Served: Making a Life with Cheese


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.jpgAs my second year of college began, my cheese endeavors came to a close. My summer job at Artisanal ended, and I was more than ready to walk away from Picholine—nearly two years as a hostess was enough.

I went back to Craigslist and found a wanted ad for a server in a new cheese and wine bar. When I went to interview, the place was a construction project. I met the owners. We sat on boxes and talked. They invited me to help them taste cream. (Yum.)

Their vision was a cheese-centric, casual spot with great service and inventive cheese pairings. Yes, please. I guess my enthusiasm was obvious. They called a few hours later to say I was hired. A few weeks later, I was counting wine bottles, assembling chairs, and moving boxes. And then suddenly, we were open. And busy. Very busy.

Cheese Near and Far

My time there was (mostly) amazing. I learned about Hungarian and Chilean wines, how to talk to wine snobs and regular snobs, have all sorts of fun at work, and compose myself despite extreme exhaustion. I learned the rules of service and which to break.

What I didn't learn: cheese. The very talented, charismatic fromager was proprietary about her knowledge. On a good day, she'd share slivers of (and conversation about) the brawny, nutty La Drean, or we'd spend ten minutes and heated discussion pairing blue cheeses with sparkling shiraz.

But more often, the fromager preferred to share her expertise and talk shop with customers, vendors, cheesemakers, and her friends. To my questions, she usually turned her back, sometimes literally. That's fine--but as a tool for personal cheese education, my job fell short. I made do with being in the smelly pbroximity of one of the best cheese collections in the country. I eavesdropped like crazy and got on with work and life.

My Cheese, My Self

Fast forward two years. I'm managing a restaurant. With my boyfriend as the chef, it feels more like our restaurant. I think about the things I love in restaurants. It's a long list: the energy, playing with and talking about food all day, wine, surprises, making people happy. Cheese makes the list, too.

So we start a cheese program.

It fast becomes my favorite part of my job. I shop for cheeses with glee. Our list is substantially short of encyclopedic, but I want to have something oozing, something stinky, something caramelly and crystallized, a killer blue, and at least a few things nobody else in Philly has.

The owners buy me a simple, pretty cabinet in an antique store in which to house my cheese. My rep from Murray's (who used to work with me at Picholine) comes to visit and brings hay mats for lining the shelves. At a kitchen outlet store, Micky and I find gorgeous marble Lazy Susans. Voilà, we have perfect cheese plates.

In the kitchen they mix up peach and champagne jam, poach quince, infuse honey with lavender, turn raisins into chutney, and make an incredible paste from medjool dates and olive oil. We even get some press.

Cheese is so rich with history, so delicious, so multidimensional, and so fun to eat. I feel lucky that I get to work with cheese and "spread the curd." When something is getting me down, a new wheel of something pungent and luscious brings me right back up.