitty gritty, I would say that’s argument is a slippery slope to the conclusion that outside of calabria, or any specific place a traditional product is made, you cannot possibly replicate a dish, or food product, or anything really.  There are components that cannot be replicated, like the air, or the water, or the feed that was given to the animal, or the specific breed of animal, or even the materials used to produce that product.  You have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, they type of chili used should approximate, or improve to your palate, the heat level and balance you aim to achieve.  Also, various types of chilies are now grown in Italy, and certainly in Calabria.  I really like cayenne.  I like it’s balance on the palate, and I like it used in all types of spicy salumi.  Is that wrong?  Maybe we disagree.  That’s good. Everyone should come from a place if informed opinion.  And that’s why I hope there will be various excellent ‘nduja produced in America someday. That is very different from using the term “‘nduja” as a marketing scheme to sell either extra scraps of finished product, or emulsified hot sopressata and ketchup. Such a product is not ‘nduja.

Nduja can be smoked.  That is a point of practicality if you are using smoke in the process of curing, or smoke could simply be your flavor preference.  Regardless of intensity: strong, light, or non-existent, it’s still ‘Nduja to me.

Now, this is basically for home or restaurant production. I don’t know of any artisan retail producer that doesn’t already understand this, but of course you need to source good pork.  Why?  Sure, you could say that we are using off cuts and soft fats, and who really cares about how good the pork is when there’s all that acid and spiciness to obscure the nuanced flavor brought by using good pork?  If that’s your opinion, you are ignorant. Sorry, but first of all you should understand that you cannot achieve good results without good ingredients.  And, as a hobbyist or chef, if you are unwilling to experiment with a quality ingredient that is still less than $9 per pound, then you are in the wrong game, on the wrong side of the isle, and/or simply don’t care enough about animal welfare.  Listen, off cuts are super cheap, even from heritage breeds that are raised humanely.  However, I don’t suggest coming out of the blocks with your first nduja experiment having loaded up on the kidney and liver meat.  It will probably just turn you off the ‘nduja thing, all together.  Get jowl meat, belly meat and supplement with shoulder, but get from a well raised animal.  No need to necessarily source a heritage breed right away, or really at all.  (Although, if you produce for the market, it is likely that you do whole muscle cuts and various other cured pork products that will only be viable in a quality market if they are of quality breeding.  This is because of the percentage of hard fats, the distribution of those fats, and how the flavor of those fats are influenced by what the animal is fed)  So heritage breeds aside, the animal should always be raised and processed humanely and in a clean and economically fair environment.  The goal is to be informed of these aspects of farming and processing so that we can collectively achieve a more wholesome food system.  Relating to the product’s organoleptic qualities, it will taste better if you use humanely treated pork.  When pork is fed crap, your meat will taste like crap, no matter how much chili and salt you use.  If you aren’t sure what it was fed, then you don’t really know the potential for flavor.  When pork is stressed during or before slaughter, the meat becomes exudated due to a depletion of muscle glycogen. This will make your ‘nduja gummy.  Gummy meat always sucks. I probably already have belabored the point, but to finish it off, the more you know about the source, given some knowledge of what you are looking for, you will understand that, like milk†, pork is not pork. (I sense another post just around the corner…)

Lastly, To reiterate what is NOT ‘nduja, nduja is not just a catch all marketing term for meat spread. It is a traditional product that has a long heritage and comes from a specific place in and around Spilinga, in the province of Catanzaro in Calabria  We should make it here in the USA, but we should give a little respect to where it came from by honoring, as best we practically can, how it should be produced.  In the same sense that reducing red wine vinegar and grape must is totally NOT Aceto Balsamico Traditionale, you can not emulsify production scraps with whatever other ingredients, squeeze that into a tube, or jar and call it salumi, let alone ‘Nduja. ‘Nduja is fresh, high quality pork, salt, cultures and chilis, with enough soft fats emulsified so it will still be spreadable once it ages for a few months. In this case, be wary of what you see on the shelf that is labelled “‘nduja”.  Look at the ingredients.  It still may taste delicious to you, but understand that just because it is marketed as “‘nduja”, does not mean it is ‘nduja.

¹In place of sausage, some would insert sopressata, or salami.  In this case I am not.  I have spent years working with both sopressata and salame and one thing I have learned is that though it may be reasonable to throw around labels based on taste or appearance, there are few people that agree on what defines either. So, in this case I am saying sausage. Sausage is ground meat. There are few disagreements on that.  A square is a rectangle, and ‘nduja is sausage

²Salumi is the Italian word for preserved meat.  This can be accomplished by cooking or curing uncooked meat, usually pork.

