Last month, 16 of the best cheese professionals in the world found themselves in France for the 2023 Le Mondial du Fromage. Over the course of two days, cheesemongers compete in a variety of events from a written knowledge test to a blind tasting and even a five-part event that showcases their cutting and plating abilities with an “artistic presentation of a cheese” with the theme “Cheese in the Stars.”
At the end of it all, Sam Rollins of Cowbell Cheese Shop in Portland took home second place, the highest an American has ever finished in the Mondial’s 10-year history. Rollins joined OPB’s “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori to talk about his journey to cheese champion.
Crystal Ligori: How did you start a career as a cheesemonger?
Sam Rollins: I’ve been doing it for about 10 years. Pretty much right out of college, I got a job at a great specialty food store in Eugene called Marché Provisions and fell in with the specialty foods manager. And he introduced me to the magic of [cheese], all the stories and the flavors and the tradition, the resonance or relevance of that whole world.
Ligori: The position isn’t one that comes top of mind when I think about things in the culinary industry to do. What is it like being a cheesemonger here in the Pacific Northwest?
Rollins: Well it’s great, is how it is [laughing]. How I think of being a cheesemonger is, it’s very much secondary to the work of the cheese maker. Cheese makers and farmers are doing all of the heavy lifting to feed and nourish people everywhere and they’re often so far behind the scenes that their voices get lost and their faces get lost. You can go to a store and buy cheese without ever interacting with a cheesemonger, but what we do bring that I think is really valuable is the opportunity to put voices and faces to those people who are making our food.
Ligori: How did you find out about competitive cheesemonger-ing, because that feels like a totally different world?
Rollins: It’s really funny because I am far, far from a competitive person. It’s not something I’m attracted to by any means, but especially when I was living in Eugene and first learning what it means to be a cheesemonger — which turns out what it means is you just eat a lot of cheese all the time — I was learning how to do what I did on my own with help from books and YouTube channels and things like that. But the resources in Eugene were few and far between. So I was really trying to find a community.
One of the things that I found out about is called the Cheesemonger Invitational, which is this really cool community-building event that happens twice a year — once in San Francisco and once in New York City — that brings together people who work in the industry in one way or another. I just absolutely fell in love with it. I was in a room with 500 other people watching people do the most nerdy stuff on stage: just cutting quarter-pound pieces of cheese and wrapping them in paper and then being judged on how well they wrapped it in paper, giving speeches about how much they loved cheese … the whole thing felt like home in a pretty special way for me.
I had the opportunity to compete for the first time in February or March of 2020 and ended up coming in fourth at that competition. Last year, in 2022, I had the opportunity again to go back to San Francisco and I ended up winning that. And Adam Moskowitz, who’s the founder of the Cheesemonger Invitational, it turns out he takes a couple of people every time from the U.S. to compete in France in Mondial du Fromage.
Ligori: You mentioned literally cutting a block of cheese and wrapping it for the competition. That’s not something I would think you could judge someone on, but apparently it is. So what else is there?
Rollins: Well, for Mondial specifically, it was broken up into two halves. The first half being a little bit more theoretical: a lot of sitting at a desk, doing a multiple choice test and there is a blind taste test of some cheeses. And the second half of the day, they assign you a couple of cheeses ahead of time that you have to come up with a menu composing little bites for each of the cheeses. There was a dish with Camembert that I made. A Swiss cheese called Tête de Moine was the other cheese that we were assigned ahead of time. So did these cool looking little boats made out of the cheese and then dropped some foie gras and some mango jam and a little sprinkle of espresso on top of that … and I thought that was pretty good.
Ligori: Good enough to win you second place! Which is the best an American has done in the competition ever.
Rollins: Yeah, which is amazing. I feel really lucky in a lot of ways to have come in second because I really think it could have been any one of any of those people. It was so cool to be there with all of those other cheesemongers from Brazil, from Peru, from Japan, from Belgium, Ukraine. Of course, France. There was somebody there from Spain, just so many cool people and I was honestly pretty intimidated going into it. Just the caliber of skill of these people is really, really high. They know what they’re doing really inside their bones.
But at the same time, they were so warm and so friendly and it was really supportive and collaborative and made it so worth it for me to be there. I just really felt like it was an inspirational experience all around.
Ligori: I do have one more burning question … What is your favorite type of cheese, Sam?
Rollins: Oh, I had a sneaking suspicion you were going to ask me that question and I hate that question so much. It’s like picking a favorite kid when you have 250 kids. [laughing] Just remembering their names, you know, I’m proud of that!
I am always particularly fond of Alpine cooked, pressed curd cheeses, Comté being one that I always have in my fridge. It can go anywhere from being aged for 3 to 4 months to more than 2 years. And it changes so much depending on how it’s aged, but also depending on who aged it, who made it, and whether it was made in one part of the Jura or another part of the Jura. Every bite, the more you think about it, the more it gives you.