by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
June 28, 2007
Could you describe your relationship with food or cheese specifically? How the obsession began and how it has developed?
I am lucky to have eaten very well growing up. But what wowed me, when I was little, was fine dining and how it was executed. I viewed it as an art form. The theater of dining impressed me. It wasn’t just sloppy hash, but actually a really big deal.
In regards to cheese, I just loved it! I loved if from the start. Although, from the ages five to twelve, while growing up in Brazil, I didn’t really eat cheese. My parents had been told that the cheese might be risky, since it wasn’t produced with pasteurized (read: compromised) milk. The cheeses of Brazil were not all that interesting anyway. So I had been “cheese-starved” upon our return to the US. Not that most of what was available then was so great either, but I tried as much as I could. Then in the 80’s, when I was working for the Sheraton group as a sommelier, I remember we were tasting wines and cheeses at a specific conference, and I saw how well they worked together. As a sommelier, I knew what I was talking about with wines, but the cheese and wine pairing was uncharted territory for me. I had always thought about how wine related to food but not to cheese specifically. That’s when I started thinking about doing something with cheese. So when I got the chance to do the cheese program at Picholine, it was a dream come true. I’ve just really taken the ball and run with it.
Maître fromager is a pretty fancy title. What does it mean to you? And what’s your mission?
Maître fromager means cheese expert, or cheese maker. A lot of people call themselves that, but for me to call myself that, I had to double up as maître d’hotel at Picholine to really earn that title. I had to become an expert quickly, because people were asking very pointed questions, expecting me to know all the answers, so I started to learn everything I possibly could. I joined societies, read, tasted, researched, and really immersed myself in cheese. Then after I had a solid understanding of wine and cheese pairings, I moved onto cheese pairings with other drinks because I noticed a lot of people at the bar ordering other cocktails or hard liquor and thought there must be other opportunities for good pairings.
My mission is to get cheese some respect. Cheese still has a bad reputation. Even within the industry, people think it of it as an indulgence, as something risky, but it’s really not a risky food. They think that it’s fattening and will clog up their arteries. But the more I learn about it, the more I think it’s the near perfect food. It has great qualities and health benefits (it’s high in calcium, as well as other nutrients, such as phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin B12), and should not be dismissed as just an indulgence. It’s healthy, and wholesome. My mission is to educate the public and to share the pleasures of cheese.
Besides health risks, sometimes people think cheese tastes bad. But there are usually a couple different factors that cause this misconception. For example, if a cheese is mismatched with a beverage, then it’s usually the cheese that gets blamed, but it’s really not the cheese’s fault. There’s also industrial production factor’s involved that can sometimes make cheeses disappointing. I favor the grass-fed variety, because they have fuller aromas and a better track record for safe production. I’m also trying to change the cheese importation laws in the US. Right now, only pasteurized milk cheeses can cross borders. We are not allowed to import raw milk cheeses (the Food and Drug Administration prohibits importation of raw milk cheeses aged less than sixty days). But if we can eat other raw foods, like oysters, why can’t we eat raw cheeses? Cheese is more personable than oysters and should be safer, too.
My broader mission is to rescue cheese while the real cheeses I love — local artisanal cheeses — are still available. Information about cheese is often reported incorrectly. I‘ll go to cheese shops just to listen to what people are saying, to see if they are disseminating the right information on cheese. Unfortunately, I feel that cheese is often misrepresented.
If you could only have one type of food for the rest of your life, would it be cheese? Would you be able to subsist on it and never get bored?
Without a doubt! I would like to have more than one type of cheese, of course, but I’d never get tired of it. The only thing that’s missing in cheese is vitamin C and fiber, but otherwise, it’s really the near perfect food.
If we just incorporated more real cheese in our diets, we’d all live longer and better.
You recently just came back from a cruise in Europe. Could you talk a little about the trip, what kinds of cheeses did you explore? What were the highlights?
We started in Nice, so I went in early to make sure I had plenty of time to shop for cheese. I found the best of what was available. In Malaga, Lisbon, and Bordeaux, I also went to search for cheese. If I had more time, I would have gone into the interiors and visited cheese makers. I have my favorite cheese stores in Lisbon and Bordeaux, and I made a point of trying the young, unpasteurized cheeses that are not available in US. Mainly what we can’t get here in the US is camembert. We don’t have the real living, breathing camembert made from raw milk (and aged for less than sixty days) that exists in Europe. I found some cheeses that were just exquisite! On the cruise, I held a couple of seminars about the cheese. The cruise line was fairly small, with around 600 passengers. They expected forty to fifty people per seminar, but 150 people showed up for each. When you mention cheese and wine, even if it’s gorgeous outside, people show up.
Please name three of your personal cravings in the City.
1) Crudo — Esca
2) Guacomole — Rosa Mexicana
3) Chocolate – Pierre Marcolini
What are some other passions in life?
I love most kinds of music except for country western, unless it’s Hank Williams. I often am moved to tears listening to music. I like some symphonic chamber, British blues and rock-n-roll. I like going on cruise ships, meeting seasoned travelers, and learning.
I really do enjoy learning. Much of my time is spent teaching, but so much of my time is learning from teaching. In working on my third book, I will learn the most. The book’s working title is, Mastering Cheese, so in order to really master cheese, I still have a lot to learn. A lot of times, when you are always disseminating information, you don’t have time to absorb in return.
I like to root for the underdog, and cheese is the underdog. I like to promote the artistry of cheese, and raise awareness of the problems associated with cheese farming. Farming is so dependent on the climate, the terroir, so nothing is definite. There are also seasons for cheese, so there’s plenty to learn. In relation to cheese, there are a multitude of other fields to learn about. And through my studies, I’ve met a lot of great people — cheese people! Not just in the US but also in Europe. When I go into the cheese shop in Bordeaux, for example, as much as I’m poking around, they appreciate it, because they know I am really curious and looking for good stuff. I’ve come to really enjoy recognition from other cheese people and cheese makers. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk to other people about your passion for cheese. They’re fun and genuine. It gives me great satisfaction because it’s a great family to be a part of.
Click here to read about cheese and beverage pairings with Max.