Served: My Life in Cheese Begins


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgAt college in New York City, I knew I wanted a job in the real world—or at least not in the library.

I've loved cheese since I can remember. While my friends were still grossed out by anything non-pasta/non-chicken finger, I harbored a penchant for blue cheese. I requested Saga Blue from the grocery store, a mass-produced, subtly spicy Danish blue. I spread it on crackers and bagels, but the best way to eat it was to break off a piece and let it melt on my tongue.

Getting in with the Cheese

At the age of 17, with my only food service job as gelato girl at a struggling Wolfgang Puck Express, I thought hostessing would be a good way to get in the door. I chose Picholine. Not because of its Michelin star or three New York Times stars or proximity on the 1 train, but because it was renowned for having the best cheese program in New York.

I was articulate and responsible and not terribly unpretty, so I was hired. I worked at the Piche, as the employees fondly called the opulently chandeliered establishment, for nearly two years.

The job itself—to answer the phones, hang up furs, and escort patrons to their tables—was for the most part mind-numbingly boring. But at The Piche, I was sucked hard into the restaurant world. On a busy night, time flew. There was the endless soap opera of the Albanian hostesses, the wanna-be model hostesses, the circus performer server (the only female server), the alcoholic sommelier, and the Dominican busboys, who I bought fake designer jeans from in the basement before work.

What went on in the secret world of the kitchen was mostly a mystery to me, but once and a while Angel, the amply-pierced, tattooed, and muscled pastry cook, would slip me some contraband: petit fours, or a chocolate cake too oozing to serve.

And there was the cheese.

Max McCalman, the then cheese maestro of The Piche, would spend service sailing through the wide aisle of the dining room with his cruise ship of a cheese cart, regaling diners with tales of Valencay and suggesting a sparkling wine to complement their Kunik.

The best days at work were when I finished printing menus and organizing seating charts ahead of time. I would join Max in the wine room as he waxed poetic about Berkswell and Sbrinz. He lovingly unpacked and unwrapped his wheels and tommes, sometimes slicing off a sliver of something luscious for us to taste.

I wanted a promotion to be one of Max's cheese assistants, and bad. Max thought it would be grand (or so he said), but the big boss wouldn't have it. Only men got to work with the cheese, it seemed to me.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

But Max had a great alternative. The Artisanal Cheese Center, which was then owned by the Picholine folks (it has since been sold) needed someone to help organize the almost daily wine and cheese tasting classes they hosted.

So I embarked on a dream summer job. The Center paid me three days a week to coordinate cheesemakers, winemakers, and sometimes bourbon or scotch makers to come to the Center and talk about what they did. They heard I was an (aspiring) writer, and I got to use my burgeoning skills to write lusty descriptions of their cheeses for the Artisanal website.

On the fourth day, I came in as an intern and worked in the cheese caves. The caves were giant walk-ins, carefully temperature and humidity controlled, lined with wooden shelves of squares and rounds and pyramids of cheese. It was the height of summer, but I brought gloves and sweaters, otherwise I would lose feeling in my fingers an hour into the day.

Misting the orange skin of epoisses with brandy, flipping small pasty white rounds of goat cheese, I was happy. I would take home overly ripe wheels of cheese in my purse, the subway seats next to me empty. I smelled like a cheese cave.

The best part of the job was that I attended every class I organized, thus getting a free education in wonderful cheese. The best was the Master Class for Cheese Professionals, three days of seminars and lectures and giant tastings of cheeses. I took pages and pages in notes.

When I went back to school to continue my anthropology and creative writing degree, I felt like I definitely had a degree in cheese.

Next week: My adventures opening a cheese and wine café, and starting a cheese program at my Philly restaurant.

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