Jessica Sennett: Cheesemonger and Maker, Cheese Grotto Inventor, and Cheese Industry Entrepreneur


Sennett talks about her path from cheese newcomer to expert.

Jessica Sennett wasn’t born into a “cheese family” nor has a history of dairy running through her veins, aside from a distant link to Eastern European ancestors. What she did have was a coming-of-age in her native San Francisco, CA, where she was surrounded by the city’s burgeoning artisan food scene.

Sennett’s high school was centrally located within walking distance of Tartine Bakery, known for its flaky French-style croissants and Croque Monsieur with Gruyere, and Zuni Café, where the signature wood-fired brick oven roast chicken for two combines with cheeses like Laychee Goat Cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano liberally used throughout the menu.

Also, the first Blue Bottle location was two blocks away, down an alley in a garage in Hayes Valley, where the line stretched down the block. Coffee is the star, but cracker and cheese plates piled with Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper, Beemster Aged Gouda, and Vella Daisy Cheddar, to name a few, play an oft-ordered supporting role. It was an incredible food scene in which Sennett bloomed.


At home, the family dinner table was set with plenty of just-picked produce and other fresh foods. Sennett’s parents didn’t allow her to eat processed foods, and she rarely enjoyed a Kraft single. Then, at 14, while in Paris, she first experienced eating a wheel of bloomy rind cheese, Camembert.

“A friend and I were confused by the rind. We thought it was paper, and thus systematically tried to peel off the layers, until we realized it was attached to, and a part of the cheese. So, we ate the ‘paper’ with trepidation and lived to tell the tale,” says Sennett who has since worked as a cheesemonger and a cheesemaker, and now is a New York-based award-winning cheese entrepreneur.

Cheese Connoisseur talked with Sennett about her path from cheese newcomer to expert, award-winning inventor and entrepreneur.

CC: You’ve mentioned that by 19, you had dropped out of UCLA and were wondering where your life was headed. In the meantime, you worked as a cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, having been connected to the job through a high school friend. Could you tell us the story of your first cheese epiphany? How did this lead to making cheese your life’s profession?

J.S.: Working at Cowgirl Creamery was more of an enlightening experience than I had anticipated, as I had little knowledge of cheese before starting the job. I easily fell in love with the sustainability mission of all the food vendors at the Ferry Building and was eager to expand my palate and knowledge of all cheese categories. There was something unique about cheese that captured my attention, and that was its ability to be both esoteric and evocative while also being incredibly real, tangible and tactile.

It was a medium more approachable and relatable than wine due to its stunning variety of textures and aromas. The best way to develop a palate is to taste ceaselessly, and what better way to do that than to work as a cheesemonger?

When I first started at Cowgirl Creamery, I wasn’t a fan of blue cheese. I had only eaten blue cheese in salad dressings, and the piquant, earthy, minerality was too much for my palate to bear. Since we all participated in the cheese counter tasting rituals when we cut open a new wheel, I faithfully continued to taste each blue.

At first, I felt showered with blue cheese’s boldness, and couldn’t differentiate much else. Over time, and with one blue cheese in particular, a new depth of flavor presented itself. We tasted Bleu des Causses — a cow’s milk blue cheese from Aveyron aged in limestone caves in the Gorges du Tarn — through the months and the batches.


One month, the minerality was stronger, and we could taste flint and stone. The next month, it was more “barnyardy,” with notes of hay and earth. The following month, the wheel evolved into something even more dynamic. I turned to my fellow cheesemonger and friend Kara Chadbourne, and we simultaneously saw (some would say hallucinated) the same scene: Flashed before our eyes was a summer meadow, a cool stream, an apple orchard, and a horse walking by.

Kara and I were so excited by our connection over this cheese that we jumped up and down, hugging. This was the moment I finally understood how truly complex, dynamic, and imaginative blue cheese could be.

CC: Tell us about your apprenticeship in France. How did this experience develop your knowledge of cheese and continued interest in becoming a cheese professional?

