Cheesemongers: The Food World’s Newest Celebrities
In the beginning, chefs were chefs–hot, sweaty, loud, generally French (though occasionally German or Swiss–the product of emigration, international hotel schools and a kind of laissez-faire, Foreign Legion-style disregard within the industry for anything a man did before pulling on the whites), usually florid, hitty, fond of the bottle, and always motherfuckers of the highest stripe. These were men (always men) who thought nothing of slapping around their staff, shrieking obscenities in as many languages as they possessed, throwing things. They believed in discipline like a prison warden, in repetition as a form of worship, that women were fit only for starching the linens and that the greatest, most noble thing that one could do to a bunting was to blind it with a hot hatpin, force-feed it figs and millet until it swelled like a balloon, then drown it in a bucket of Armagnac, roast it and eat it whole–bones and guts and all.
These were not men who were ready for prime time. And while yes, there were some chefs who became celebrities (Careme, Escoffier) by cooking for bankers and kings, they were once-in-a-generation rare. For the most part, a chefs job was to create, to cook, and to make more little chefs in his pot-bellied, stoop-shouldered, gin-blossomed image.
This was the way things remained for a very long time. Small things changed–the ethnic makeup of the kitchen, the entry of women into the trade–but chefs were still pale, ugly, scarred and brutish creatures who any sane person would not allow into their homes without locking up their liquor, pets and girl children. Chefs did not seek celebrity and the celebrity world wanted nothing to do with chefs.
But this all changed with the coming of basic cable, 24-hour programming and the 1980’s. Suddenly, there came both a fascination with food and cooking and a need for quote/unquote normal people to stand up, prance around and fill all those great swaths of programming time that Hollywood couldn’t cover. Chefs became famous first as guides to the exotic and arbiters of refined taste, then as working class heroes with funny accents and rarified skills (as fascinating, at least, as Amish furniture makers or Russian ballet dancers). But it wasn’t until someone hit on the idea of the chef-as-rock-star–as a loud-mouthed bad boy with a knife in one hand and a smudge of blow under his nose–that the cult of the celebrity really took off.
Chefs, suddenly, were everywhere. They were cleaned up, dusted off, taught to do three minutes on the TODAY show without swearing, hitting anyone or taking off their pants, and how to talk to civilians who might not understand their cryptic references to old zombie movies or Vatel. They were given TV shows and book contracts. Events were built around the gravitational draw of their presence. And after a while, the only problem became a lack of bodies. There simply weren’t enough blooded, respected, camera-readychefs out there to satisfy the demand.
So producers, publicists and casting people started reaching further afield. Bartenders became celebrities. Bakers became celebrities. Farmers and producers became famous in ways that were unimaginable twenty years before. And when that still wasn’t enough, home cooks got famous. Cupcake makers, professional eaters and smiley little ferrets picked up from the candy counter at Macy’s all got famous. And the next big thing?
No, really. They’re perfect. Cheesemongers are a little bit obsessive, but not usually in a creepy way. Cheesemongers tend to come with fewer scars, addictions and psychoses than chefs do. They spend a lot of their time with no one to talk to but the heads they carve out of rounds of Castelleno, but also sometimes come out of their caves to interact with the public. The product that they push is approachable, affordable and almost infinitely varied. They make their livings by trying to get people to try new and unusual things–to expand their horizons beyond cheeses that come in cans or individually-wrapped in plastic–and have the same sensualist bent that the best chefs do. Also, they’re pushing cheese. Who doesn’t love cheese?
And honestly, the adoration of the cheesemongers has already begun. Like tomorrow, when all the serious cheese nerds will be gathering for the (sold out!) 2nd annual Cheesemonger Invitational in Long Island City. There, 40 heavyweight mongers (including Zeke Ferguson from DiBruno Bros., who took 4th place at last year’s event) will be battling it out in a 4-round, take-no-prisoners showdown where they will be forced to talk about cheese, blind taste cheese, cut the cheese (ha!) and plate cheese in a “profound” pairing.
Speaking of DiBruno, how’s this for pimping your monger? On the DiBruno website, they have a feature called the “Virtual Cheesemonger” which, with the answers to just a few, simple questions, will guide you to the cheese (and cheesemonger) of your dreams. For example, I tell the machine that I’m looking for a cheese under $30, made with sheep’s milk. When asked what the occasion is, I say that I’m just looking for something new–jaded bastard that I am. And as far as pairings go, I offer that I hope to be eating my cheese alongside some monster Cabernet. Then, with the click of a button, I have my recommendations–along with commentary from some of DiBruno’s own cheesemongers. The Testun al Barolo with a rind of Barolo grapes looks interesting, and Emilio Mignucci calls it “Outrageous” and “A specialty from Beppino Occelli.” The Fiore Sardo looks even better (and cheaper, too, at $9.99 for 8oz), and Ian Peacock says it is his “all-time favorite” and “the best surviving example of ancient Roman cheesemaking.”
At the famous Murray’s cheese shop in New York, they have a similar system, but rather than focusing on pairing you with the cheese of your dreams, their system just sends you straight to the cheesemonger who might be your rennet-stained soulmate. And there are pictures, too. The intent, obviously, is to get you talking to the cheesemongers by giving them names and making them seem more approachable, but the effect of all this hot cheese action is to make minor (and, in some cases, major) celebrities out of the people who care for your cheese.
I’m just waiting for Cheese Wars!–the first all-cheese food/competition show to start casting. Or maybe Have Knife, Will Travel, the adventures of a rogue cheesemonger on the road. I would totally watch that.
Provided, of course, DiBruno’s Virtual Cheesemonger adds that to their list of possible cheese-eating occasions.
2011 Cheesemonger Invitational [Official site]
DiBruno Bros. Virtual Cheesemonger [Dibruno website]