Cara Condon was a dark horse heading into the 2022 Cheesemonger Invitational in Brooklyn last Sunday.
Although she has been working in the field for more than a decade, she felt that her wrapping skills weren’t in the top tier, and worried that her cheese-and-beverage pairing wouldn’t be a hit.
“I know it sounds absolutely disgusting,” she said of her creation: equal parts Galliano coffee liqueur and pineapple juice, topped with a dried orange slice, designed to set off the Alpine cheese she’d been assigned. “But the bitterness, and the maltiness, and the sugar and soft acidity of pineapple really works with Chällerhocker.”
Then she was announced as a finalist.
Two dozen competitors had already been through 10 events that day. The five finalists would be speed-tested on everyday cheesemongering skills: eyeballing and cutting a perfect half-pound wedge off a giant slab; deftly wrapping the wedge in paper; and sealing the remainder in plastic wrap for the return to the display case.
Ms. Condon didn’t win those heats, but she had won the trivia segment, nailing facts like whether halloumi has a protected designation of origin (it doesn’t) and the name of the inner layer of spruce bark that is wrapped around certain cheeses during ripening (it’s cambium). And at the end of the 10-hour competition, Ms. Condon — shining with sweat and wearing a Bulls jersey to represent the Chicago cheese shop where she works, Beautiful Rind — was crowned the champion.
The story of the Cheesemongers Invitational began with the 1999 collapse of a powerful Swiss cartel, and culminated, at least for this year, at Brooklyn Steel, a concert venue filled with hundreds of screaming fans, the sound of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing “Under Pressure,” and the funk of a thousand cheeses.
The throughline is Adam Moskowitz, a recovering rapper, actor, addict and lost soul who found his life’s purpose in cheese. He has dedicated himself to helping others do the same, especially since 2019, when he overdosed and missed the competition because he was in rehab. On Sunday, that meant dancing onstage in a black-and-white cow costume, sleeves ripped off to show his blue-ink tattoos and golden manicure, shouting encouragement through the mic as he ran the show.
A cheesemonger is to cheese roughly as a sommelier is to wine: not a producer, but a knowledgeable interpreter, adviser and seller. The job includes elements of connoisseurship, salesmanship, sensory training and a firm grasp of geography, history, and microbiology. The American Cheese Society, a trade group of domestic producers founded in 1983, provides certification for cheesemakers and holds an annual cheese competition, and has helped transform American “artisan” and “farmstead” cheese into a booming sector of the $35 billion U.S. cheese market.
But there were few events or educational opportunities specifically for cheesemongers until Mr. Moskowitz combined his longtime dreams of being an entertainer with his then-new job at his father’s dairy import business in Queens. In 2010, he staged the first invitational as a kind of after-party for the Fancy Food Show, when global cheese producers descend on New York en masse. “It was debauched,” he said of the event at his Queens warehouse. “I don’t even remember what the events were.”
Now there is an elaborate point system, a formal panel of 14 judges, and a final round of competition that is open to the public, sponsored (and supplied with all-you-can-eat cheese) by dairies like Jasper Hill Farm, Uplands Cheese Company and Caputo Brothers Creamery.
The invitational may have evolved, but there has never been a barrier to entry; any working cheesemonger can compete. Mr. Moskowitz’s only requirement is that the competitors show up beforehand for three packed days of demonstrations, tastings and lectures. In fact, most of the cheesemongers prioritize the education and camaraderie opportunities over the competition.
“When you live in a place like Alabama and you’re super into cheese, you don’t have a lot of people to nerd out with,” said John Litzinger, head cheesemonger at the Son of a Butcher in Birmingham. “Being around so many cheese people is a very elevating experience.”
