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.
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.)