(Editor’s Note: You might want to cover the kids eyes and ears… Rob and I got a little frisky with this interview…)
As many of you know, The Lady spends her working days opening Murray’s Cheese Shops in Kroger Stores across the U.S. Today I’m pleased to share with you my interview with the Owner of Murray’s Cheese, Rob Kaufelt.
A few years back, a couple of Kroger suits were touring specialty food stores in NYC and approached Rob about bringing the “Murray’s Cheese brand and experience” into Kroger. Years before, Rob had written a mission statement for Murray’s that included, making Murray’s Cheese “…a household name for the best cheese selection sold in the United States…”. This meeting was the beginning of a relationship that indeed has allowed Rob the opportunity to bring specialty cheese and food to the every household in the U.S…. one Kroger store at a time…
On one of her recent trips to Murray’s I stowed away and while she was toiling away in the cheese mines, I spent a leisurely afternoon with Rob at his farm…
Spaulding Gray: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me and answer questions that I know interest my loyal readers. First of all, you’ve come a long way since that fateful day in 1991 while standing in line at Murray’s… please share your story with our readers. What possessed you to make an offer that day, especially in a time when “Specialty” cheese was hardly a household word?
Rob Kaufelt: I was living on Cornelia Street, a one block long street in Greenwich Village that was in transition from an old Italian neighborhood to a mixed downtown sort of place, and that block became an early focus of the new food world we live in. First, Murray’s second owner, Louis, had lost his lease and was returning to Italy. So I bought it, as my attempts to get a job during that time were fruitless. We moved to the corner location on Bleecker and Cornelia, an old meat market that was empty, and my cheesemonger’s life began. Next a friend opened “Home” a new American place; then Mario Batali came with his first, “Po”; then a slew of others. It was the food equivalent of what I imagined the music world was like there in the 60’s with Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk during the folk revival.
Spaulding: Some think that Murray’s makes cheese, which is not the case. You source and import cheese and age it and when it’s ready send it on its way to homes across America. Have you made cheese? If so, tell us about the experience.
Rob: I have made cheese many times. First, it was with Anthony, who owns Joe’s Mozzarella on my block, and makes it the same way it’s been made forever: an old kitchen in the back room, a big pile of curds, and a big pot of boiling water. My cheese was crappy and had a lot in common with my children’s rubber balls. Since then, I have made cheese in Ireland, France, and Italy and finally realized my talents lay elsewhere. I have a lot of respect for the cheesemaker’s art; there are so many cheeses made, and so few stand out.
SG: You travel extensively hunting for special cheeses. What is the most obscure cheese you have tasted and where did you find it?
RK: I was up in the Picos de Europa Mountains in Northern Spain once, and found a guy who made Picon, the great blue of Spain; better than its more famous counterpart. Again, it was his kitchen, and the blue came later, when we hiked up a steep path to a door in the side of a mountain. Inside was the bluing cave, and it must have been a hundred years old. That was great blue; too bad he didn’t have any to export; though just getting it down the mountain was more donkey than truck!
Spaulding: Your partnership with Kroger seems as much “philosophy” as financial. Making “specialty” cheese accessible at a local level… quite a vision… tell us more.
Rob: I assume everyone wants to eat the tastiest, healthiest food they can; rich or poor makes no difference. Same thing here in America with ethnic foods, be it bagels or pizza or pasta or croissants; with a great hot dog or burger; it’s all the same.
Cheese has been around a long time, of course, the old cultures made some very tasty treats of the finest ingredients; small producers raising pastured animals, no crap or chemicals, many made by folks for centuries in traditions that we must help preserve through sales here in our stores. Then there are those folks going back to farms and kitchens making new foods – not just cheese, but everything from micro beers to pickles to donuts. People are omnivores and love a variety of flavors. Cheese delivers on that, whether a hunk cut from a wheel or melted on a sandwich. So our goal is to make the wonderful cheeses of the world accessible to as many people as possible, and teach them what they might like to learn about these foods, and have a good time doing it.