In the salesmanship challenge, contestants fielded questions from judges playacting as customers, such as: “I’m supposed to bring a cheese board to a barbecue tonight, the people throwing the party are only serving rosé and one of them is pregnant; what do you recommend?” In the blind tasting, they competed to recognize cheeses from around the world by taste and aroma alone, then identify each by five primary characteristics: milk type (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo or mixed); milk treatment (pasteurized or raw); style (washed-rind, bloomy-rind, cooked pressed, uncooked pressed, blue or fresh); country of origin; and cheese name (such as Roquefort, Manchego or Asiago). Nathalie Baer Chan, a new competitor, earned a first-ever perfect score in that event on Sunday, evoking screams of support from her Murray’s Cheese teammates.
These tests have some similarities to wine competitions, but those tend to be serious, hushed affairs. “Cheese is a simple food,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “I don’t want to complicate it the way wine has become complicated,” which he described as limiting, segregating and classist.
Although it is now evolving, the job of the wine merchant — mostly occupied by white men — has been to reflect authority and European tradition. The cheesemongers at Brooklyn Steel reflected diversity and creativity, showing off body jewelry, vintage dresses, ear gauges, moto jackets, head wraps, and in the case of Morgen Schroeder of Martha’s Vineyard Cheesery, a yellow pantsuit perforated with Emmenthal-type holes.
“The goal of the profession is to get people comfortable around cheese,” said Reese Wool, the runner-up, who works at the busy Murray’s Cheese stall in Grand Central Terminal — excellent training for the speed wrapping event. Ms. Wool began their gender transition during the pandemic, and said they felt surprisingly comfortable going through the process in full view of colleagues and customers. “I think the way we present lets them know that there’s no judgment,” they said.
Mr. Moskowitz, too, does not fit the traditional mold of a cheese expert. He smokes Parliaments in his office, spouts profanities and has a graffiti-art studio in a corner of the warehouse in Queens. But he is a third-generation dairyman: His grandfather had a butter-and-egg business at Washington Market, the old wholesale produce market in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, and his father started Larkin Cold Storage, the import and distribution business in Long Island City, which Mr. Moskowitz now owns.
This would seem like a well-greased path. But he took many detours: Estranged from his father for most of his childhood, he took a job in cheese only after exhausting many other professional options available to a feisty extrovert with substance-abuse issues. He started as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Essex on the Lower East Side and cautiously joined his father’s business in 2007.
He was still dubious about a career in cheese, when — to his surprise — he became passionately involved in the nascent farmstead cheese movement in Switzerland.
From 1914 to 1999, the Schweizer Käseunion (Swiss Cheese Union) controlled virtually every aspect of cheese in Switzerland, functioning as a cartel that monopolized the milk supply and supported the production of only a few prized cheeses, like Emmenthal, Gruyère and Appenzeller.
In the 1990s, a series of corruption scandals and legal challenges brought the union down, and a new generation of cheesemakers began to break from tradition.
One of them became Mr. Moskowitz’s cheese muse and spiritual guide: Walter Räss, the maker of Chällerhocker cheese, which Mr. Moskowitz first tasted on a 2008 business trip.
Last Friday, the soft-spoken Mr. Räss told a rapt audience of cheesemongers his story.
Mr. Räss comes from a long line of farmers and cheesemakers in the tiny canton of St. Gallen. Under the cartel, he was a top producer of Appenzeller, but yearned to make a mark as an independent cheesemaker. “There was no room for ideas, for entrepreneurship, for creativity,” he said.
In 2003, he brought Jersey cows into the family herd and used their rich milk instead of the skimmed milk from Brown Swiss cows he had to use for Appenzeller. He changed the brine, and started aging the cheese in his own cellars.
It developed completely new flavors: nutty, custardy, floral. Mr. Moskowitz began importing it to the United States, changing Mr. Räss’s life — and his own. (At this point, Mr. Moskowitz was openly weeping, but Mr. Räss continued.)
“We Swiss think that we are the bellybutton of world cheese,” he said, pointing his chin toward the cheesemongers. “But all of you sitting here know more than any Swiss cheesemaker did 20 years ago.”
“Cheese is life, guys,” said Mr. Moskowitz, wiping his eyes. “There’s always more to learn.”