Interview: Roger Bass of Madison Market in Seattle

photo of Roger Bass courtesy Madison Market

 

Madison Market is one of Seattle's great food stores. Located at the crest of Capitol Hill, its shiny and well-stocked store represents a dramatic evolution from the co-op's humble beginnings on 12th and Denny (where I was once a member!). I don't recall Central Co-op having a great cheese selection back in the 1980s, but that's all changed. Today at Madison Market you'll find one of the best selections of local cheese in Seattle. Cheesemonger Roger Bass is the mastermind behind all of those lovely, carefully cared for dairy gems and in honor of Madison Market's upcoming Cascadia Cheese Festival (see below) I took some time to chat with Roger about how and why he does what he does.

Cascadia Cheese Festival July 24th 11am-3pm Madison Market, 16th and Madison in Seattle Free!

On July 24th from 11-4pm, Roger and the crew will welcome cheesemakers from Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese, Larkhaven Farm, Kurtwood Farms and others as well as sample cheeses from around the region. I will be there as well signing copies of my book, Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest. Come sample, meet cheesemakers and immerse yourself in local cheese! And it's all free!

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Roger, you're originally from Wisconsin...how did growing up in the Cheese Heartland of the US influence your later career choice?

I grew up in Wisconsin at a time when you were more likely to find Velveeta or government cheddar in one's refrigerator. My dad would often take us ice fishing with a big thermos filled with a soup made from Velveeta, chicken stock and cauliflower. I remember loving it as a kid; I'm not sure how I'd react to such a concoction now. Oddly enough, my first experience selling cheese was for our yearly Boy Scout fund raiser.  There were three choices; Brick, Colby or Cheddar. Colby was my favorite and best seller.

Tell us how you became a cheesemonger. You started at DeLaurenti's in Seattle, is that right?

I stumbled upon cheese when I worked at DeLaurenti's 9 years ago and I haven't looked back. I loved working at DeLaurenti's, the selection of cheese they have is amazing. Being a fledgling foodie it was a big challenge to learn all of the cheeses they carried. Learning their names, pronunciation, milk type, flavor profiles and what they would pair with was challenging. Connie Rizzo, the cheese buyer, was a wealth of information and I bugged her constantly. I filled my head with as much stuff that would fit; working at DeLaurenti's was like a cheese university.

I've been at Central Co-op's Madison Market for 6 years. Here at the Co-op I got a crash course in clean, sustainable and local foods. It's pretty cool to work for a place that lets me follow my passions. For instance when I came up with the idea for the Cascadia Cheese Festival, the Co-op got behind me to make it a reality.

With so many great local cheeses out there, how do you choose which to feature and sell? What are some of your current favorites?

Right now one of my favorites is Dinah's Cheese from Kurtwood Farms; Kurt drops off his cheese every Wednesday and it's always in perfect shape. I have a huge crush on Pat Morford from Rivers Edge Chevre, her cheeses like Sunset Bay, Astraea and Cape Foulweather are great examples of how a talented she is. Not only do they taste amazing they are also gorgeous to look at. I just got Kelli Estrella's Brewleggio the other day and it made my knees weak. At room temperature it almost melted in my mouth. We are really lucky to live in the Northwest, the cheese being made here is some of the best examples of American artisan cheeses.

What sorts of cheeses do people like to buy at Central Co-op? Do you find that their consumption tends towards certain styles or types of cheeses?

We are a grocery store so most of the time people stop in to get the basics. I try to have the best quality Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Gruyere, Swiss and Feta at the lowest prices on Capitol Hill.  More and more our customers are asking for local cheeses. I have fans of anything made from raw milk or from goat or sheep milk. There are the customers that are only looking for something new. Of course there are others that have their favorites that they pick up every week. It's a mixed bag really.

Our customers shop at Central Co-op because they believe in supporting local and sustainable agriculture. I try not to disappoint them by carrying as many NW cheeses as I can find.

What are the hardest and most fun parts of being a cheesemonger? I love to sell cheese. By far the best part of my job is getting someone excited about buying cheese. Buying cheese can be intimidating so I love to sample and tell the story.  Also, it feels really good when a customer will pull me aside to thank me for helping them with a selection of cheese I had help pick out. I also love turning vegans to non-vegans, I only have two vegan co-workers left to convert.

The hardest part of my job is selling soy "cheese," although I refuse it put it in the specialty cheese case. I still get customers asking about what soy "cheese" melts the best.