Food

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

Stepping up to the counter at Saxelby Cheesemongers in Manhattan feels like hanging at a friend’s house. You’re greeted with a smile, fed your weight in samples and tempted by grilled sandwiches. Even the labels are friendly — a handwritten description of a chèvre reads, “This little baby is where it’s at.” So, for our month on industry experts, we chatted with Anne Saxelby about what it’s really like to be a cheesemonger (and the one cheese to eat right now)…

1. It’s okay to switch career paths.
I graduated from New York University with a fine arts degree, but I found myself rudderless. I got internships at different galleries and museums, but couldn’t see myself as a professional artist. I couldn’t imagine being able to convince people they should spend money on my paintings. Then, since I had spent years in retail, and I loved food, particularly cheese, I thought, let me see if I could get a job at Murray’s Cheese shop in the West Village. That’s how I would learn more about it. I’d go from there.

2. Nevertheless, she persisted.
But Murray’s Cheese didn’t give me the time of day! I understood I wasn’t the typical candidate for a cheesemonger position; their staff had culinary degrees and my only food experience was working at an ice cream shop when I was 14. But I just kept going back. And back. Finally, they relented and gave me a job at their counter. I really loved it. After that, I spent six months living and interning on a small dairy farm with 40 cows. I drew a connection between art and cheese — taking fresh milk and turning it into a cheese was a lot like starting with a blank canvas and ending up with a painting. But with cheese, at least for me, there was no fluff factor. People can taste it and decide if they like it — there’s no room to explain your way around it.

3. It’s good to be different.
Working on the farm made me realize how much great local cheese was all around me. Back then, other shops had robust international selections, but I wanted a tiny shop to celebrate all the great domestic makers. When I opened my shop in 2006, I figured I’d just try out the idea. I wanted to tell the stories of the people who ran the farms and why they did it. I also wanted to create a not-too-serious space to enjoy cheese.

4. You might be sitting on the perfect company logo.
In the beginning, I had a giant hiking backpack. I would pack it full of wholesale orders and deliver them on my bike. It was inefficient, but I got good at it. Later, when I was working with a designer on my logo, the first versions didn’t feel like a fit. They were nice — with a cow or a milk can — but not quite right. I happened to mention my cycling to the designer and he sent me the logo we use today.

5. There’s no such thing as too much cheese.
Once, a guy came on his birthday and ordered a quarter pound of every single cheese we had in stock. So, we individually cut, priced and wrapped every one. I have a feeling it set him up for a pretty good year.

6. The best cheese plates are simple.
The most important thing, of course, is to choose flavors you’ll enjoy. But after that, my general rule is to go with three to five types, starting with younger, milder ones and working your way up to stronger, more intense flavors. For example, get a fresh goat cheese, then a firm cheese, then a stinky blue, and then a wild card to round it out. And don’t overcomplicate pairings. If you have jam, honey and nuts, you can call it a day.

7. Springtime is goat time.
It’s goat cheese season right now! These days, a bite of fresh goat cheese tastes like spring. It’s refreshing and a teeny bit tart. It’s the equivalent to finding ripe rhubarb or asparagus at the famers’ market.

8. For a killer grilled cheese, butter is everything.
The key is good salted butter. The extra bit of salt adds a kick. For bread, we use a pullman loaf. The crust gets crispy, but the middle stays spongey and soft — the perfect combination.

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

What It’s Like to Be a Cheesemonger

Thank you so much, Anne!

P.S. Cheese makes you high, and how to create a cheese plate.

(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)

  1. I LOVE this post – so interesting to hear how people become expert at something. I am going to check this shop out next time I’m in New York for certain!

  2. belen says...

    im loving this section! so funnnn :D

  3. I had the most amazing cheese shop when I grew up in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania Macaroni Co “Penn Mac”) and I’ve been mourning it ever since I moved to Baltimore….there’s just nothing like it here.

