I’ve know Alison since my “early days” in cheese. When Spaulding and I began the cheese blog in 2008, our first review was Beecher’s No Woman. It was Spaulding’s favorite cheese and it only made sense to start with the cheese that drove him to climb up my leg to get it… that review began a friendship with Kurt, Jena and Alison… and their support has meant much to me and my success over the intervening years.
I thank them for their kindnesses and now I thank Alison for taking the time to participate in our 2016 Virtual Q&A with Cheese Professionals.
Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
One of my earliest exposures to real cheese (aka cheese that wasn’t orange or you could shake out of a box) was with my first job as a prep cook/dishwasher at Cafe Juanita when I was 15.
I had to grate pounds and pounds of Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. I started working in at Columbia Winery, which my uncles had help to found in 1962, to learn more about wine. For lunch, I would bring cheese and salamis with fruit. I started playing with wine & food pairings, but there were very few places to get really good cheeses. Over the next number of years I learned more about both food and wine working as a server in many casual and fine dining restaurants. Later, I became a retail wine steward at Larry’s Markets, a high end grocer that had a stellar wine selection and cheese counter. There I had the opportunity to develop and teach food and wine pairing classes at the Larry’s Market Cooking School and I truly fell in love with cheese!
After Larry’s, I became the Sommelier and Dining Room Manager at a classical French restaurant, Gerard’s Relais de Lyon before having my own Cheese & Wine Shop, Brie & Bordeaux, later adding a bistro into the mix, just for fun (or was it insanity?).
After I had our second child, my husband & I, decided that our kids needed to know at least one of us (he was in the restaurant industry too) so, we sold B & B.
After a year or so at home, I realized working was a lot easier than being a stay-at-home mom so I went into consulting and worked with some great farm-to-table and sustainable agriculture projects with the Seattle School Board on the Food Policy subcommittee, Snohomish and King Counties and also working with local businesses focusing on cheese. That’s when I first met Kurt Dammeier of Sugar Mountain. He first hired me to develop and open the Beecher’s Handmade Cheese retail shop in Pike Place Market. A few years later, he asked me to come in and develop his non-profit program and organization, the Flagship Foundation, now called the Pure Food Kids Foundation, from the ground up.
Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
I am the principal of Leber Consulting – Development & Education Services for the Specialty Food Industry. After 10 years working with Sugar Mountain, the parent company to businesses such as Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, I have gone back to working directly with food and with people. I work with folks wanting to open specialty food stores, who have small food production businesses and restaurateurs. I am involved with everything from vetting business plans, to advising on business growth and streamlining processes to staff training. I also teach home creamery (making basic fresh cheeses), food and wine pairing and artisan cheese classes for both enthusiasts and culinary professionals.
Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?
Whenever people ask me “what is your favorite cheese?”, my stock answer is “depends on my mood!”. This is absolutely true – sometimes I’m in the mood for a light, delicate chevre while other times, I’m in the mood for Epoisses.
I have two “desert Island” cheeses – fresh chevre and Parmigiano!
Chevre and parm are both so versatile. I love to drink bubbles, Riesling and Pinot Noir with Chevre. Parm goes great with so many things – bubbles to bourbon!
Raw vs. Pasteurized? Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?
It does matter and both have their place. Yes, it matters so many ways; the production, the tradition and final product. If a cheesemaker/plant is meticulous and have a high attention to detail, raw milk cheeses can be wonderful. I completely understand a cheesemakers choice to produce pasteurized cheeses both for the safety aspect and for the consistency in the final cheese.
Personally, I love raw milk cheeses – the tradition, the art and the variations inherent in producing them. the variation season to season,. where the animal is at in their lactation cycle and what they’re being fed.
That said, I have seen cheesemakers who, though they are trying to stay true to tradition, are not able to maintain a clean environment and consistent make process that I get nervous eating their cheeses.
Should the US create a system similar the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?
Boy, I have to think about this one. On one hand, having the system to protect both the farmer/cheesemaker and the consumer that if they buy a name protected cheese that it will be up to a set standard is a boon. On the other hand, requiring a small producer to adhere to strict regulations can be onerous and expensive. When politics get involved, we have to be careful.
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?
Oh, where to start?! Shall we start in Scotland and finding an amazing nettle wrapped cheese in Luss on Loch Lomond or making a long detour to visit Berthaut in Burgundy to pay homage to Epoisse? hmmm…I know! On my first visit to New Zealand, I was astounded at the variety of “basic cheeses” in the grocery stores and even the corner dairy (the equivalent to a 7-11). ONe of the cheeses, Kikorangi, a lovely blue captivated me. When I found out it was made a short hop up the road from my inlaws place, I grabbed my then beau, now husband, and off we went! We had a great time there – it was fairly commercial but the cheeses they made were awesome!
Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.
I used to train horses and worked as a large animal vet assistant. Another is I love puzzles and word games!!!
If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
Work in the garden! I love being outside and puttering with my plants. nothing like the instant gratification of weeding and pruning.
My thanks to Alison for taking the time and wish her great success in her return to consulting!!
Interviews with Cheese Professionals continue through 2016… sometimes, as “stand-alone” interviews and sometimes as round-table discussions with several Pros answering the same question. Those participating include Cheesemakers,ACS CCPs™,Cheesemongers and Cheese Experts who contribute to this Wonderful World we call “Cheese”.
List of 2015-16 Cheese Professionals.
List of all Cheese Professionals Bios.
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