Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
What does it take to become a cheesemonger? Culinary school and years at a dairy farm might be optional, as Cassia Schifter of Murray's Cheese will tell you, but you do have to have a profound love for cheese. "I've loved cheese since before I can remember. Growing up my family would always make fun of me because I'd always say, 'I'm going to make myself a snack,' and I'd just go in the kitchen and cut off a huge chunk of cheese and eat it. No bread, no crackers," she says.
Like many of the people we interview for this column, Cassia was in the middle of another career—in fashion—when she decided to drop everything to pursue her passion for cheese. The challenge: figuring out how to do it without having to leave the city and her beloved nieces. Enter Murray's internship program in its "caves" (the basement of their flagship store on Bleecker Street). After the internship, where she got up close and personal with hundreds of cheeses, Cassia was hired at the Grand Central location of Murray's, where she now makes cheese-loving commuters' dreams come true.
We chatted behind the busy counter (and may or may not have tasted some awesomely stinky cheeses), just a few days after her one year anniversary with Murray's. She shared some cheese secrets with us, including what type of cheese goes best with a Thin Mint.
How did you end up in the cheese world? Out of college I did the whole "I have to make a ton of money" thing, so I worked in PR and fashion at the J. Crew corporate office for over 2 years. It was great but there was something missing, and I didn't know if I was going to have a career there and be happy. So I left. I was unemployed for a while and my mom sat me down and asked me, "What do you love?" Without a second thought I said: cheese and my nieces. And since my nieces have a great nanny that I couldn't compete with, I went with cheese.
Before I had a chance to even look into it, my awesome fiancé Doug had already gone online and looked up all the different ways I could get into a career in cheese. I always thought that if I wanted to do something with cheese I would need my own farm, or go to culinary school. I never thought I could work with just cheese and not be a farmer or part of the restaurant business. Doug had printed out a bunch of things, and my options were going to Ireland to do a graduate program, going to Wisconsin, or getting this internship at Murray's Cheese to work in the caves. I applied for the Murray's internship and didn't hear back from them, and had to apply again; the second time I got it. I worked in the caves with Brian Ralph and learned so much.
What are the caves, and what did you do down there? It's the entire basement of the flagship Bleecker Street location. It's essentially a giant refrigerator with a couple of different rooms. What makes it really interesting and unique is that at least three of the caves are made of all natural materials, like wooden shelves. We have a curved roof to help with the humidity. We get cheese in from around the world, unpack them, put them on the shelves, and maintain them. We wash some with warm water twice a week, and flip them over just to make sure the moisture stays even.
My least favorite cave was our bloomy rind cave, because we had all the bloomy rind cheeses there—goat cheeses and bries—you have to pat them. It's also the coldest cave. To pat each cheese and flip it over takes maybe five hours. They're the most temperamental, so you have to take a lot of care. I'd come out with my fingers frozen and stiff. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. The amount of knowledge I've gained in the past year is just crazy.
What happened after the internship? Once I was finishing my internship there, Brian set up me meeting with the managers of each of the stores and I got hired at Grand Central. And I've been here since July. In the caves, I was always in the zone listening to my headphones, not having to interact with anyone at all. So coming here was totally different. From the first second you clock in, there's a customer waiting to be helped. It's all interaction with people, which is great because you're learning a completely different side of the business. You're learning what's popular and what the people want. There are a ton of customers who come in that know exactly what they like and don't like, and are super educated.
What's working the cheese counter like in such a busy place like Grand Central? I always say it's like a game show. At least once a day you have to convert grams into pounds because there's so many European tourists. And then at least once a day you have to ask yourself, "How fast can I slice half a pound of super-thin prosciutto?" because someone's late for a train, and needs it within two minutes. And then there's always customers that make you play name-that-cheese. People will say, "I had this cheese here that's so good and I'm so in love with it, but I don't remember anything about it." Then you have to ask, "Was it soft or firm?", "Was it cow's milk?" But it's kind of fun because it makes each day a challenge.
Where did your passion for cheese come from? I was a somewhat disgusting eater as a kid: I could eat an entire Cracker Barrel log of cheese at once. I really don't know how I became so into it. One of my sisters owns a bakery, Tribeca Treats, and I knew the food industry was tough from watching her go to culinary school and grow her business. But it also made me feel a lot better about quitting my fashion job and pursuing this.
What's the strangest request you've ever received? A guy came in, and he was throwing a women in media event, so he specifically wanted all cheeses made by women. I knew the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company is run by women, and I knew a few others, but I really didn't know much because it's a somewhat male-dominated world. The weirdest time was when during had SantaCon, and for some reason this was one of the stops, so I probably had to help two dozen drunk Santas that day.
What are your favorite cheeses? My favorite class of cheese is probably sheep's milk, and my favorite cheese is the Ossau-Iraty, which is a French sheep's milk cheese. It's very artisanal so every wheel tastes different. I try it every day; sometimes in the winter months it's not as flavorful. Cheese is seasonal, so it's affected by what the animals eat. It makes you able to tell the difference between pasteurized and non-pasteurized cheese. Pasteurized milk is more consistent tasting, but non-pasteurized cheeses are definitely more flavorful. I like cheddars and industrial cheeses that always taste the same, but it's exciting to taste a cheese that's changing all the time.
What are some of the main differences between cheeses from different animals? The most distinct differences between cow's, goat's and sheep's milk cheeses is color. Cow's milk will be yellow, sheep's milk will be more ivory, and goat's milk is often just white. Goat's milk cheeses will be tangy, sheep's milk will have a bite at the end sometimes that sort of tickles your tongue. Sheep's milk cheeses sweat when you leave them out because of the fat in them.
What should you look for in a good quality cheese? If a cheese shop allows you to taste it, definitely taste it. No matter how many times you've had a cheese, or how much you love it, cheese changes. There's a lot of cheeses that taste better at different times. The only way to really know is to taste it each time. That would be my biggest advice. It actually makes me sad when people go home with a cheese they might not be in love with. I would also say be open minded. When someone comes in and wants Manchego, I would say, Manchego is great, have you ever tried Roncal, which is essentially the raw milk version of Manchego. And then they'll say, "Wow this is really good, I can't believe I've never had this before." It gets to you branch out a little. All Murray's really wants to do is educate people and help them learn about great cheeses that are less popular only because they're not as well-known.
Has cheese become an even bigger part of your home life? I love cooking. but I don't have much time to do it after getting home from work at 10 PM. I would definitely say I find excuses to make things with cheese though. I'll take cheese home and use it during the week, whether I'm scrambling eggs or figuring out what cheese to put on a Girl Scout cookie at 3 AM because I'm hungry.
And which cheese would that be? La Tur, a creamy, Italian mixed-milk cheese that goes well on anything. People call it the ice cream of cheeses. I've had it on a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie and on a spoon with granola on top. So that's definitely an any-time-of-day cheese that'll go with whatever you have in the fridge.