Meet Matt Caputo, ACS CCP™
Matt and I met through the ACS CCP™ program but net in person yet… hopefully, we will finally meet in Des Moines in July. Matt took a lot of time and thought to participate
in my Virtual Q&A… you’re going to enjoy this interview.
Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
I grew up working in food. I have fond memories of being a toddler and hanging around my dad’s Italian restaurant. “Back of the house” was staffed in large part by my dad, his 4 brothers, and their friends. Even at that tender age, I felt right at home with that bunch of ruffians. When my dad sold the restaurant and started running retail operations for a local Italian specialty food shop called Granato’s, I began “working” in the deli for $3/hour. Mostly a few hours here and there doing miscellaneous stuff like bagging up frozen ravioli, prepping gift baskets, or sweeping the floor, but by the time I was in high school I was working the cheese and meat counter regularly. There are probably very few people my age (36) that have as much time behind the counter as I do.
My dad, Tony Caputo, is Italian and my mom is Greek. I realized I was a cheese geek for the first time when at a friend’s house they served “feta” and like all too many US “fetas” (especially at the time), it was a joke. No not a joke, it was outrageous. Totally blew my mind that that shit could be legally called the same thing as I grew up with which is now of course recognized as PDO Feta.
Why did you want to become a CCP™? How has it changed your cheese life or career path?
I wanted to prove to myself that I could pass the test. Once I did, it was great to get deeper involved with the board that handles vetting of the questions. Got to have several conference calls with one of my idols, Max McCalman. Historically, I have found little time to make it to trade shows and such, so the test, passing it, and doing well enough to be asked to write some questions even, helped to plug me into the community. This community is something I hope to find more time for over the years and the CCP ™ really introduced me to it.
Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
I am the CEO at Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli and President of A Priori Specialty Foods. Tony Caputo’s is an NASFT Outstanding Retailer 2009 and A Priori is a distributor. I generally get in at around between 7 and 8 am, sometimes much earlier. This is necessary to get some time on the retail floor and in the warehouse while they are still mostly empty. This period is the only time it is efficient to do orders. We have over 132 vendors and I still do the purchase orders for over 100 of them.
Then the insanity starts and there is not a 5 minute period without someone waiting to talk to me. Very fast paced and I have learned to love it, but the pressure can seem crushing if I am not on my game. No later than 9am, I am going over any shorts for our wholesale fulfillment and sales reps, giving ETAs, suggesting subs, etc. Then it is back to ordering for another hour or so.
At this point I will usually have meetings with vendors or going over contracts with our legal department (AKA my lovely wife and former badass deputy District Attorney). Discuss affinage strategy with our Affineuse Antonia Horne. Check in with Caputo’s Downtown Manager Evan Ross and discuss tweaks to operations. Look at sales and labor cost reports. Email and talk on phone with various departments and managers to discuss operations tweaks with other three location managers.
Blind taste test something. Could be anything from several oils, to dozens of chocolates, to canned beans. We rely heavily on blind tasting at Caputo’s to inform our buying.
Try to stem the tide of emails, usually to no avail. Meet with Cesar in accounting to reconcile invoices, credits, price changes. Plan for the week’s classes and other public speaking engagements. Kick at least 3 people out of our restrooms. Address at least one or two Human Resource issues. Rearrange a few retail shelves that have been bothering me. Spot check accuracy on our website. Skype with European chocolate vendors. They love their Skype! Deal with a million questions from reps, cheese staff, customers, etc. All the while I may get called out on the floor to help get the cheese crew out of the weeds if they get slammed. By 2pm I usually try to eat something that is not cheese or chocolate, but often times lunch is chocolate as there are always around 30 to 40 new samples and old favorites on my desk. Lunch is almost always eaten while working on spreadsheets. Work on emails until about 5:20pm. Then Yelena and I rush out to pick up the kids from the nanny, fast forward to them being in bed by 8 or 8:30pm and then it is back to work for both Yelena and I. We will get a sitter about 3 times a week to go back to work. Lame date night, I know. Many other nights (like tonight) we work from home until 1, 2 or 3 in the morning.