J.S.: After working at Cowgirl Creamery for nine months, I wanted to get better acquainted with the cheesemaking side. I was becoming interested in the science behind the cheeses I’d tasted and wanted to experience the agricultural notion of terroir at the source. Cowgirl Creamery connected me with a previous employee who apprenticed at La Chevrerie des Embetsches, an organic breeder of Alpine goats and sheep in Alsace, France. The cheesemaker and I reached out to see if they needed help that summer.

They welcomed me onto their working land and into their home. There, I learned about rotational grazing practices and the leasing of agricultural land in the region for this purpose to maintain biodiversity and soil integrity, all while enriching the quality of milk and meat with various wild grasses, herbs and flowers. I walked with their Alpine goat herd from one wild pasture to another, sometimes I guided them, and other times they guided me. In the cheesemaking room, I was exposed to a whole other relationship to dairy, one where cleanliness was king, but sterility was not.

Their goat milk cheeses were raw milk, so their herd’s daily milking went straight from the milking parlor into the cheesemaking vat. Their cheese styles ranged from fresh, to soft-ripened styles like Bûche and Crottin, to natural-rind Tomme, and an experimental blue we made while I was there. The cheesemaking room was small, but it was alive; one wall was completely covered in mold. I attempted to wipe the wall of its molds on cleaning day, and the cheesemaker stopped me in a panic. “Non! These molds are the terroir of the cheesemaking room,” he explained.

These naturally occurring molds regulated their cheesemaking results, guaranteeing quality and consistency. These were the types of techniques that I learned from a few different makers during my time in France that certainly changed my perception of the cheesemaking process and its origins.

CC: Take us through your professional life as a cheesemonger, from Cowgirl Creamery to Monteillet Fromagerie, Formaggio Kitchen and the Bedford Cheese Shop.

J.S.: I vacillated for a long time between the urban experience of cheese as a cheesemonger and the rural experience of cheese as a cheesemaker. I wanted to participate in both, and be in both places at once, which is physically hard to do.

The Monteillet Fromagerie, near Walla Walla, WA, is where I made cheese and learned about the birthing season for dairy goats and sheep. In 2012, I moved to Cambridge, MA, to work at the original Formaggio Kitchen location. Part of what put Formaggio Kitchen on the map was their underground cheese cellars, where Ihsan Gurdal would give tours of cool, humid cellar rooms housing full wheels of Comté, Beaufort, Fontina, Parmigiano-Reggiano and more.


I helped Formaggio renovate their caves, which served for me as a connection to the rural landscape, with fresh wooden boards, a new humidity-control system, and a weekly maintenance schedule brushing and flipping these full, delicious wheels awaiting their chance to be displayed on the counter. We also built out the interior of a small fridge for ripening fresh goat cheeses from France that were previously inoculated with ripening cultures but shipped fresh to us. Two years later, I moved to Brooklyn, NY, to help open the Gramercy Park location of Bedford Cheese Shop and run its education program.

CC: Speaking of education, it was around this time that you went back to school and finished your undergraduate degree at The New School in New York City. I understand you were accepted into the school’s pilot program for continuing education students called Cohort 21. Tell us how this led to a new path in your cheese career.

J.S.: In Cohort 21, I could customize the design of my undergraduate degree to fit my professional interests. With the help of business mentors like Richard Gray and Patricia Duffy, I was able to conceive of the idea of Cheese Grotto, akin to a wine cellar for cheese, both as a product concept and as a viable, launchable business. I launched Cheese Grotto a few months before I graduated through a feature in 2016 in The New York Times. This gave me the required cash flow to start selling the concept I had drawn, prototyped, patented and manufactured.

CC: You were selected in 2018 for the Dairy Innovation Accelerator Program by Agropur, the largest dairy cooperative in Canada, and in 2019 you were awarded Best Equipment Innovation by the World Dairy Innovation Awards for Cheese Grotto. Tell us the innovation story of the Cheese Grotto.

