Over the last weekend of October, the first nor'easter of autumn crashed through New York City, whipping sheets of rain on 60 mph gusts of wind through the deserted corridors of industrial Long Island City in Queens. But signs of life, in the form of house music audible over the jarring rumble of passing tractor-trailers, emanated from the Larkin Cold Storage facility, not unlike any number of area warehouses hosting costume party–cum-raves that Saturday night.
Inside Larkin, another force of nature was at work. Columbia Cheese CEO and Cheesemonger Invitational founder Adam Moskowitz was giving a pep talk to the assembled jury for the first-ever Cheesemonger Invitational Masters, a competition of past champions of the event testing cheese professionals' knowledge, presentation and pairing skills.
"Today is all about cheesemongers elevating and transforming cheese in ways that we've never seen before," he told the jury of cheese elite, who had come from as far as Oregon, California and the U.K., including Rogue Creamery's David Gremmels, Cowgirl Creamery's Peggy Smith, Vermont Creamery's Adeline Druart, Jasper Hill's Zoe Brickley and Neal's Yard Dairy's Jason Hinds.
At stake was a spot on Moskowitz' Team USA contingent of cheesemongers heading to France in June 2019 for the Concours Mondial du Meilleur Fromager. That biannual international competition crown's the world's top cheesemonger via a gauntlet of missions testing "precision, harmonious composition, audacious presentation and true proficiency." "I want to win," Moskowitz said. "I want America to win, respectfully, [as] dignified ambassadors."
Over the course of six hours, competitors were tasked with a timed oral presentation on a cheese of their choosing, a precision cutting exercise (cut four pieces of cheese, making just one cut each, as close to 0.50 pounds as possible, without the benefit of a scale), creating two composed dishes featuring pre-assigned cheeses in addition to two mixed cheese platters and constructing a full-table cheese sculpture.
As the final table displays were erected, the doors opened to the public, with hundreds of cheeseminded fans pouring in out of the storm to first 'gram and then eat more than 1,000 pounds of Rogue River Blue, Marcel Petite Comté, Jasper Hill Harbison, Chällerhocker and dozens more of the world's finest cheeses. If that weren't enough, Murray's Cheese served up grilled cheese sandwiches and mac-and-cheese, Columbia Cheese stirred up steaming pots of Schnebelhorn and Üsi Lussi fondue, Brooklyn's Meat Hook seared up brats, chorizo and Italian sausages, and Minnesota's Red Table Meat Co. sliced up speck and salami. Thirsts were quenched with Goose Island beers, Ruet Beaujolais Morgon and Bava Barbera d'Asti.
Microphone in hand, Moskowitz ascended a rolling ladder overlooking the competition floor and called the crowd to order to announce the results. Chicago-based Jordan Edwards of Regalis Foods took runner-up and a spot on the U.S. team headed to France, on the strength of compositions like his riff on crème anglaise with a "fancy Taco Bell Cinnamon Twist" (Cowgirl Creamery clabbered cottage cheese with quick-pickled peaches and chicharrones de harina dusted in cane sugar) and his cheese sculpture garnished with vinyl records and VHS cassettes.
"The theme was the originality of cheesemongers," Edwards said. "I took that as a challenge to highlight what makes me me through cheese as a medium. I tried to channel the vibe of a house full of punk rockers throwing an epic party in the basement of a French castle."
Top honors went to Vermont native Rory Stamp of MidwestRoots and COD Consulting. "Imagine being handed 100 pounds of the best cheese made on earth, to endure seven rounds of non-stop competition, surrounded by the best cheesemongers in the country, to be judged by your mentors, idols, and visionaries of the cheese industry," Stamp said of the experience. "To say that I was nervous would be a terrible understatement."
"Searching for bacchanalian inspiration, I picked up a copy of Salvador Dalí's Les Dîners de Gala, a surrealist cookbook depicting the artist's outrageous dinner parties," Stamp recalled. "I asked myself, 'What would Dalí do with a pile of exquisite cheese?' and I sought to reference his iconic works and motifs. Dripping clocks of truffled bloomy-rind cheese (melting Camembert was one of the inspirations for Dalí's The Persistence of Memory) snails made of bark-wrapped Harbison, melting candles of Red Leicester.' When the results were announced, "I was speechless."
Stamp and Edwards now have six months to prepare for the world championship, with Moskowitz' tutelage and support, a next phase that Edwards has already envisioned: "Take every '80s movie training montage and feed it a strict diet of 1655 Gruyère and hot chips." But there was a celebration to attend to first. "Ladies and gentlemen, I now ask you to do something incredible," Moskowitz exhorted the crowd. "We actually want you to eat everything that they created."