I met Sue in 2010 at the ACS Conference in Seattle. We sat at the same table one day for lunch and she chatted about the progress being made with the Certification Program for Cheese Professionals. That was the day I decided I wanted to be a part of that elite group and in 2013, I realized my goal becoming an ACS CCP™ in the second group to sit for the exam (in Madison). Thank you Sue, for your passion which further ignited my own to increase my knowledge of cheese.
Yesterday it was announced, at the ACS Conference in Providence, that Sue has been elected to the ACS Board of Directors, an honor well-deserved. So… it seemed only appropriate that I post my Virtual Q&A interview done with her from earlier this year.
Thanks Sue for taking the time!!!
Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
I came to cheese via catering and teaching cooking. I have a degree in Public Relations, and through working in that moved into corporate special events production then conference center sales. From there I moved into catering, starting in the front of the house in sales and event management and staff training, and moved ‘backwards’ into the kitchen. Then I took another reverse step and went to Paris for cooking school at the Ecole Ritz-Escoffier at the Paris Ritz. I worked as a sous-chef in a small Parisian restaurant and did some culinary tour guiding, and was then hired by the Ritz to serve as Assistant Director of the school. One of my responsibilities was to teach the classes on French cheese (in French and in English!). After two+ years at the Ritz I started my own catering business in Paris, which I ran for about two years. Moved back to the states and launched a business teaching custom-designed cooking classes to small groups of people in their own kitchens.
When we moved back to NY after 6 years in Paris, I joined Slow Food, which was just getting known in the US. I went to a tasting event and encountered American artisanal cheeses for the first time…..this was in about 2000, and I’d been away from the US food scene since about 1992, so the whole cheese movement in the US came as a revelation. I asked the person next to me in line where I could find out more about these cheeses, and they told me I should check out the American Cheese Society. Of course, I chuckled like most people! But I signed up for the conference in San Francisco and flew off, thinking I’d be hobnobbing with the good folk from Kraft (more likely now than then, as Kraft is actually winning awards but that’s another story). My mind was completely blown, by the variety and quality of the 300 or so cheeses on display. The attendees were incredibly open and welcoming, totally approachable, and I was a convert from being a total French cheese snob to being an apostle for American cheeses.
As my teaching business grew, I had the opportunity to teach cheese classes as well, and teamed up with Master of Wine Sheri Sauter. We taught for corporate clients such as Citibank-Smith-Barney and Merrill Lynch, and had a series at Sur la Table, as well as at restaurants and for private clients. We also had a series at New York grocer Agata & Valentina, and later I went on to teach for a couple of years at Murray’s.
I continued to be involved with the ACS, and in about 2002 attended the first session where a certification program was suggested, hosted by Kathy Guidi and Laurie Greenburg. I offered to write the brainstorming notes on the flip chart, and that eventually parlayed into managing the project, and bringing the exam to fruition some 8 years later. Somewhere in there I also worked to support the New York State Farmstead & Artisanal Cheesemakers’ Guild as Marketing & Development director; this was one of the very earliest Guilds established. It continues to flourish.
Cheese geek…..do I qualify?
Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
I am a Director of the Academie Opus Caseus, responsible for the Anglophone (English-language) programs. Our programs in France are part of the Mons Fromager-Affineur family of companies, and the programs outside of France are under the aegis of an American LLC. Laurent Mons and I provide professional development for cheese professionals in France, the US, and the UK. The Academie is recognized as an Authorized Education Center by the ACS, and as such our programs are considered a valid preparatory step towards the ACS Certified Cheese Professional exam.
I work at home, when I’m not on the road. At my home office I get the kids off to school, walk the dog, and hit the desk, where I develop marketing materials, manage all enrollments, plan new courses and curriculum, and work to fill courses. I try to keep in touch with all our alumni to see how their careers are progressing. I also manage our Facebook page and plan events for alumni and prospective students. This year I’m also co-chairing the ACS conference in Providence, so there are emails, conference calls, and meetings with the fabulous team of Boston-area volunteers. It takes a lot of discipline to work from home and alone, to keep at tasks when it’s discouraging or I feel stuck.