³Shelf Stable is a term the USDA use to guarantee that a product can be safely held indefinitely at room temp, like on a shelf at 70ºF.

*Another critical limit control is lowering the water activity (aw), otherwise known as the excess water which may be available to support things like pathogens. Kinda how dry, salty or sugary something is, but that’s a very simplified way of understanding the concept. For more info on developing a HACCP plan, go to the FDA: HACCP Principles & Application Guidelines

**Back Slopping is a traditional way of ensuring a consistent cure, and end product, by adding some material from a previous batch to your current batch of sausage mix.  This is not allowed in the USA, and is a sure fire way of having inspectors make you toss your entire inventory.  However, in my opinion it is safe.  Yeah, duh, you have to know what you are doing, but go ahead and try curing something with powdered culture and pink salt without knowing what you are doing and see what happens (Don’t do that! I was being facetious. You could kill someone for crying out loud). Back slopping tastes better for the same reason that Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, Parmigiano Reggiano, and adding yogurt cultures in cheesemaking produces more complex flavors.  You get much more diversity in types of bacteria, which are responsible for a spectrum of flavors.  When the original cultures used in back slopping came from the flora in the air, like in lambic style Belgian beers, you create a consistent result every time which has the flavor characteristics unique to the place where it is, and always has been made.  Terroir, right?

Milk is not “Milk”

Puff it UP!

Cheetos, cheese puffs, funions and Cap’n Crunch! The puffiness of foodstuffs is so commonly associated with childhood nostalgia, and even still a guilty pleasure when we grown ups sneak a treat. However, over the last ten years, three star michelin kitchens have been swapping the omnipresent foams of 2003 for the texturally rigid crunch made available by puffing up various ingredients.

The concept is actually quite similar to foaming. A medium traps bubbles. Nothing magical.  For a foam, you can whip a protein and/or fat emulsion up, trapping air in protein and/or fat in the process, or you can force air out into a proteinaceous liquid. The common denominator is protein. In the case of foams, you need to start with an emulsion (protein, fat, or protein and fat, and or sugars and or minerals, or whatever), but the bubbles are created by YOU. However, when you PUFF something, you need to rely on the action of vapor to create, and basically cook your bubbles.  Foaming and Puffing is the difference between composing and cooking. A foam is a composition. When you puff, you are cooking.  And not just properly cooking, but you also need to prep perfectly. To achieve the ideal bubble inflation calls for the proper technique, as well as timing. Remember, once inflated, the puff is done and there’s no going back. On the molecular level, water turns to vapor and the vapor tries to escape a “net” of protein, creating gelatinous bubbles, and when the trace water left behind evaporates, those bubbles solidify.  The bubbles need to expand without popping or solidifying early. This part is managed by using the proper amount of heat applied for the proper amount of time.

In certain circumstances, a deep fry in oil is employed.  Generally the larger the item, the deeper the trapped water vapor, the lower the temperature of the oil, and the longer you need to achieve maximum expansion. Sometimes, the ingredient being puffed is thin enough that this can be achieved using a microwave. However, because of the uneven nature of microwave heating, large items will often burn in areas before maximum expansion is achieved.  In commercial operations this is achieved not only through the application of heat, but in the lowering of the air pressure surrounding the object to be puffed, either through high pressure extrusion, like in a “Funyun”, or through vacuum chambers, like in an “Aero bar”. In both cases it is the relative changes in temperature and pressure that achieve the puffy, but firm results.

Try this, it’s SUPER easy, is guaranteed to amaze everyone, taste great, and take about 3 minutes total from start to finish:


A quarter inch thick slab of Parmigiano Reggiano rind (or grana or parmesan, but just the rind)


Cut it into sticks about a quarter inch wide.  In a professional kitchen, this is a precise term called a “batonette” cut.

Place it on parchment (use a plate, too, if you like) and place into the microwave for about 1 minute.  You can go longer for lower powered microwaves, or shorter for higher powered microwaves, but shoot for a minute and regardless of any of that stuff, it will still work.

Let them cool (or shape them as soon as they come out, if you have fingers that can handle high heat), and serve.

The best way to complicate this, like in any endeavor, is to overthink it.  Just follow the directions and see what happens.  It doesn’t take that long, the ingredient is inexpensive, and you can learn a lot more through trying it once, then researching it or thinking about it more than a couple of seconds.  Just do it.

It’s the perfect cheese stick for those atkins/paleo/caveman dieters.  No carbs, all protein.  It’s just cheese.

How Funyuns are Made

How to Aerate Chocolate