Rory Stamp of Burling, VT’S Dedalus Wine Shop describes his preparation for the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational as “a lot of work,” but when speaking with him, his dedication to the craft and passion for cheese become quite evident, bordering on the heroic in this cut-throat competition.
As one of 31 participants, this was Stamp’s second attempt at a win; he came in fourth in June 2017’s New York competition. Prior to that, he was a spectator at three other CMI’s, so he had a good idea of what he would be up against.
Stamp says the most important part of his training was at Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farms, where he spent a day cutting and wrapping cheese in preparation for CMI. “They let me in there, and I would take down whole cheese wheels that they sampled and tested, break them down and weigh each with a scale,” he says. “I cut down wheel after wheel of cheese, each with a different density and size.”
His preparation also included obsessively watching PBS’ The Great British Baking Show, which inspired him to create what turned out to be quite complicated macarons for the Perfect Bite portion of the competition. These consisted of pink peppercorn macarons dusted with edible gold and filled with Meyer lemon curd and a buttercream made with Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt Tam. “In San Francisco, I quickly discovered humidity was a significant factor, when my macaron shelves didn’t set,” he says. “I made a terrible mess of the kitchen and probably made 600 to 800 macaron shelves to produce 120 perfect bites. I was obsessive in my prep in that respect.”
In the foodservice rounds, he received help from his girlfriend, also a cheesemaker, in creating signs out of construction paper and breadsticks for the Perfect Bite, Perfect Beverage and Perfect Plate rounds. Fortunately, Stamp’s beverage pairing with Vermont Creamery’s Cremont with a Yuzu Vesper and a mix of Hendrick’s Gin, Lillet Blanc and a preserved yuzu simple syrup, complete with a candied preserved yuzu served with a rose “bubbleback” as well as his perfect cheese plate that celebrated the best France’s Nice region had to offer, went off without a hitch.
Still, he admits that after all the preparation, he was a bit delirious, to say the least. “I can say the same for my colleagues,” says Stamp. “People obsess about this competition, which is great for the industry.”
Surprisingly, even after all of his preparation and attention to detail, Stamp did not think he had a shot at first place. In fact, after receiving his scores from round one, he felt he was doing “terrible” as one of the six finalists. “I didn’t even think I’d make it to the finals, and then I was in second place at that point; the caliber of competition was incredible, with many former finalists among us six,” he says. “Never for an instant did I think I would win. In fact, even hearing my name, I was still in disbelief, although that’s not to say I didn’t desperately want it.”
For those not familiar with cheese industry icon Adam Moskowitz’s CMI, held twice a year around the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food conventions in San Francisco in January and New York City in July, watching America’s best cheesemongers battle it out for the Champion Cheesemonger title is a sight to behold.
CMI was established eight years ago by Moskowitz, a well-known cheese importer with Larkin Cold Storage and Columbia Cheese and the subject of Cheese Connoisseur’s Winter 2016 cover story. This was its fifth year in San Francisco. Prior to what can only be described as one of the most electric and enthusiastic award parties ever, contestants participate in a weekend-long educational workshop focused on cheese. This includes the Cheese Decathlon, where competitors are challenged with a written test; taste and aroma tests; cutting and wrapping; salesmanship evaluation; and creating the perfect beverage pairing, plate and bite. There are a total of 10 rounds, with all but the finals closed to the public.
It’s thanks to Moskowitz and CMI that dedicated cheesemongers like Stamp get the recognition they deserve. This acknowledgement is not typical for those working in the cheese industry trenches, the majority for minimum wage. “CMI is a testament to how passionate and creative cheesemongering is,” says Moskowitz. “In Europe, this is a career with an older and more traditional demographic.”
He describes American cheesemongers as young, bold, fearless and creative; people who dare to break through ceilings in a way he has never seen before. “Our cheesemongers are doing things I haven’t even seen in five-star restaurants,” says Moskowitz.
For those among the 700-plus attendees at the CMI winner’s unveiling in San Francisco, the electricity in the room was palpable and the excitement was ever-building throughout the night, as the six finalists, and finally the winner, were enthusiastically announced.
Serving as MC, Moskowitz was masterful in stirring up the standing room only crowd’s excitement and anticipation. The cheers from attendees, who were satiated from the competitors’ perfect bites, bountiful cheese samples throughout the venue and meal of salad and mac and cheese, not to mention ever-flowing cocktails, was deafening.
“Our goal every time we do CMI is to do it better,” says Moskowitz. “This is why it has evolved from a three-hour event to a day-long competition to what it is today.” This includes a day of education, where cheesemongers meet cheesemakers in 30-minute, intimate round table discussions to the second day of the Cheese Decathlon to the inspiring and exciting party and winner announcement.
