Interview with a Cheesemonger: Adam Balkovic of Di Bruno Bros.

This Saturday marks the third annual Cheesemonger Invitational in Long Island City, a battle royale among the leading cheese experts in the country. Besides the all-you-can-eat-and-drink events for spectators the Invitational consists of eight intense rounds between 40 of the country’s best cheesemongers, fighting for the title and a $1,000 cash prize.

The preliminary rounds include a multiple-choice test on cheese knowledge, a taste test, and a cheese sell-off. After these first three rounds the last ten competitors left standing will introduce themselves to the crowd then cut, wrap, pair, and plate a variety of cheeses in front of the entire invitational and the judges.

Philadelphia’s representative for the invitational is Adam Balkovic from Di Bruno Bros. We were able to get inside the head of this great competitor and ask him about how he has prepared for the weekend’s events. Let’s just say, with all of Balkovic’s knowledge and confidence we think the city is in pretty good cheese-covered hands.

Foobooz: What is your background in cheese?
Adam Balkovic: My background in cheese before I started to work with Di Bruno’s was slim to none. I thought I knew about cheese until I was thrown into the lion’s den with these guys. I love cheese and gourmet foods and always have, working here and being surrounded by the best food available on the planet certainly encouraged my obsession. I love working here; the shop on 9th street is like a magical pantry full of what ever I need to make an amazing meal.

How have you been preparing for the Cheesemonger Invitational?
To get prepared for this weekend I have been trying to keep my mind off of it. Every day I work here is like cheese bootcamp. The competition events are just broken down tasks that I face every day working in a cheese shop. I have been eating a lot more cheese than normal, honing my pallet for the tasting event. The cutting, wrapping and selling aspects are what my forty-plus hours a week are all about, so I better be awesome at it. One advantage I feel i have is the pairing event. We offer after hours tasting events here in our shop almost nightly and these allow me to experiment with different dishes and get feedback on them. I have tested several possible dishes to bring with me to the CMI during our tastings and I feel confident I have pushed the bar as far as it could go for this event.

Did Zeke Ferguson, previous competitor (who came in 4th at last year’s Invitational) and your Di Bruno coworker, give you any advice?
Zeke makes sure to give me advice daily, in every aspect of my life. He has an invaluable encyclopedic knowledge base that I exercise on a daily basis. Every person I work with has a different strength, together we make an unstoppable team here at 9th street; I pull tips and tricks from everyone that I work with and would not being going to the CMI if not for the crew of upstanding gentleman here to keep me on my toes.

Do you have any good luck charms for the competition?
I am not a very superstitious person; however I am very much a regimented person. I have not shaved my beard since I won our interdepartmental “Cheesemonger Invitational Invitational” to see which monger would go to represent Di Bruno’s. It will come off Saturday morning. I am however taking my own cutlery. We use 14” chef’s knives here to make our cuts; this is what im used to. Last year cheese rockers were supplied and I could not help but think that a real cheesemonger does not need specialty tools just a plan old chef’s knife.

Have you been to the Cheesemonger Invitational before as a spectator?
I went last year to cheer for Zeke. I had a broken elbow in a sling last year (long story, I didn’t know it was broken till much later), and the five hour bus ride there and back was not the most comfortable situation, nor was the inebriated crowd accidentally bumping into me all night. However I had my eye on the prize ever since, ask anyone I work with and they will tell you I’m a show off and this event is perfect for me.

Have you been in any other cheese competitions?
I work with seven other fat guys in a cheese shop, every day I compete for my sanity and a place behind our counter with them.

Which event are you most excited for?
Well without giving too much away I have something special planned for several events. The final pairing is going to be next level; however I am very excited to execute my South Philly charm on Moskowitz [Adam Moskowitz, fellow monger and CMI host] during the cheese of the day event.

What is/are your favorite cheese(s)?
I get asked this question several times a day and I always have a hard time answering it. My all time favorite is Epoisses Berthaut; a little French stinker that comes in a wooden box. This cheese is banned from French airlines it’s so stinky. With that being said, this is not a cheese you would eat every day. My desert island cheeses are Ossau Iraty, a very light easy going sheep’s milk from the French Basque, and Comte Marcel Petite which is a gruyere style aged in a Franco Prussian War barrack at the southern foothills of the French Alps. Both of these cheese are versatile and delicious on their own or cooked to perfection.

What will you do if (and when!) you win?
No “ifs”. WHEN I win I plan on taking a vacation at some point. I am an avid fisherman, and living in an urban environment makes it a bit difficult to get away from it all. I plan on going somewhere different and doing my favorite things, eating some cheese, drinking some beers, catching a buzz with my friends and maybe a fish too.

How confident are you going into this weekend? Does the competition stand a chance?
I have been studying up just to make sure I’m on point. I’m quite confident seeing as I know Mastering Cheese cover to cover, I work full time in the busiest cheese shop in the fine State of Pennsylvania, I work with the most knowledgeable staff ever concentrated in one place at the same time. Most of my cuts are within two one hundredths of a pound, and the variety of our cheese selection is unmatched by many of the competitors. I’ve got this, no contest.

UPDATE: Adam may not have won the Cheesemongers Invitational but we still dig him.

Di Bruno Bros. [Official Site]
Cheesemonger Invitational [Official Site]

Photo courtesy of Tenaya Darlington| Madame Fromage