SG: Which do you prefer eating cheese or writing music?
RK: Which do you prefer, a good book or a good movie? Sex or a good meal?
SG: Well, Rob, here’s the thing. If you read the “About Me” section of the blog, you’ll learn that I was sent here to observe humankind and along the way I hooked up with The Lady and The Man. At the time, all my parts were intact and I spent a great deal of time fighting other tom cats in order to “make time” with felines of the female persuasion. I took up with The Lady because she seduced me with kitty pate, cheese and a cozy bed on her patio… seemed like a good idea at the time.
I became content and let my guard down, believing I could trust The Lady. One day out of the blue, she stuffed me in a box and took me off to the vet, where she had my manly parts removed. Yep, she shamelessly conspired with the vet and had my balls chopped off… later I learned that The Man had been totally against this extreme move and fought to keep my balls safe and sound… it seems The Man was more empathetic to the situation than The Lady… so… when you ask about sex or a good meal; sadly, these days I can only choose a good meal… fortunately, it usually includes a wedge of a fine specialty cheese to pair with my favorite kitty pate.
As for books versus movies… The Man and I watch a lot of movies while The Lady is off on her cheese adventures; some good; some bad and some just downright ugly. But I am at the mercy of The Lady reading to me as she becomes annoyed when I try to turn the pages and scratch holes in the pages… sheesh… sometimes she’s a total pain in the butt… and yet I continue to love her dearly… she feeds my cheese jones… what can I say???
Spaulding: What is your favorite grilled cheese sammy?
Rob: I admit to partiality to the basics: grilled cheddar (I like Tickler these days for melting) on sourdough bread, with thick bacon grilled in a black metal skillet with lots of creamy Vermont butter. Our breakfast melt at Murray’s is always great.
Spaulding: The Lady always orders a melt at Murray’s and raves to The Man and me about them… sometimes I think she is simply taunting us… Her last trip she had the TNT Melt; turkey and tomato with your “Secret” Cheese Blend… she claims it was “yummers”… sometimes, the concept of sharing eludes both her and The Man…
SG: What made you decide to add the caves?
RK: It was clear from my travels that we could find lots of good cheese but between farm and (the) cheese case a lot of things were going wrong. So a lot of our effort was in fixing the pipeline, a less than glamorous task to make sure the cheese got from the farm to the ship or plane, to our own trucks here, and then into the caves, where the cheeses would be most comfy and cozy. They need love and attention too, you know.
SG: Absolutely, we all need love… I remember when I used to get “loved”… but I’m not bitter… well maybe a bit… but I digress…
Spaulding: Before we finish, I’d love for you to add any thoughts, tips, advice you wish to share.
Rob: I was amused by a New York Times article this week, dateline Milwaukee, that says science can do almost everything it sets out to do except make good low fat cheese. So my advice is: forget about it, eat the best cheese you can find. If it costs a little more, so be it, but if you’re on a tight budget, buy a smaller piece. A little goes a long way with cheese.
Recently we opened Murray’s Cheese Bar, where you can eat these great cheeses with a glass of wine or beer, or order a cooked cheese dish like a hamburger rarebit. I’d love to see some cheese bars in other cities and towns!
Spaulding: Again, thanks for taking the time and here’s to more cheese bars… preferably ones that allow felines to sit at the counter…
The Lady had dinner a few weeks back at Murray’s Cheese Bar with several of her Cheese Swell friends from Houston. One of the items she tasted was the hamburger rarebit (not to be confused with hamburger rabbit… oops… my apologies to Mimzy and Harriett…) and once more Tia Keenan, the Director of Food services for Murray’s Cheese, wowed the crowd. In addition to the rarebit, Tia also served a divine mac n cheese along with many other cheesy concoctions that satisfied the cheese geek that lives inside The Lady’s soul.