  4. Great article at the perfect time. I’m actually going through this very transition right now. Switching careers and opening a cheese shop. For those wondering how to do this, I can tell you it’s terrifying and exhilarating– e v e r y d a y! Contracts, permits, lawyers, builders, accountants, distributors, and questions, so many questions. I am self financing this with home equity that we’ve acquired over some hard work and smart decisions–but there are a lot of other ways to finance, too. I grew up in a blue collar family in the Midwest that fostered kids and had limited means and put myself through college (UM). I’m not sure about white privledge, but I definitely have spouse privledge. I can’t imagine trying to do this without someone who supports your space to dream. I’m also working harder than I ever have but it feels less like work and more like discovery and empowerment. I’m looking for a strong cheesemonger to help me launch this endeavor if any of you are really serious. I’m also happy to share ANYTHING I can to help another female entrepreneur cause this S#!t’s hard! Look me up Jenn [at] curdsandco. And thanks for the inspiring comments–I needed them today.

  5. This made me laugh out loud. Thanks, I needed that!…

  6. Lauren says...

    Joanna–I am one of the cheesemongers that used to help your lovely family out (though it was just Toby back then). It was so fun when friends from Texas would tell me to check out your blog and I could tell them that *actually* I “knew” you in real life :)

  7. What a lovely story. I love that Anne used her love of cheese to find a career for herself and persisted and pursued until she got what she wanted. She’s obviously a hard worker! It’s wonderful that she’s selling domestic cheeses, too. I would love to try more of those. Thanks for this!

  8. Estee says...

    My husband proposed to me at Saxelby Cheese! (He hid the ring in a bag of cheddar.) So obviously, I love this especially.

  9. Natalie Clapp says...

    As a former cheesemonger (goat.sheep.cow. in Charleston is THE BEST) I have to say, having a friendly, comfy cheese shop in your neighborhood is very important.

    Love this story!

  10. Janine says...

    I can’t see how the featured person smacks even the teeniest bit of white privelege. How does skin colour influence tenacity and stubborness? I tried to get a job where i currently work for three years, simply because i wanted to work there. I think thats a great reason to apply to work somewhere regardless of your ethnicity. Great article cup of jo staff!

  11. sandra says...

    Fantastic interview.
    Stella, your approachable voice with a hint of dry humor, is so enjoyable to read. Keep up the great work :)

  12. GFY says...

    Love this but yeah, after reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s story detailing e x a c t l y how she discovered her restaurant space and financed out of thin air it makes me super interested in how other women do it too.

    I love the local idea, amazing that she was able to discover this gap in NYC!
    Good for her!

  13. Tara says...

    I love this post! I love cheese! I’ve fantasized about switching careers and becoming a cheesemonger, but that will likely never happen. I love her point about local cheese…looking forward to visiting some farmer’s markets this spring and summer and checking some out.

    • GFY says...

      Do it on the side as a hobby in your local area? Like start a local cheese newsletter detailing tasting meet-ups where you can take pre-pay orders maybe? Point is, make room for your love, share it, and gently monetize it!

  14. marianne says...

    LOVED THIS READ! Felt like spring had finally arrived! THANKS

  15. Catherine says...

    This is speaking to my heart! I’m dying to learn more about cheese and owning a shop of my own is a dream of mine. I am truly inspired by this story!

  16. Hooray for switching career paths! It’s a brave and admirable thing to do. So inspiring. I think a lot of people dream of changing careers.

  17. Milou says...

    She looks like Isabel Marant!

    • I thought the same thing!! :)

  18. Absolutely love this post! Thanks for introducing us to Anne! I can truly relate to #1 as I transitioned from corporate attorney to entrepreneur. No experience or education is wasted experience – it’s all relative somehow. I also love how she came up with the logo! Such a great idea & I love how it connects to her journey. xo

    http://hyggewellness.com/blog

  19. Eric A. says...

    A friend sent this link along to me! Really awesome interview :) I actually recently cut a very short documentary on Cheesemongers in VA :) I’ll post a link in case anyone is interested!

    https://youtu.be/PdI9LTvcCrM

  20. Tiffany says...

    I am not a fan of cheese, I can do parmesan but that is about it. But man, I rather enjoyed this article, good pick!

  21. Erin says...

    Interesting that she said there is no fluff factor with cheese, because people can taste it and decide if they like it. Can’t you look at art and decide if you like it? If ugly art can be explained away, why can’t bad cheese?

