The Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) is held twice a year to coincide with the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York and the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The contest’s website bills it as “Monger vs. Monger” and “Cheese Nirvana.” If you’ve attended CMI, you know this is not hyperbole.
The wizard behind the CMI curtain is Adam Moskowitz of Larkin Cold Storage and Columbia Cheese. Moskowitz may be a highly successful businessman, but in his heart, he’s a cheesemonger.He acknowledges that his is not the only competition but, he says, none of the others combine so many elements and none put the cheesemonger community first. “CMI became a forum for cheesemongers. It inspires a more professional approach,” he says. “It was originally a party to bring together my friends. After the first one, there was an appreciation of the showcase and the challenge.”
The Summer 2016 CMI, scheduled for June 24-25, will have 49 participants from 15 states and five countries. In addition to the U.S., cheesemongers will come from the U.K., the Netherlands, Canada and Germany.
“I don’t do any advertising,” says Moskowitz. “It grows by word of mouth. CMI is a rite of passage. It’s folklore. It’s legend. CMI is to a cheesemonger like a marathon is to a runner. It’s the Olympics, the decathlon.”
The winner of the competition will get a one-week trip to England to work with Neal’s Yard Dairy. Some runners-up get a trip to Vermont to work with Jasper Hill, some get a trip to Wisconsin and some a set of knives.
Although those who wish to attend the finals and its raucous party have to purchase a ticket ($75 for an over-21 all-the-cheese-you can-eat extravaganza), cheesemongers who enter the competition pay no entry fee; they just have to share why they want to compete.
Competition is fierce and, says Moskowitz, “CMI inspires cheesemongers to be better at their job, to want to be in retail.” And that’s why he thinks retailers should challenge their staff members to participate. He calls CMI a community builder, a bar raiser and, in his understated way, “a revolution.”
Three new challenges have been added for Summer 2016 — Aromatics, Perfect Beverage and Wrap with Saran Wrap.
In the Aromatics challenge, a blindfolded cheesemonger is presented with a cheese that he/she has to identify by smell.
For the Perfect Beverage challenge, cheesemongers are assigned a cheese ahead of time. They have to bring the perfect alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage to pair with it and explain their reasoning.
And since CMI is about best practices as well as aesthetics — Moskowitz stresses that it’s just as important to practice safety as it is to know what works with what — the Wrap with (industry standard) Saran Wrap challenge shows the monger’s skill in wrapping a half wheel of cheese for storage within a shop.
The ongoing challenges fall in three categories: Technical — cut a 1/4 pound; wrap a 1/4 pound; Foodservice — create a perfect plate; create a perfect bite; and Sales — challenges that reflect being behind the counter in a shop.
In the early rounds, each cheesemonger has 60 seconds on stage to introduce him- or herself and to answer that most dreaded question: What’s your favorite cheese?
In addition, the name of a food is picked from a hat and the monger has to come up with an instant pairing.
In the scenario challenge, says Moskowitz, “They have to deal with a strange or unusual customer, such as (here he switches to a shaky, old person voice) “I’m an old lady and want to know what cheese I should buy to add calcium to my diet.”
In the Jeopardy-inspired round, mongers are asked what he calls “the hardest questions we can think up.”
And if that weren’t enough, each monger is presented with five of the hardest cheeses to wrap.
To succeed at CMI, according to Moskowitz, you have to “dare to be great. Good isn’t enough.”
“You hear a lot about millennials,” Moskowitz says, “but I find cheesemongers to be hard-working, dedicated individuals who want to have an impact.”