Crowning the Big Cheese at the Cheesemonger Invitational

The winner and undisputed BIG CHEESE stands alone at the end of the competition Luke Burbank is driving us to:

The mood is edgy at the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) in San Francisco. The cheesemongers are finishing their written exams and starting their taste trials and smell tests … and you can feel the tension in the room.

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The slicing competition at the Cheesemonger Invitational.

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Time out -- what is a cheesemonger, you ask?

Christy Caye, of St. James Cheese Company, said, "Our job is to introduce Americans to really a new world of cheese that they've never known before." 

"Normal people don't walk around with an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese, but we do," said Shannon Voelkel, of C'est Cheese.

Joshua Santamaria, of Foragers City Market, said, "You are a stockbroker of dairy. You're an expert of technical skills. You're the judge, jury, and executioner of quality, you know?"  

Yeah, sort of. Right up until that last part, anyway.

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Some tasty entries at the Cheesemonger Invitational.

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Cheesemongers prepare and sell cheese in specialty shops and gourmet grocery stores. But what you probably didn't know is that they generally take their job VERY seriously.

During CMI, as it's called, cheesemongers from around the country competed to cut, wrap, and pair cheeses at the highest level.

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A competitor at the Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco.

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"Cheese is an Everyman food," said Adam J. Moskowitz, the guy behind the whole thing. "We all love cheese, every one of us. Even the lactose intolerant love cheese, they just can't do it.

"What I do is live life like a rock star, and by that, I mean I'm committed tirelessly to the world of specialty cheese."

Moskowitz grew up around the cheese business, but after college didn't want anything to do with it. -- until he met some "cheese people," and was like, "You are the most incredible people I've ever met in my life!"

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A perfect pairing at the Cheesemonger Invitational.

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Today, Moscowitz is one of the top fancy foods importers in America.

When asked what makes a good cheesemonger, Moscowitz replied, "Their love of cheese and their love of people."

For Rory Stamp, from Vermont, that love meant undergoing training that could only be described as "Rocky-esque."

"I mean, I was in the cave cutting down wheels, practicing my quarter pounds and my wraps," he said. "I was visualizing what a perfect weight was. I was talking to my customers, kind of challenging them to test out various pairings. Certainly a lot of thought, maybe too much thought that goes into this whole process."

Stamp did a lot of that thinking at Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Wine Bar in Burlington, Vermont, where he works.

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Cheesemonger Rory Stamp with Luke Burbank at Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Wine Bar in Burlington, Vt.

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Burbank asked, "When did you realize that you loved cheese more than the average person?"

"I think it's been building for a long time. I certainly remember in high school realizing that I'd, you know, forgo junk food and ice cream and potato chips, and really allocate all of my resources towards fine cheese," Stamp said.

"So, as a basically high schooler, you were spending your extra money on cheese?"

"Yes," he laughed. "So, maybe not the most typical situation!"

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Maybe not, but that early interest cultured into a comprehensive knowledge of cheese and the cheese-making process.

Stamp showed Burbank a sample with a proliferation of cheese mites -- tiny arachnids that are in almost every aging cave. "Very tiny spiders," he clarified.

"I wouldn't lead with that if you're trying to sell this cheese," Burbank laughed.

Cheese mites are not only harmless (and edible!), they also help the aging process of certain types of cheese.

Back at CMI, after eight hours of grueling competition, the field of dozens of competitors had narrowed to just six -- and Adam Moscowitz (now clad in a cow costume) presided over the last rounds.

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Rory Stamp takes top prize at the Cheesemonger Invitational. 

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For Stamp, winning the Cheesemonger Invitational meant a $1,000 prize, a trip to England, and the respect his peers. But for Adam Moskowitz, earning his beloved cheesemongers a little more respect is just the beginning.

"Cheesemongers are completely underappreciated, without a doubt," he said. "We're talking about employees that make minimum wage. These people are the noblest of noble!"     

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato.