Talking Cheese and the Cheesemonger Invitational with Tia Keenan

29 June 2011 by Lee Frank Category: interview
Tagged: , ,   One Comment

Cheese is in the top 5 important things when it comes to nachos. So you can guess why we’re so insanely excited about the Cheesemonger Invitational on Friday July 8 in Long Island City. Our excitement lead us to getting a chance to talk to Tia Keenan. Tia Keenan is a genius fromager and culinary consultant. She’s been written about by Eater, Eatocracy and so many more publications we wish would notice us. For the Cheesemonger Invitational, she will be presenting the lovely food to go with all that cheese.

How long have you loved cheese?
I was looking at my baby book recently and my mother listed my favorite food as cheese! My grandfather always teases me about how when I was a little girl every time he’d ask me what I wanted to eat I’d say “grilled cheese!” In general I’ve always loved dairy. I was a really picky eater as a kid and subsisted on yogurt, cheese and eggs for many years.

[Editor's Note: It's here where I should admit that one of my first words was cheese.]

What’s your favorite cheese right now?
Consistently one of the best cheeses made in the U.S. is Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson. It’s a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese from Virginia, somewhat in the style of a Tallegio. It has just the right amount of pungency, and the quality of the milk really shines through. It’s my desert island cheese.

How did you get into the cheese industry?
I worked in restaurants and thought maybe I’d specialize in wine. Once I started working with cheese I knew I had found my medium. Cheese represents the intersection of so many subjects that are important to me: food & flavor, eating, farming, history, economies, tradition… Cheese is primal. Milk is primal. It whispers secrets about human desires. People always describe their love of cheese as an “addiction” or an “obsession”. They say they’re “crazy” about cheese or they “can’t live without it”. There is something about cheese that speaks to our deepest human desires.

Kraft slices or Velveeta?
I don’t consider either one of those products cheese, so neither. Recently I had a burger with a well-known processed cheese on it at a very fancy restaurant. The chef was paying homage to his childhood. It was kind of a “wink-wink” menu decision on his part, but this is what I was reminded of: how processed cheese product sticks to your teeth like glue! Imagine what it does once it’s in your gut! Gross. Real cheese is a perfect food – it’s concentrated protein and fat, very nutrient dense. It’s delicious AND good for you. Processed cheese is the antithesis of that.

Tell me about the Cheesemonger Invitational. How did it come to be?
The Cheesemonger Invitational is the brainchild of Adam Moskowitz of Larkin, which is a cheese import and infrastructure company. If you’ve eaten European cheese in the U.S, you’ve had cheese that’s at the very least passed through Larkin. Adam is like the Hulk Hogan of cheese. He’s over the top and full of enthusiasm. He’s someone who dreams big and loves a challenge. He’s not afraid to make something crazy happen. The Cheesemonger Invitational is a competition of cheesemongers from all over the U.S. This year there are even some international competitors. They compete in blind tasting cheese, cutting and wrapping (without the use of scales!), plating and presenting and pairing condiments with cheese. It’s like the Wrestlemania of cheese. It’s pretty awesome and over the top. I’m responsible for feeding the minions at the event. I’m super excited!

How did you pick the cheesemongers?
The competition is open to any monger sponsored by a cheese shop.

Do you make cheese?
Sometimes I make simple cheese, like ricotta, farmer’s cheese or mozzarella. I’ve been teaching mozzarella making a lot this year. I teach not because I’m an amazing cheesemaker. It’s more of an extension of my role as a cheese provocateur.

Do you make nachos at home?
I have made nachos at home! One of my closest friend is a Mexican food fanatic. I always have my own pickled jalapenos and pickled onions in my refrigerator. I like pickled things with my nachos. It means I can add a TON of cheese and still keep the flavors and textures in balance. Texture is so very, very important with nachos. My nachos are good because all of the components are fresh and made from high-quality ingredients. My beans simmer for hours, my salsa is made with love and lots of secret ingredients. Also, I like shrimp on my nachos. Am I going to get hate-mail for saying that?

We know the regular cheeses for nachos, but we want to know, what are some artisanal cheeses that would melt nicely over nachos?
I think fresh chevre is amazing on nachos, especially in combination with other cheeses. Something slightly pungent could be fun, as long as you also used another milder cheese. The cheese I mentioned earlier, Grayson, would work. I think Alpine cheeses like Gruyere and Comte could add a nice dimension. But in general I’d love to see more goat cheeses on nachos. Young goat cheese, aged goat cheese, all different kinds. I think their tang is just what the nacho doctor ordered!

What cheese would be horrible with nachos?
I’ve thought long and hard about blue cheese with nachos. I’d love to play with that but I’ve had a creative block even though I’ve pondered this for several years. I’m sure if I think long enough I can come up with a flavor solution to this problem, but I haven’t been able to yet.

What is your favorite thing to pair with cheese?
Good company. A lover. Friends. Family. Champagne. Everything. Cheese is perfect on it’s own and it’s perfect with a 1,000 other things. I’ve paired cheese with everything from seaweed to chocolate to Big League Chew. The day I can’t think of a fun pairing experiment is the day I hang up my cheese knife.

What cheese would you pair with chorizo?
Of course Spanish cheeses would be an obvious choice. Manchego, Tetilla, Garroxta, Pata de Cabra. Stylistically I think chorize needs something mild and neutral (a contrast) or something intense and smoky (a mirror). I doubt there are many cheeses that would be absolutely terrible with chorizo. You can’t really mess up the love between sausage and cheese. It is enduring.

Have you paired cheese with beers or tequilas before?
Yes! Beer and cheese are like the oldest and truest pairing in the history of humanity. Until a couple hundred years ago, most people drank beer. In many places, wine was for celebrations and wealthy people. Beer was like water (in fact, because of a lack of good water sanitation, beer was often safer then water and consumed as a water substitute). I mean, the English have been consuming beer and cheddar for a long, long time. The Belgians? Forget about it! And they make some fantastic cheeses, actually. Anyhow, Tequila and cheese is a VERY interesting proposition. I have paired cheese with tequila in the past. Tequila can have many flavors — it’s very complex. Some are smoky. Some are floral. This complexity equals many interesting opportunities for cheese pairing. Mexico has an amazingly rich history of cheesemaking. I actually made cheese in the province of Jalsico with an old cheesemaker once. Jalisco is also where tequila is made. I’d love to explore the connection further.

Our greatest thanks to Tia and if you want more info about the Cheesemonger Invitational, check out their site.

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