Meet The Cheese Man

Actor Austin Nichols arrives at the premiere of the HBO original series 'John from Cincinnati' at the Paramount Theater on May 31, 2007 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Getty Images/Kevin Winter
One of the oddest events ever to occur at Fairway Market on New York's Upper West Side was the wedding of wine merchant Willi Gluckstern and her winemaker sweetheart, Arina Hinzen. Presiding was Steven Jenkins, head of Fairway's cheese department.

If it seems an odd place for a wedding, you should bear in mind that Fairway is something of a New York City institution - rambling, haphazard, and eccentric.

Says Jenkins, "Willi Gluckstern has been a friend of mine for 25 years. When he came up with this cockamamie idea, I thought it was typical of Willi, 'cause he's out of his mind."

As much as the event might say about Willi Gluckstern, it says even more about Steven Jenkins. He is a man possessed. He is a man whose enthusiasm for cheese borders on rapture, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner.

"My metier," says he, "is cheese."

For Steven Jenkins, delivery day at Fairway is like a religious experience. Out on the sidewalk, in a nasty cold rain, in a mean wind, there he is - extolling the virtues of cheese.

"I grew up with Velveeta, Dr. Pepper, and Miracle Whip. I hadn't even tasted Hellman's Mayonnaise 'til I was in college," he recalls. This is a man who has, you might say, transcended the food of his childhood.

"There's a spiritual thing for me," he explains. "It's the closest link that I think we have to the supernatural of God or whatever you choose to call it, is the food that we produce."

His conversion has made Steven Jenkins a man with a higher calling, which he pursues in Fairway's "Famous Cheese Cave," a cross between a fortified bunker and an accident waiting to happen.

With an evangelistic zeal, he has made it his mission to teach Americans respect for foods produced by hand in small quantities on family farms. Jenkins was one of the judges at the American Cheese Society's convention in Louisville, Ky., where 378 cheeses competed for the highest honors.

Food scientists were paired with people from some aspect of the food business to consider how well each cheese was made as well as how good it tasted. Imagine tasting 378 cheeses in one day. It was done seriously, in near silence.

Steven Jenkins is recognized as a heavy-duty cheese expert, and he was the first American inducted into France's 800 year-old Guild of Master Cheese Mongers. That makes him a maitre fromager - a cheese master.

Among America's leading authorities on cheese, he must certainly be the most opinionated.

"If a cheese is boring, it's boring," says Jenkins. "But I was the only one who had the guts to say that."

He says it in his book, among other places. "Cheese Primer," now in its sixth printing, has a definite point of view, just like its author.

"I dismissed whole countries. I dismissed all of Scandinavia," he says.

And did he have every Scandinavian coming in to trash him and his cheese opinions?

"Yes, as a matter of fact I did. I did," Jenkins replies. "And the Germans. I said some really horrible things about the Germans and Austrians."

And that's not all.

Jenkins will tell you that "90 percent of the cheeses that are offered to people are…they're not worthy of them. They're not good enough. They've been made by factories, from pasteurized milk, which is dead milk, and they have no virtue… You're gonna run and jump in place and scream and shout when you taste something that's made by people from raw milk."

"Indifference" is not a word you would ever associate with Steven Jenkins where food is concerned. The New York Times called him "the enfant terrible of the fancy food business."

Back in Louisville, the 378 cheeses were narrowed down to five finalists and the judges, including Steven Jenkins, were picking the winner.

According to Jenkins, the five finalists "are as good as anything or better than anything that I've ever had in my 27 years of experience with European cheeses. In Europe, though, every five miles, there's somebody making great cheeses. In America, it's more like every 50 miles. So we're about 40 miles away from having the kind of proliferation and density of great cheese."

He adds, "All five of those finalists are my favorites. I'm real pleased. Good is good. You can't disguise it. The cream comes to the top."

And some turns to cheese.

"If we're lucky," he concludes.

One of the many opinions of Steven Jenkins, a guy who thinks calling something "cheesy" is the highest compliment in the world.
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