Friday, February 17, 2012

How To Get A Cheese Education

Cheesemonger Ezekial Ferguson working with a customer at Di Bruno Bros.

This week, I’m thinking about a question from a reader named Mia. She wants to live the golden dream -- to work in the cheese world as either a maker or a monger. She wrote to me asking how to gain experience. When I put the question out on Twitter recently, several cheesemongers fired right back: "Tell her to get a job at a cheese counter!"

For Mia and others who are sniffing along the dairy periphery, below are some useful resources. I should note that Mia has already explored some of these books and opportunities. She’s clearly a woman ahead of her time. I hope to meet her soon -- hopefully, over a stack of wheels.

Essential Readings

Steven Jenkins, the man who launched Dean & DeLuca's cheese program, surveys European cheese and offers the expertise of an importer. His primer feels a little out of date now, but I still see dog-eared copies behind every cheese counter. His regional maps are essential to understanding terroir.

Artisanal's Max McCalman approaches cheese as a master taster. His book on the subject includes fascinating insights into animal husbandry, chemistry, and pairing principles. Best of all, he assigns specific cheese boards as homework so you can learn about milk types and aging periods in a very hands-on way. 

Liz Thorpe, of Murray’s, taught the staff at The French Laundry how to serve cheese. Her book focuses on the cheese renaissance in America and highlights pioneering cheesemakers from California to Maine. She offers keen personal insights, and her "Cheddar Lexicon" is brilliant.

Fletcher writes about one cheese per week in The San Francisco Chronicle. Each column offers a glimpse into a new import or recent release. Read her for a year and look for the cheeses she recommends; her discoveries and pairing suggestions are spot on.

Worthwhile Pursuits

Make friends with a local cheesemonger.
Find a mentor in your community. Visit a local cheese shop regularly and ask to taste the cheeses that you read about. People who work in cheese generally love to share knowledge.

Go to bootcamp.
Check out the courses offered by Murray's and Artisanal next time you're in New York. These come highly recommended, and they’re the equivalent of an SAT prep class on the subject of cheese. In Philadelphia, Tria's Fermentation School leads the way in cheese education for enthusiasts. If you want a hardcore class for mongers, check out The Cheese School of San Francisco. If you want a class for makers, visit The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC).

Get to know your local cheesemakers.
Visit farmers’ markets and ask cheesemakers about volunteer opportunities if you’re interested. Many makers hire interns, assistants, and market helpers.

Vacation in cheese states.
Wisconsin, California, and Vermont are the biggest cheese producers in the U.S. Make a pilgrimage along Vermont’s Cheese Trail or follow Wisconsin’s Cheese Map. All three states host annual cheese festivals. You can also go on a Vocation Vacation with a cheesemonger named Steve in Portland. Curious.

Attend the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference
This is the equivalent of the Cheese Oscars, a show that everyone in the scene attends -- from cheesemakers to cheese retailers. Go! You’ll eat mountains of cheese and meet makers from all over the world. You can volunteer to offset the expense of the ACS Conference. The ACS recently developed a Cheesemonger Certification Exam, but you need documentable cheese experience to take it.

Apply for a job at a cheese counter
As long as you’re curious and willing to learn, you have the basic credentials to work at a cheese counter. Apply for a position and see where it takes you. Good Food Jobs is a useful resource for anyone searching for openings.

For more on this subject, listen to Anne Saxelby's radio program on Cheese Education and visit the ACS homepage for a list of cheese educators


  1. Awesome post - thank you!

  2. I just bookmarked your list--it's fantastic. Thank you!

  3. "Vacation in cheese states." Brilliant!

  4. Many local universities (ie Michigan State University in my area) and associations/goat clubs provide cheesemaking workshops too!

  5. The American Cheese Society has a page on its website that contains a searchable directory of Cheese Educators:

  6. A new program for cheese professionals has been established at Mons Fromagerie in France, in english: the Academie Opus Caseus ( Essential Foundations for Cheese Professionals. Perfect for passionate cheese professionals preparing for career advancement, new responsibilities, taking the ACS Exam or competing in the Larkin Cheesemonger Invitational, or looking to serve as judge in competitions.