The way Moskowitz describes the experience, it is almost spiritual. “I’ve been loud and emotional, and I admit I have cried due to the beautiful, thoughtful creations during these competitions,” he says. “When Julia Gross from Cheesemongers of Santa Fe paired broth in a tea cup with an alpine-style cheese during the Perfect Beverage round, I was blown away.”
2018 SAN FRANCISCO CMI FINALISTS:
Winner: Rory Stamp, Dedalus Wine, Burlington, VT
2nd Place: Eric Schack,
Eataly, New York City
3rd Place: Alex Armstrong,
Mission Cheese, San Francisco
4th Place: Josh Santamaria, Foragers Market, New York City
5th Place: Monica Kusaka, Herrero
Fisher’s Cheese + Wine, Larkspur, CA
6th Place: Cesar Olivares, Staff of Life, Santa Cruz, CA
The Winner’s Journey
Although Stamp’s path to becoming Champion Cheesemonger was not long, it was one of complete dedication. He grew up in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, home to some of the country’s most celebrated cheesemakers. After attending a liberal arts college, he began to miss Vermont and his artisan cheese experiences. “I became more interested in dairy, so after school I apprenticed at a dairy farm on Martha’s Vineyard,” says Stamp. After spending time there as a farm hand milking cows, bottling milk and moving animals out to pasture, he had the opportunity to study at the University of Vermont’s Institute for Artisan Cheese, an extension school for aspiring cheesemakers that no longer exists.
But it has really been only in the last six years that Stamp has dipped his toes in every aspect of the cheese industry. He first worked as a cheesemaker and affinage at Vermont’s Consider Bardwell Farm, then moved to Boston in the winter of 2014 to work at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. “I worked there for almost two years, first as a cheesemonger and then as a wine buyer,” he says. “Wine has been a great interest of mine ever since I studied abroad in France.”
Stamp also taught at Formaggio Kitchen’s Brave the Cave, bringing customers through guided tastings in the cave, examining molds and microbes, and presiding over extensive tastings. “I always approached cheese from a scientific perspective,” he says. “My role and motive as a cheesemonger is to close the knowledge gap between producer and consumer and provide customers with valuable information.”
Yet, Vermont was still calling Stamp, specifically Shelburne Farms, in late spring 2016. “I really wanted to move back to Vermont, get closer to production and work for a cheesemaker again,” he says. “So I took over as sales and catalog manager at Shelburne Farms and also traveled as a company representative, visiting some of the best cheese shops in the country.”
A year-and-a-half later, Stamp landed at Dedalus, Burlington’s first cut-to-order cheese shop and specialty market, where he’s been for the last year. “I basically left my dream job for another dream job, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” he says. “We deal directly with domestic cheese producers, so I’m able to talk to our customers about specific batches and seasonality and also bring in cheeses that are one-offs or those that otherwise don’t have an outlet.” This obviously served him well in this year’s CMI competition.
Moskowitz says one of the goals he had in creating CMI was to raise the status of cheesemongers, who he thinks don’t get enough credit. “Cheesemongers are the cheese caretakers whose job it is to protect and convey the flavor,” he says. “CMI has really raised their profile and dared them to be great.”
Evidence of CMI’s status as one of the top competitions in the cheese industry is its increasing attendance; the event has outgrown both the rented warehouse in San Francisco and Moskowitz’s company’s facility, Larkin Cold Storage, in New York. Along with moving the competition to larger facilities, he has other changes in store, which may possibly include another day of training for cheesemongers during the competition. Also on the drawing board is a CMI Masters competition that will include past winners. “This would be more of a single night and celebration focused on the foodservice rounds,” says Moskowitz. “It’s about going back to our roots.”
But Moskowitz says his ultimate goal is to have an American cheesemonger take top honors in an international competition in Europe. “We had an American, Nadjeeb Chouaf from Flora Artisinal Cheese in Charlottesville, VA, take third for the first time at France’s Mondial du Fromage, which was exciting,” he says, adding that, in his view, CMI is the most difficult of all the competitions.
Stamp would tend to agree, and echoes Moskowitz’s view that CMI is all about raising the bar and standards for cheesemongers. “As a cheesemonger, I know I need to deliver a better product and work more closely with cheese providers, while concentrating on education and inspiring people in the same way I have been inspired,” says Stamp.
As for his advice to cheesemongers seeking the Champion Cheesemonger title, Stamp says it pays to do your homework, know your facts and cheesemakers, and concentrate on telling the cheesemakers’ and dairy farmers’ stories. As for his favorite cheese, Stamp says it changes on a daily basis. “But for the competition, I picked Dutch Knuckle, a cheese from a very small dairy called Sugar House Creamery in the Adirondacks,” he says.
As winner of CMI, not only will Stamp hold the title of America’s best cheesemonger, but he also will have the honor of interning at the prominent London cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy. It looks like all his hard work has finally paid off in a big way.