Anyway, this is probably way more than you wanted to know, but main point is it is crazy. Our companies grew by over 100% on average in 2014 and with that the day-to-day was heavy to say the least. Frantically generating POs, strategizing with managers from our locations, our wholesale operations, online store, and administrators. Putting out all manner of fires, dealing with a continuous stream of requests and questions. Lots of tasting alone to inform buying decisions and with crew to support culture of food love. Every day when I get home it feels like I was in a bar room brawl. At least mentally if not physically. Luckily, I LOVE IT. So I wake up each morning ready to brawl again. Feel free to use this last paragraph as the whole thing.
Do you have a favorite cheese or type?
Cheese is my second passion after family, yet I don’t have a steadfast favorite.
I change my favorite about once per month. I am sure it has to do with all manner of things such as season, my waning or waxing health and many other factors I may or may not understand. However, I see no need to pick a favorite. Why should my relationship with cheese be a monogamous one? I already have one with by wife, with cheese I like to play the field. Fall in love with one thing until infatuation fades and then move on to the next when passion prods me to move on to my next cheese crush. Currently, I am very into Onetik’s Chabrin. What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese? Alsatian Reisling or whatever white I have on hand. I find as a cousin to the true Alpine cheeses, Chabrin a French Basque cheese goes well with sweet whites, crisp whites, and even oaky Cali style whites. All of course bring out different aspects of the cheese.
Raw vs. Pasteurized? Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?
It definitely makes a difference, but it is only one of many, many important factors that make a specific wheel of cheese healthy and nice or dead and subdued (or worse). Don’t get too hung up on it. People that put too much stock in one producer, one area, only raw milk, likely miss out. Learn to tell when a cheese is healthy and vibrant on the rind and in the paste. I have many favorites that are raw and many that are not.
Most important to me is the cheese lively? When I cut into it is the texture appropriate for the variety? Is it happy? I won’t go into too much detail here. Other geeks know what I mean. I guess all things being equal, sure I’d take raw over pasteurized, but it is rarely, if ever, my first concern. That being said, if the FDA tries to take away our raw milk, I am going to start a militia. Who’s with me?
Should the US create a system similar to the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?
A first step would be to start honoring those put in place by Europe. I know this will piss a lot of people off, but my earlier story about Feta is proof it needs to happen. What most people in this country think of as Feta, Brie or Parmesan makes a mockery of the real thing and robs those people keeping those traditions alive of their reputations. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make those cheeses, just call them something else and refer to the name Feta in the description. Then yes, I think it would be really cool to start one for America. Probably too early to have more than a few but there are a handful of long-established, unique to America things going on that should be recognized, protected and encouraged.
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?
Up until the birth of my oldest daughter 6 years ago, Yelena and I travelled a lot and almost always it was business. Luckily, the business of cheese and chocolate is always a pleasure when you are as obsessed as we are. Multiple trips to Italy every year. Greece, France, Spain, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia. Lots of good food. In the last 4 years our trips are more US-based and quicker. Planning a world tour of cheese and chocolate makers soon though!
Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.
I am obsessed with cacao culture. We distribute over 500 SKUs of chocolate at A Priori. Our original Caputo’s location carries over 375 craft chocolate bars. One of the great joys of my career has been introducing the throngs of conservative and specialty food averse people who make up a large portion of Utah’s population into died in the wool chocolate aficionados. I have taught our famous Intro to Fine Chocolate Class over 500 times!
If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
Hang out with my girls. Gia 6 and Frankie 3 are so cute. Not to mention my lovely wife Yelena. It’s like living with a bunch of angels. I get to see them pretty much every day, but still. Hard to get enough.
Again, my thanks to Matt for taking the time to share such detailed information about his life and career in the world of specialty foods. It is truly appreciated.
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”.
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