  22. Loribeth says...

    I am seriously obsessed with cheese. Like I read textbooks books on the biochemistry of cheese kind of obsessed. And I’ll also be visiting NYC soon so this is going on my list of “must visit” places! Thanks for sharing!

  23. Jade says...

    I think there is something so incredibly comforting about cheese- especially a grilled cheese. After having a really(!) rough week at work (that made me question who I am and what I do) this week this interview was a welcome day dream.

  24. absolutely loving this series. well-written and I love that they’re short – so quick and easy and delicious to consume :)

  25. Janey says...

    Adore this article! My best friend and I have a weekly tradition whereby we take it in turn to meet up at each other’s houses with all our kids on a Friday after school/work. The kids play and us girls enjoy a cheeseboard and a bottle of wine. We are lucky enough to live a 5 min walk from a beautiful cheesemonger and its just the best way to welcome the weekend!! X

  26. Lo says...

    She seems like the most down to heart, wholesome person! I love the look of this cheese store, it looks so cosy and friendly. There used to be a cheesemongers in my hometown, but unfortunately it didn’t last. It was right next to the wine store though, so I have no idea why?!

    Lo
    http://www.themixtures.com

  27. niranjan paul says...

    that was nice

  28. This is my dream job – maybe one day! I’ve gotten pretty good at making fresh white cheese at home. For anyone interested, the New England Cheese Company has a great website, books and starter kits!

  29. Beth says...

    Love the series, loved this warm profile, love cheese, and LOVE Anne’s gorgeous slightly grayish hair. So lovely!

  30. KayN says...

    Let me start by saying how much I adore this site, its representation of a diversity of women, and its creation of a unique space for women’s voices. I love it. When reading this, though, I could not help but dwell on the extent to which white privilege, and maybe class privilege too, influenced the feeling of “I have no qualifications or experience in this area? So what! May as well go for it!” I think Anne shows humor and some self-awareness in acknowledging that “lov[ing ]food, particularly cheese,” isn’t really a qualification, but I doubt many women of color (myself included) would have that luxury of simply assuming they can and should belong anywhere just because they want to. Just my two cents. I am hoping to spark thought and conversation, definitely not to just criticize and walk away!

    • This is a really good point. I was just watching a Peggy McIntosh lecture video and she emphasized that any privilege or benefit we have that we didn’t ask or work for can be attributed to white privilege. While I’m excited to hear Anne’s story, it would also be great to hear a person of color’s. Thanks for bringing this up, Kayn.

    • Molly says...

      Ditto all of that Kayn. I can hardly hear a success story anymore without dwelling on its privileged roots, although as a privileged white person myself, sometimes I wonder if my “dwelling” on it is really just jealousy – – that their privilege is just a better pedigree than mine. My family could never afford to help me start a small business, for example, but I did grow up in a 100% safe, secure happy family and was sent to college (with loans) and generally set up for adult life quite nicely. But I look at a story like this and feel a bit annoyed at the white and class privilege. Its painful to think about the many generations of minorities who’ve had to endure the “bootstraps” rhetoric. It also makes me feel gross that I’m just NOW GETTING IT (now that I feel it too). I don’t mean to pick on Anne; I love cheese and hope to visit her shop while in NYC this summer. Her story just brings this stuff up, for the reasons Kayn pointed out. Maybe in the future, answers to questions below re: finances/loans/inheritance/logistics (understandably hard to share) might help folks figure out whether something like this is achievable for them or a bootstraps impossibility.

  31. This is such an interesting perspective. I haven’t read anything like this piece- so out of the ordinary. However, articles like this are incredibly refreshing. We all need to be reminded of different, intriguing points of view. And also, now I am really craving some cheese :)
    Much love,
    Ashley from Dear Ash

  32. shannon says...

    Joanna…How goes the new years resolution about eating less cheese? 😂

    I am a bit embarrassed to admit I ha no idea the title “cheesemonger” was still being used! Such a cool peek into this career. I am really enjoying this series and would love to see it extend beyond just this month.

