Picture, if you will, a cold storage unit in Long Island City. Outside it is a grubby wasteland of featureless warehouses and tiny pieces of broken glass, with only a few taped-up signs and a line of suspiciously young and well-dressed people to mark the door. Inside, a man in a cow costume is standing on a stage, calling himself “Mr. Moo” and periodically shouting things like “If you love raw milk, let me hear you say ‘Mooo!'” to a moderately responsive crowd. Around the two large rooms of the warehouse tables have been set up, some offering small samples of cheese while others serve dishes like raclette and fondue and a ploughman’s lunch with a whole roast pig. Drink tickets are handed out at the door, and then promptly ignored by the servers behind the two bars, who are distributing cans of craft beer and plastic cups of wine as fast as the lines can reach them. On the stage with Mr. Moo a small group of people who sell cheese for a living are preparing to demonstrate their skills. An Australian television personality stands by and tries to make sense of it all. This is the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational, and I really wish I had thought to take some photos.
We did not go to New York with the intention of having surreal cheese-based experiences. We were there to visit with friends, see the city, and maybe do a little shopping. But when the announcement of the event happened to cross my path two days before, I have to admit that I was powerless to resist. You know me.
The scene inside was initially unpromising. The warehouse was packed, the crowd approximately 78% hipsters and the lines for the cooked foods wrapped in overlapping spirals around the room. But the bar lines were mercifully shorter and, as a veteran of the California Artisan Cheese Festival I knew that, unlike wine tastings, cheese tastings did not lead to more, ever less restrained consumption, and the lines would be a lot shorter soon. So we got our drinks and our samples from the less-crowded sample tables, and picked out spots near the stage. Which is when we spotted Will Studd, the host of my favorite cheese-based travel show. This was very exciting.*
As for the event itself, it was a serious test of the competitors’ cheese skills. The people who made it onto the stage were the finalists, having already passed through a day’s worth of cheesemonger-relevant trials**. For the finals, they had to bring a handmade cheese sign, describe a favorite cheese and cut slices of precise weights from a large wedge of gruyere, among other things. It was a tightly fought competition, but I suspect the winner–Emily Acosta of Eataly–had it locked up from the moment she did her favorite cheese presentation in the form of a song set to the tune of “Let It Go.” Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a video of her performance available online (she has a lovely voice), but you can find the lyrics at the above link, should you feel like dominating your next karaoke appearance.
It was not a Broadway show, and even I will admit to having eaten at least slightly too much cheese. But it has long been one of my central principles of travelling to embrace the random, and on this one I have no regrets.
*At one point when he happened to be standing near us, I introduced myself and told him we enjoyed his show. But beyond that I didn’t have a lot to say, and the conversation sort of petered out. He seemed nice, if a little overwhelmed.
**The Labors of Herculcheese? No.