I Have Yet to Find a Problem that Can’t be Solved with Cheese

After nearly two years of working full-time at a retail cheese counter, I have come to realize a cheesemonger’s job is often less about the cheese than it is the customer.

Whether customers know it or not, the holiday season for cheesemongers is brutal. We work long days, long hours, with no days off, to cut and sell cheese as fast as humanly possible. We have special chat groups on Facebook that act as therapy sessions. We tolerate an endless stream of “Do you know anything about cheese or do you just work here?” from well-meaning customers. But at the end of the day, and especially during this time of rush, rush, rush, I remember the customers who remind me why I fell in love with this job in the first place.

There are the jokesters: the old men who ask “What’s Gouda today?” Every. Single. Day.

There are the hipsters, who pretend to know the difference between Blue and Gorgonzola: “Are you sure this is crumbled Gorgonzola? It looks more like crumbled Blue.” Yawn.

There are the little old ladies who troll the department from one sample station to another, piling up cubes of Gruyere on their toothpicks and sliding them into their purses, saving them for later.

And then there are the customers that one gets to know, the ones you might be friends with if you weren’t wearing a hairnet and black bowl hat that no matter how you try and style it, still makes you look like a dork. Customers like Steve, who first walked in the door over a year ago with an exceptionally well-organized notebook of cheeses he’d sampled during the course of the past year, and whom today rivals any cheese expert in the nation.

Or Dad Rap Fan, who comes in with his grandson, Ben, every Monday, gives us an update on his rap star son, chats cheese for a few minutes, and says “See you next week” with a smile and a wave. Or Jean, who every single Thursday comes in for her Woolwich Goat Brie, and when none has come in that week, tells me we should go sing to the goats to help them make more milk.

These are the customers cheesemongers live for.

And then there are the customers we meet only once, who without knowing it, change our lives. Like the woman on Christmas Eve who asked me for help in finding a cheese, because although she had always really liked cheese, she seemed to have a hard time finding one that agreed with her these days.

So I walked her around our Wisconsin section, pointing out this and that, walking back to the counter to give her a taste now and then, when she shared the reason for her sudden cheese dilemma: she was undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer and had lost her sense of taste. I got choked up. Then she got choked up. So we stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the array of cheeses, until I asked her what was her all time favorite cheese.

She said, “Blue, but my doctor tells me I can’t eat it anymore, because my immune system has become compromised.” And I’m thinking, this sweet lady has late-stage cancer, and her doctor won’t let her eat blue cheese? Really? Come on.

So I showed her the Roelli Dunbarton Blue. I told her it was a cheddar with just a veining of blue, so she really wouldn’t be breaking her doctor’s rules. She smiled, took the cheese, read my name tag, and told me she would pray for me.

Pray for me. Me.

A lady with late-stage cancer undergoing chemotherapy is praying for me. All because I helped her find the right cheese.

Thus, a sign a very dear friend gave me for Christmas this year, rings true: “I have yet to find a problem that can’t be solved with cheese.”

Happy New Year, Cheese Underground fans. May the cheese of your dreams find you in 2015.

Becoming a Cheesemonger

As my inbox and voicemail boxes begin to reach maximum capacity of unanswered messages, I thought perhaps I’d better explain why it may appear the Cheese Underground Lady has fallen off the face of the earth. No worries, I’m still here. These days, I’m just working under a pile of cheese wearing a name tag that says: “Jeanne C: 1st Year of Service”.

That’s because, in an attempt to gain the 2,000 hours of paid work experience I need to qualify for and then take the ACS Certified Cheese Professional Exam (the only exam of its kind offering professionals in the cheese industry the opportunity to earn the distinguished title of ACS Certified Cheese Professional), I’ve started working three days a week behind the cheese counter at Metcalfe’s Market, a family-owned group of specialty grocery stores in southern Wisconsin.

The upside: I get to open, cut, wrap and talk about 500 different cheeses with hundreds of customers a day, giving me WAY more respect for every cheesemonger whose job I thought I knew. My co-workers think I’ve lost my mind when the overhead announcement stating a pallet of cheese has arrived results in me jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning with a pile of presents under the tree.

The downside: I may be reaching the upper age limit of being able to to stand, bend, reach, pull, push and heave wheels of cheese all day, so it’s a good thing I’m doing this before I get any older. Let’s just say that at the end of each shift, ibuprofen is my friend. Oh, and I’ve lost 30 pounds since I started. Booyah!

Back in January, I began a crash course with an amazing team of co-workers, learning the ropes on how to stock, face, cut and wrap cheese. Nearly five months later, I feel like I’ve hit my groove, and can adequately answer almost any question a customer throws at me. I also know where the secret stash of super cool demo baskets live, have braved both the boiler room to retrieve giant green trash bags, and survived the cavernous underground walk-in cooler in a successful search for lost boxes of fresh sheep’s milk cheese.

What’s really surprised me, however, is how much I enjoy the customers. Some of my favorites  continue to be the ones who are never really sure what they’re looking for. They know they like cheese. They know they once had a cheese they loved. They just can’t remember the name of the cheese, or anything about it. Challenge accepted.

Once in awhile, we get lucky and a customer will just mix up a name – such as: “Do you carry Pleasant Valley Gruyere?” Then we guide them to the Wisconsin section and hand them a piece of Pleasant Ridge Reserve with a smile.

The hardest questions are the ones like this: “I’m looking for a cheese that I sampled here a couple of weeks ago. It was white. I remember it being salty.” Then the guessing game begins. More often than not, we’re actually able to discern what we think the customer tasted and they leave a happy camper. To date, I’ve never had a customer get angry with me. I’ve come to the conclusion that cheese just naturally makes people happy.

Working with cheese – actually handling it day in and day out – is a much different beast than writing or talking about it, which I’ve done for most of the past 10 years. Thank you to the crew at Metcalfe’s for putting up with me, and I look forward to the next two years (or more!) together. Who knows, I may never leave. 🙂