"These cheesemakers are all craftsmen, but they're also funny, complex, complicated people."
Liz Thorpe has dedicated the past seven years of her life learning more about cheese than most of us could ever hope to know in our entire lifetimes. Thankfully, she has decided to share her knowlege with us, in The Cheese Chronicles. In her new book, Liz sheds some light on American cheeses and cheesemakers, how they came to be where they are today, and why she doesn't really like Swiss cheese (you'll have to buy the book to find that one out). Liz took some time to tell Serious Eaters about the cheeses she always has in her fridge and her secret to a kick-ass eggplant parm.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about American cheeses during your travel? Lots of American cheesemakers aren't familiar with the European pantheon. Imagine trying to create something from your imagination with no frame of reference. That's intense. The result is either going to be miraculous or really bad. I've had both.
What motivated you to devote your career to cheese? The answer is really this simple:
- 1. I was miserable working a corporate job
- 2. I discovered cheese as an infinitely varied thing at Staubitz Market on Court Street
- 3. I thought it was really cool and wanted to learn more about it
- 4. I couldn't remember everything just by reading so I got a job on a cheese counter. That was Murray's, circa 2002.
How does your book, The Cheese Chronicles, differ from other books about cheese that are out there? It's not a reference book or a table book. I'm always shocked at dinner parties when people ask what I do, and then hit me with two dozen questions. I always think, "Huh. They really want to know about this."
Cheese in America is growing and shifting so quickly, and I found myself in the blessed position of being able to tell people, through my own experiences and conversations, where cheese has come from and where it's going. Plus I write the way I talk--so hopefully it's approachable and funny.
Why is it so important to know the stories behind American cheesemakers? I hate virtue food worship--where everyone stands around and does the "Bless the farmer dance but no one talks about whether the food tastes any good." That's why an entire chapter is about factory-made cheeses. Because what's in my fridge (and probably yours) are the basics like Pepper Jack and block cheddar.
What's important to know is that food growing and making takes skill, and craft. Real food, I mean. These cheesemakers are all craftsmen, but they're also funny, complex, complicated people, dealing with a whole litany of challenges, constraints and opportunities. Even food lovers forget that we're dealing with a mercurial, inconsistent, and seasonal thing. The more you understand where it comes from, the easier it is to get your head around.
What's your favorite cheesy dish in the city? Here we go. I don't really go out very much, and when I do it's within walking distance of my house. I guess my favorite cheesy dish would be Grimaldi's pizza, or Lucali if I can get in.
What about your favorite cheesy dish that you like to cook? I make a wicked good Eggplant Parmigiano. It has to be on a weekend cause I can only fry, like, twelve pieces of eggplant at a time. Coated in egg, flour and Parm and layered with buffalo mozzarella and homemade tomato sauce, topped with ricotta. It's rad.
Is there a particular cheese that's always (or at least usually) in your fridge? Cheap block white cheddar. Always. I eat it mindlessly when I'm cooking.
When putting together a cheese menu for a restaurant, what guidelines do you follow, if any? When I ran Wholesale, my guideline was, "How can I make this chef happy without making my life miserable?" Because inevitably they would want the rarest, most obscure thing and then would get pissed at me when it was held in customs or ran out early. It took a few years to figure that out.
Really, though, practicality is the biggest thing. You say you want a cheese cart, but waste can be high, and it needs to be hand sold. Sometimes simpler is easier and delivers better cheese to guests. I always want to write people's menus. Reliance on wait staff to remember cheeses, especially when the selection rotates, can kill a cheese program. Pairings are also good. If the message is, this drinks well with cheese, guests will order it.
What are some of your favorite cheeses that you discovered in your travels? Cheese always tastes better at the source. It's like some wonderful discovery. I fell hard for Sarabande from Dancing Cow Farm, little squat pyramids so plump and fat their orange brine-washed sides bulged out dangerously. I kept touching them. I'd never had cheese from Goat Lady down in North Carolina. One of my top ten best lunches ever. Willi Lehner at Bleu Mont Dairy in Wisconsin. He had an idea to capture terroir by filtering dirt from his backyard and washing his cheese with the microbe-laden water. Earth Schmear. A-maz-ing.
Describe your dream New York meal (restaurant, dishes, company?). I tend to avoid fancy meals because I get inexplicably nervous. I don't know why. My palms get sweaty and I get butterflies in my stomach. I still haven't eaten at Le Bernardin. So my dream New York meal is a protracted wandering through the city with my close friends. Early morning (okay, 10:00 AM) I would have breakfast at home. Greenmarket run for coddled eggs from Fishkill Farm, Flying Pigs bacon, sliced tomatoes with a scoop of burrata, Veuve with a splash of fresh squeezed OJ and an espresso with my best friend Clelia (who presently lives in London).
Bike ride to beers at noon: Franklin Park with Chavella's dirty good corn on the cob, and a card game. More biking to salty caramel pretzel ice cream and shit-shooting at General Greene. Making the big move with David into Manhattan for Esca's maccheroni alla chitarra with sea urchin, but I think that's only on the lunch menu. And then the bar at Blue Hill for whatever they're cooking. Because no restuarant has ever made me feel as taken care of as they do every time I eat there.
Favorite burger? I don't often order burgers out. A few weeks ago George Faison at Debragga and Spitler gave me a bag of ground Wagyu to take home. It was more fat that muscle. Piping hot cast iron, 90-second-per-side sear with caramelized onions and no bun. Best thing I've eaten in months.
Favorite bagel? Russ and Daughters. Because of the sturgeon on top of it.
Best late-night eats? Tsingtao, roast duck and noodles in soup and dalmau at Great NY Noodletown. It's cheap. It's delicious. Everyone looks equally awful in fluorescent light. Plus, I sit next to Ed Koch literally every time I'm there.
Undiscovered gem? I don't think I know about anything that all your readers haven't already covered, but I wouldn't tell if I did.
What's in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? Red Bull. But that's my husband's.
Food you won't eat? I hate to be a lame-o, but crappy meat just grosses me out now. I used to really enjoy a McDonald's cheeseburger a few times a year and now I just... don't.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? My friend Tia Keenan, who was at Casellula and her boyfriend Hristo Zisovki, the sommelier at Jean Georges. I pay attention to what they have to say. They do things like go to Chicago and spend three days seeking out the perfect hot dog.
What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? I never actually go where they go; I live vicariously and go back to Brooklyn.
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