  33. I love this series! And to interview someone like this instead of some corporate CEO is so refreshing. I love the way you steer this website with the words and the images. Class Act!

  34. I am liking the series, and this was a great interview. I know people can be uncomfortable with discussing finances, but I’m always wondering about how these cool entrepreneurs bridged the money gap between dream & reality, esp when a brick-and-mortar retail space is involved. Not necessarily the actual numbers, but more the financial mechanics of starting up. Small business loan? Inheritance? Raiding a retirement fund? Borrowing from family? Savings accrued alone or with a partner? Etc. Just a thought!

    • Raman Deep says...

      yes it would be amazing if this could be covered too..I keep wondering as well..

    • K says...

      I’m with you on this! As someone who is contemplating starting their own business and looking at other women who have done so, I often wonder “how they made it work” from a financial perspective. General info would be appreciated!

    • Katie says...

      Yes! This. I’d love to know as well.

    • Sandra says...

      I was going to ask the exact thing…how do you finance a brick and mortar business? I’d love to see a step-by-step piece on this.

      Also, I loved this piece! It is so great to read about someone who really followed her passion.

    • Laura B. says...

      I’ve been listening to a podcast on NPR called How I Built This, you might enjoy it! It follows a different business each week and how they got to where they are today.

    • Nectar says...

      I second How I Built This!!

      Another great podcast to listen to is Side Hustle School. Everyday they post a 5-10 min episode of people doing things on the side and how the steps to achieve their goals. Very inspiring!

    • Tatiana says...

      I agree! I felt like this interview missed so much stuff I would’ve liked to know. Like, what is her day-to-day like? What are her biggest concerns as a cheesemonger and as a small business owner? What are her plans for her business, and how (as you all mentioned) did she finance her small business? When was she able to pay off loans/make a profit and feel successful with her shop? I feel like I met a lovely little NYC shop and owner, and it was a pleasant interview. But it could’ve been so much richer, in my opinion.

  35. What a great series. Such a cool way to explore what people do with their days. Thanks!

  36. I love how dedicated Anne was for getting that cheese counter job. How could they NOT hire a girl who wanted the job so much!! Love her dedication and passion :-)

    I’m personally a sucker for any cheese with black truffles in it!

    http://www.thislifeisbelle.com

  37. Emma says...

    I’m a cheesemonger in SF, and I can vouch for how rewarding working a cheese counter can be. My proudest moment: a women came in trying to find something she had recently bought, but literally the only descriptor she could recall for the cheese was that it was white. And, lo and behold, first taste I gave her to narrow things down was exactly what she was looking for.

    But seriously, watching someone who comes in as a blank slate, maybe a little nervous or overwhelmed by their options, try a piece of something truly unique and special and just light up, it never gets old.

  38. Em says...

    AHH! I’m a sometimes bored lawyer and have a secret dream of a second career as a cheese monger. Go, Anne!

  39. Amy says...

    This is pretty great, but I was anticipating seeing more of “what it’s like to be a cheesemonger” since that was the title – like what are some hard parts of owning a cheese shop? Do you come home smelling funny? What are the hours like? Do people have some very similar requests that surprised you?

    • Katie says...

      I wasn’t anticipating these, but now that I’ve read your questions, I want to know too, haha!

    • I thought so too! While of course your history and love of cheese is important to owning a cheese shop, I was imagining this would be more about what it’s like to do this job (vs why you wanted it). Still a fun post, just not what I expected from the title or series description.

    • Rebecca says...

      Yess, I’d love to know the answers to these questions too!

  40. Anita says...

    Love getting insight into different ways to make a living/the paths that got them there. I particularly love hearing about people who change careers. Am still trying to convince myself that ‘it’s ok to switch careers’ after dedicating so much of my working life to one industry.

  41. Rachel says...

    Seriously worried I may quit academia before this series is out.

  42. Sinds says...

    I used to work at a cheese shop in Santa Barbara (C’est Cheese) and it is, to this day, the best job I have ever had. I learned so much about food (just like what you like – snobiness is wholly unnecessary – but also TRY NEW THINGS, and more than once because some tastes are acquired!). I also met the most interesting people – not only did I serve celebs like Michael Keaton and Julia Louis Dreyfus, I also adored and would still go to bat for the people I worked with. A good cheese shop is EVERYTHING.

