Chefs have Top Chef and Iron Chef. Fashion designers have Project Runway. This event was something like those competitions, but for cheesemongers - those skilled, knowledgeable folks behind the counter at your favorite cheese shop. At the first annual Cheese Merchandising contest at last week's American Cheese Society conference in Austin, Texas, Team Oregon prevailed over three other teams with accomplished cheesemongers Steve Jones of the venerable Steve's Cheese in Portland and Tom Van Voorhees of Rogue Creamery (and a veteran of Murray's in New York) leading the way.
Modeled after Caseus (held annually in Italy with teams from all over the world competing), the match consisted of several segments. First, competing teams were asked to set up a cheese case from scratch. Judges reviewed and scored each display based on several criteria, including aesthetic appeal. Next, one team member was judged on cutting and wrapping technique while the other was judged on sales technique, with judges posing demanding real world hypotheticals like, "What cheese should I get for my dinner party?" and "I'm double parked, I"m double parked!" - a heckling that required the cheesemonger to keep his/her cool in addition to showing an impressive depth and breadth of cheese knowledge. No mean feat.
Finally, teams were asked to represent a specific cheese to the judging panel. Team Oregon riffed on Rivers Edge Sunset Bay to a world class group of judges including cheese professionals Ray Bair, proprietor of Cheese Plus in San Francisco, food and cheese writer Janet Fletcher and French affineur Herve Mons.
Now back to reality and his own shop, Steve Jones is still a little giddy from the adventure. While he's thrilled to have won, he says the experience was tough. "The only other time I've ever been that nervous was when my wife gave birth," he says. Though it was a demanding test of skill and perseverance, Steve and Tom prevailed to the end, showing the cheesemaking world that Oregon should not be underestimated.
[photo courtesy Sebbie Buhler - Rogue Ales]