I manage to have a skype call only once every few weeks with my partner in France, Laurent Mons, and for each of us that’s a sure shot in the arm of energy and forward momentum. Wish we could do more of them!
When I’m on the road, I’m either at a food show or teaching. A typical day on the road starts early, to review the day’s powerpoints, make sure all the handouts are ready, the coordination for meals and room setup and hands-on ateliers are ready: we have fabulous host partners when we’re at Jasper Hill; I’m looking forward to our new partnership with Point Reyes: our administrative assistant in France, Eve Catheland, is fabulous. I generally drive the students to class, teach and translate, the morning’s classroom powerpoint presentation and the sensory analysis session, then we have lunch and the group goes into the ateliers where I’ll translate if we’re in France or, if we’re Stateside I’ll catch up on email, troubleshoot, or get a start on planning. There are often evening activities such as dinners, and in the evening when I’ve left the students I’ll skype with my family, catch up on more emails, or just get out of my head with a movie or a book. It’s nice on the road to be so concentrated on just one thing, without all the volunteer and household work I pick up when I get back home.
Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?
I’m fairly omnivorous when it comes to cheese. The cheeses I don’t care for are easier to list than my favorites! I tend to be a purist and avoid add-ins to cheeses, but I judged a few cheeses with add-ins at ACS last year and had to admit some of them were very good! I’m very partial to France’s raw milk cheeses (especially those from the cellars at Mons!) and American artisanal cheeses.
Raw vs. Pasteurized? Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?
Cheese made from pasteurized milk can be outstanding, there’s no doubt about it. The raw milk thing is a far more complex issue….we Americans tend to be such reductionists, wanting to distill complexities down to simplicities, and it just doesn’t work that way. Nuance!!! Raw milk is a philosophy, it’s about biodiversity, about attention to detail, about hand-crafting, about variability and adapting to what the milk presents. Raw milk products really are different, but the difference is not only or always evident in the sensory analysis.
Should the US create a system similar the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?
I’m on record against this concept. American cheese is NOT about terroir. The European system is about centuries-long, or even millenia-long traditions that are deeply connected to geography. The breed of animal thrived in particular conditions, and the cheese make technology made sense, and was driven by a geographical context. That is simply not the case in 21st century America….it’s not even the case for new cheeses being developed in Europe. We make mountain style cheeses in the plains of Wisconsin, and bloomy rinded cheeses in the mountains of Vermont. We make blue cheeses in places where there are no undergound grottoes. Why should we copy something onto our system that isn’t an expression of what we do?
Our cheeses are, above anything, an expression of our cheesemakers, who bring their passion, their education, and their imagination to the cheesemaking process. With modern technology we aren’t dependant on geography to determine what kind of cheese we make. I’m not saying that there is no terroir expressed in our cheeses, of course there is. But that’s just one element, and the terroir is one ‘ingredient’ of the final cheese.
Tell me about one of your “cheese journeys”. Was it traveling for pleasure or maybe “on the hunt” for an obscure cheese you just had to taste?
My whole work life these days is filled with cheese journeys. Every course is a journey of discovery. We have students from all over the US, Canada, England, Australia, and even places like Korea and Mexico in our classes, so in addition to exploring the cheeses we offer in our courses (which include local cheeses from wherever we are teaching, be that California, France, the United Kingdom, or Vermont) we learn about the cheese and dairy traditions of our students’ places of origin as well.
My most recent favorite cheese journey happened last summer when we took our students in our July Affinage course to Salers for the day to walk out with the milking team at 4 amto find the cows in the pasture, observe the milking, bring back the milk in the wooden gerles to the buron to observe the traditional cheesemaking process. It was an utterly magical and unforgettable adventure.
Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.
If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
Be in front of the room sharing knowledge and passion with students, empowering them, and learning with and from them.
Interviews will continue throughout 2015… sometimes, they will be “stand-alone” and sometimes they will be presented as round-table discussions with several Cheese Professionals answering the same question. Those participating includeCheesemakers, ACS CCPs™,Cheesemongers and Cheese Professionals and Experts who contribute to this Wonderful World we call “Cheese”.
List of 2015 Cheese Professionals.
List of all Cheese Professionals Bios.
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