J.S.: I wanted to take my cheesemonger and cheesemaker experiences and capture them in a product that bridges the divide between the urban and rural experience of cheese. The Cheese Grotto started as an evening drawing in my apartment, nothing more. Then, I started seriously exploring what it would take to manufacture it.

As my previous experience was in dairy, not wood manufacturing, it was a steep learning curve from concept to prototype to an affordable working product.

To begin, when testing the storage function of the Grotto, the frame, shelving, and humidifying clay brick had to be considered. The frame had to help maintain humidity while allowing evenly circulated airflow and a gentle fresh air supply.

The shelving had to not impart flavor onto the cheese while being able to withstand high levels of humidity without warping. The brick needed to be porous enough to absorb and retain water while slowly releasing it into the atmosphere to keep the surface of the cheese fresh. If one of these elements was off, I needed to tweak it and start again. This took a couple of years to get right.

Once I had a working prototype, I contacted cheese professionals I respected such as Max McCalman, and asked them to run tests to assess functionality. I had to develop the testing protocol for monitoring the cheese, as nothing like this had previously been built. We sourced Robiola from Formaggio Kitchen and tested wheels from the same batch number to see how well they stored in plastic wrap, Tupperware, cheese paper and the Cheese Grotto.

We ran these tests in the refrigerator, where the Grotto can be stored for the most prolonged shelf-life of the cheeses within, and I was incredibly pleased as McCalman’s results showed the Grotto kept the cheese fresher four times longer than plastic wrap, and three times longer than cheese paper and Tupperware.


The main reason for this is that the cheese inside the Grotto doesn’t need to be wrapped, as the humid, breathable microclimate the Grotto provides is enough. When a cheese is wrapped, it can trap moisture, thus quickening the proteolytic breakdown process.

Testing took to a whole new level in 2018 when I joined Agropur’s accelerator program in Quebec. The cooperative’s internal dairy lab assessed our Cheese Grotto Classico against its cheese paper in their Camembert style. We shocked the skeptical dairy lab scientists who found that their cheese lasted longer in the Grotto than in cheese paper.

It was then time to find a manufacturing partner. I started production with EcoSupply, the same company that sourced our bamboo. They offered to do a small production run of the Classico, the biggest and most detailed Grotto we could design, for us. This run coincided with our New York Times feature and preorder launch. Eventually, I started to build out the line to accommodate different-sized kitchens and lifestyles. By 2019, we had four different models in our line. The largest is the Classico which can hold up to 8 pounds of cheese, and the smallest is the collapsible Grotto Piatto, which can store up to 1 pound of cheese.

CC: Your entrepreneurial achievements have continued to expand over the past five years. You now have a second business, a Cheese Subscription Service, where you partner with American artisan cheesemakers such as Jasper Hill Farm, Meadow Creek Dairy and Tulip Tree Creamery, to name a few, to dropship cheeses straight from farm to customers.

Plus, you’ve sweetened up the world of candy-making with your Call Me Caramel-brand caramels, which are fashioned and flavored with Gruyere AOP, Prairie Breeze Cheddar and Carr Valley Smoked Gouda. How would you describe your inspiration? What is next on the horizon in the cheese world for you?

J.S.: Education has always been at the core of what drives me. From constantly being asked the best way to store cheese when I worked in cheese shops, to helping customers understand their food more and continuing to teach myself about this complex food, it is incredibly important to maintain a green mind and a curiosity for learning.

No one is claiming that working in the cheese industry is the easiest career path, so the relationships and the community you forge along the way, from customer engagement to supportive industry professionals, is the only way forward.

From a product standpoint, we will continue to grow our subscription program and storage line, to invite more folks into this burgeoning world of American artisan cheese, so they can join us on this learning journey. For the Cheese Grotto brand, my mission is to make a long-lasting impact on the minds of as many folks as I can on the pure joy that comes from the complex and wonderful food that’s cheese.

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