    • Isabella says...

      LOVE the shop name!!!

  43. This is so fun! I love the idea of keeping in local rather than international. I spent the summer in France, and duh I know that like the cheese capitol of the world, but I loved how proud they were of their cheese. Fromageries were literally around every block and most only carried local cheese. They knew they didn’t need to bring in cheese from all over Europe, local is best! Great profile, such a fun read!

    Xoxo http://www.touchofcurl.com

  44. bridget says...

    Dreamy! love the logo and her story! Thanks!

  45. I love this series. It’s inspired me to look around to the people in my small community and learn about what they do and why.

  46. Char says...

    I used to work as a chef at a restaurant attached to a cheese shop; it was heaven!! I miss those days!
    And so true, spring does mean goat cheese! Totally have a craving for some paillot de chèvre or a young crottin de chavignol!

  47. Cynthia says...

    The cheeses look so delicious, and I can taste that grilled cheese right now! It’s a good thing there’s no cheese shop near me or I’d be broke!

  48. I loved reading this. What persistence she had to get into a new career! It’s very inspiring. Also, as a fellow cyclist and cheese lover, I adore the logo. <3

  49. Just came here to say that I read this headline as “What it’s like to be a cheeseburger” and still was like ok sure, I’ll read this.

    • Stella Blackmon says...

      Laughing so much, Tina! Hahahahaha

    • Karen T. says...

      This made me laugh out loud. Thanks, I needed that! :)

    • Amy says...

      Loved this comment! I’m laughing out loud, my husband had to shush me since our lil one is napping

    • Courtney says...

      LOL. I would probably have done the same–if it’s on COJ, it’ll be worth the read!

    • Eo says...

      I love this. Would also totally read…new series idea? :)

    • Ali says...

      HAHAHAHAHAH literally laughing out loud at work. I totally agree, CoJ is so good I would also be like…. sure!

    • Sarah says...

      Hahaha!

    • Katie says...

      This comment wins. 😂

    • Martha says...

      That’s so funny! You have me laughing at my desk!

    • Talia says...

      Still laughing! You win for best comment!

    • MBH says...

      peeing.my.pants. THANK YOU for that

    • Ha ha, LOVE THIS

    • Emma says...

      bahahahaahha

  50. LOVE , love this series so much, and love Saxelby cheeses! Thank you for sharing! Cheese is so magical.

  51. jeannie says...

    This store sounds amazing! Makes me want to have a wine and cheese party. Fun post!

  52. Kaitlin says...

    Beautiful story and lovely branding…but I’m not going to lie – after years of Joanna talking up Murray’s, I was very (pleasantly?) surprised to see Saxelby on the click-through ;)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahaha i miss murray’s so much — we used to live a block away, and one of toby’s first words was “pahmick,” which meant the parmesan sticks the staffers used to sneak him for free;)

  53. Denise says...

    It’d be a dream to switch careers and own my own business. The idea is very inspiring. I’m curious about the financing behind the career change, though. From this article it seems like it was magic. She worked a retail counter, she worked on a dairy farm, and boom – indie cheese shop! That is magic for sure.

    • I’d love to hear more about how people do it too. I think it would help empower more women to take the plunge.

    • Just saw this after I posted my own comment to the same effect! Totally agree. I find myself wondering that about the many cool female entrepreneurs featured on CofJ.

    • Juen says...

      ooo…I love these kinds of stories. And your comment is my only request as well – it’s so helpful to hear from other women how, in literal steps, they went from counter girl to their own retail space in NYC! Rich uncle? That’s totally fair, but hearing about it helps others gauge what it takes even if it’s a different path for them. LOVE her story though, thank you!

  54. Audra says...

    This lady knows what’s up. Working around cheese all day? Dream job!

  55. Leah says...

    She has such a warm smile!

    • Teree says...

      She just said ‘cheese!’
      Haha, sorry I am a dork.

    • Leah says...

      I guess I’m a dork then too because that made me laugh :D