Alice Bergen Phillips - Cheesemonger
Name: Alice Bergen Phillips
Instagram Handle: @cheesemonsterdc
How did you get your start in cheese?
It was kind of a circuitous route: I originally moved to DC after college to pursue a career in international affairs. Because DC is such an expensive place to live, I ended up getting a side-job at a local coffee shop, where I got introduced to understanding and appreciating specialty foods on a professional level. I learned all about the importance of where food and beverages come from, how they're produced, how to detect and understand their flavor-profiles. Slowly but surely, I realized that I cared much more about this food job than I did about my day job, and after a few years in DC, I ended up moving to California where I decided to give a food career a real try. I got a job as a barista at a small specialty food shop in Laguna Beach that had a cheese counter, and after a few weeks of being there, a vacancy opened up in the cheese department. I had spent a lot of my childhood traveling around Europe, and even lived in France for a year during college, so I felt like I could give the world of cheese a try. It was a natural fit.
What’s something you’d like people to know about being a cheesemonger that they probably don’t?
First of all, most people don't really know what a cheesemonger is - A cheesemonger is someone who sells cheese and is very knowledgable about it. Think of it this way: A cheesemonger is to cheese the way that a sommelier is to wine.
Secondly, I find that many people are very surprised to find out just how much goes into being a cheesemonger. I think the best way to describe it is to talk about the Cheesemonger Invitational, which is the creme de la creme of cheesemonger competitions in the US. I've done it twice, and each time there have been a little more than a dozen challenges, each one measuring an aspect of cheesemongering - there's a written test which is all about history, culture, and the science of cheesemaking, there's a blind taste test, a blind aroma test, a salesmanship challenge, pairing challenges, plating challenges, cutting cheeses to weight, wrapping challenges... you name it, they test it. And that's what makes being a cheesemonger so much fun - there is always more information out there, always a different angle from which you can approach the job. It's hard to get bored and impossible to ever know everything.
Tell us about Cheesemonster.
Cheesemonster is a private, mobile cheesemongering company, which basically means that we cut out the middle man of a shop, and bring cheese to people directly. We do this in a few different ways: First, we are probably best known for our large-scale cheese displays. These cheese and accompaniment boards are really show-stopping pieces that marry art and food, and are perfect for parties of all kinds. Secondly, we conduct various cheese classes - everything from Cheese 101 to pairing classes to how-to-build-a-cheeseboard classes. And finally, we have a monthly Cheese Club, which is basically a monthly cheese party where we eat, drink, and geek out about one particular cheese.
Basically, though, the ultimate goal of Cheesemonster is to make cheese accessible to people. Cheese - especially high quality, artisan cheese - can skew quite snobby and be pretty intimidating. Cheese is actually a very humble food with a vast and storied history in many different cultures. With Cheesemonster, we aim to demystify cheese and create a connection between our customers and the cheesemakers that we showcase.
What are three cheese facts people can use as a conversation starter?
1. Cheese is alive! It actually breathes in oxygen, just like we do, and breathes out ammonia. Because of that, cheese shouldn't be wrapped up for too long, otherwise it will literally suffocate and die.
2. Cheddar isn't just the name of a cheese - it's a process in cheesemaking. Cheddar is called that because that cheese has been cheddared.
3. People who are lactose intolerant can STILL EAT CHEESE! Lactose is a sugar that gets converted into lactic acid during cheesemaking - any lactose left over is mostly drained off when the curds and whey are separated. The less moisture a cheese has, the more likely even lactose intolerant people are going to be able to stomach it, so start with something hard like a parmigiano reggiano. And be sure to stay away from processed cheeses - most lactose intolerant people think that they react badly to all cheese because they eat processed cheese which has been blended with lactose to make it meltier.
Drink of choice?
Either a very dry, bready champagne or a vodka martini with blue cheese stuffed olives
House on the beach or log cabin in the woods?
House on the beach, I think
3 songs you can't stop listening to ...
I've been listening to a lot of Future Islands radio, so:
1. Starman, David Bowie
2. Seasons, Future Islands
3. Eyes to the Wind, War on Drugs