I have known James for several years going back to my early days training Cheesemongers and setting up Murray’s Cheese Shops in Colorado for the King Soopers division of Kroger. We also did some hanging out at the ACS Conference in Sacramento when James successfully sat for the ACS CCP™ exam. Our relationship has hit a couple of rocky points due to different political views, but that’s what friendship is all about… admiration and mutual respect despite our various positions on issues… if only Congress could do the same and get some work done on behalf of all the people… but I digress…
James graciously agreed to participate in my ongoing Q&A with Cheese Professionals.
1.) Briefly tell me about yourself. How did you come to cheese? When did you realize you were a cheese geek?
Well, my name is James Danforth, and I have been an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional™ since 2014. I have been a professional cheesemonger for 16 years and started my career at Whole Foods in San Francisco, CA. With amazing guidance by the charming and extremely knowledgeable, Kathy Demarest, I began to taste every cheese that passed over our counter. Sure, I had experimented in College, but nothing prepared me for the intense gastronomic and historic collision that would get me hooked on a lifetime addiction! I had sampled Gruyere, but to taste a winter milk Comte, or a Herve Mons Tomme du Berger? Damn, dude. I was a gonner right then and there.
What I and many other talented mongers do is so much more than cutting and wrapping cheese, pointing to where the Jarlsberg is, or letting a customer know that the “regular cheese” is over in the dairy section. “Yes, all the way on the other side, sorry about that.” Becoming a CCP™ is validation on a national level of the education, passion and dedication that is required to be a top-notch cheesemonger. The certification as a CCP™ has provided me with a stronger focus with how I present my passion for this trade. It has also opened a wider future with more possibilities than I could have ever thought available! I am quite proud to be part of this ever-growing group.
3.) Where do you work and what is your job title? Describe a “typical” work day.
I’ve been with King Soopers (part of the Kroger company) in Fort Collins, CO since 2010 where I am the designated “Cheese Steward” which sounds very classy in itself. It makes me think of Patrick Stewart, and we’re both bald. So there’s that. But I digress.
Workdays are typical in the sense that is either so much work I need a snow shovel to keep the case full or move along unremarkably. Each day is satisfying and highlighted by the usual Zen-like busy work of the trade: receiving and examining the incoming products for quality, cutting and wrapping the cheese, obsessing over the displays, sampling the cheese to guests and staff, and making sure our guests leave delighted and amazed by the service, happy with their purchases, and want to come back.
4.) You recently competed in the Cheesemongers Invitational. Please tell us about that experience. What was your “perfect bite”?
Gobsmacked! Absolutely, positively, outta-my-head gobsmacked! First, I have to thank the incredible Melanie Greer and King Soopers for her support and their sponsorship. I have never participated in anything so intense as the Cheesemonger Invitational. It’s hard to put into words how much this validated my path in life. Some of America’s best Cheesemongers and I met masters of modern cheesemaking from around the globe in small groups for individual Q&A. It was like I was talking with Matisse, or Julia Child, or Allison Hooper. Oh wait, I DID talk with Allison Hooper!
The competition itself is really a competition with yourself, because everyone brings their A-game. There’s the perfect cut competition, where you get one chance to weigh, and one chance to cut a perfect ¼ lb. There’s the perfect wrap; two cheeses, 45 seconds in Formaticum paper (sooo much tougher than it sounds). Blind tastings, speed selling, arts-n-crafts! The CMI is totally bonkers. I highly recommend for any monger with the “Cojitas” to test themselves!
As a side note, the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality was a yes, so Adam Moskowitz had me call my partner of 22 years and propose to him with all the cheesemongers in rapt anticipation. When my Rik said “yes” the room erupted in cheers and we went out to serve our “perfect bite.” (Editorial note: this is NOT one of the political differences we have.)
And, since you asked, my “prefect bite” was Vermont Butter & Creamery’s Bijou, with a sage rubbed, La Quercia Prosciutto-Americano, maple-glazed “bacon” crumble, freeze-dried granny smith apple chips and a honey mustard drizzle (Stickiness was my ultimate undoing, why didn’t I listen to you Elizabeth Nerud?).
5.) Do you have a favorite cheese or type? What would be your perfect pairing with this cheese?
I love so many cheeses and so many styles, although anything “mild” bores me, but only because I’ve become too finicky for my own good. As a good monger, I also celebrate and support the recognition of seasonality.
With that in mind, a good Burrata never fails me. Paired with savory Italian standards of tomato basil and garlic, or sweet Southern US flavors of peach, pecan and mint, Burrata is like the marble columns of cuisine: instant decadence with a lot of classy.
6.) Raw vs. Pasteurized? Does it matter? What difference does it make in the final product?
Raw. Yes it absolutely matters, with all adherence to safety standards both modern and newly rediscovered (thank you Mother Noella Marcellino for your passionate research), raw milk cheese is both safe and highly worth it. The final product is better for you (Dr. Oz is always babbling on about probiotics and fermented foods. Well, this time he’s spot on!), better for family-owned farms and the small businesses that rely on them and better for the damn cheese so they stop going extinct! Millions of Europeans are growing up happy and healthy and with much better cheese then we here in the US. Why?
If we, as Americans are going to boast about being #1, then let’s stop nitpicking and get to work!
7.) Should the US create a system similar to the European scheme of protecting, controlling and/or regulating specific cheeses?
Ultimately, if it protects the consumer, yes. There are many arguments that can be made for and against Government oversight in the US, although I’ve already waxed a bit too political in the previous question.
If the European method of name control were to apply, I think we’d have to let the American Cheese Society lead the way.
That being said, I certainly think the pioneers like, Uplands Ridge Reserve, Bleating Heart’s Fat Bottom Girl, and Jasper Hill’s (insert cheese here) should be recognized as true representations of North American terroir.
8.) 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?
In 2002, I went to Manhattan with Rik to visit our “sister” Dan, and he told me that I really needed to get over to Bleecker St. and check out this awesome cheese shop. I left Murray’s with so much that when we got home to Seattle, our dogs went insane over the funky smell of my luggage!
9.) Please share with me one fun, non-cheesy fact about you.
I was a DJ from 1990-1997, both and underground and professional (events like weddings, bar mitzvahs company parties, and proms).
By “underground” I definitely do not mean breaking into any abandoned warehouses in 1993 to throw massive parties from midnight till 8am.
Because I will deny that ever happened.
10.) If you could do one thing, anything, all day long, what would it be?
Although I love what I do for a living, getting paid to travel around and document different lives and vistas through photography and shared stories has always been a dream job. However, cheesemongering is a wonderful passion that also pays my the mortgage.
Be sure and check out James’ website, That Cheesy James and follow him at Instagram.
You can also check out James’ bio here.
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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Studying for one of the 2016 ACS CCP™ exams? Simply want to know more about cheese? Please join our Cheese Study Group at Facebook!!!
Our next giveaway starts July 10 and will include a Trio of Kelly’s Jellies, a Trio of 34º Degrees Crisps and a tub of silky BelGioioso Burrata.