U.S. Cheesemongers Vie for World Champion

By Janet Fletcher in Planet Cheese, published July 11, 2023

Will an American be the next World Champion Cheesemonger? It could happen, although it never has. But this year is different. This year, a small army is working mightily to clinch the title for Team U.S.A. The U.S. has two entrants—Courtney Johnson (above) from the Seattle area and Sam Rollins from Portland, Oregon—who will be competing against each other and against 14 mongers from other nations at the biannual contest in France in September. I recently spoke to Johnson about how she is preparing for the grueling tests she and Rollins will face. For a cheesemonger, the Mondial du Fromage is the Olympics, and bringing home the gold could change their life.

Johnson has a PhD in German literature from UC Berkeley but quickly abandoned academia for cheese. (We’ll get to why.) She now operates a mobile cheese truck and manages the Washington State Cheesemakers Association. Like Rollins, she earned her trip to the Mondial by triumphing at this year’s CMI Masters, a sort of Tournament of Champions starring past winners of the Cheesemonger Invitational. In September, she and Rollins will fly to Tours for the international competition, their travel expenses paid by Adam Moskowitz, a cheese importer and CMI founder. Moskowitz is also overseeing the pair’s training regimen, organizing Zoom sessions with past winners and experts.

The Mondial competition is a relentless day-long test of knowledge and skill, like a cheese decathlon. There’s a written exam, a blind tasting and an oral dissertation in which contestants present a favorite cheese to the jury. Johnson chose Almnäs Tegel from Sweden, and if you have never heard of this cheese, that makes two of us.

She’ll demonstrate her cutting, pairing and presentation skills in a series of timed exercises. One involves creating a large, themed display with ingredients purchased at the market that morning. For another test, she’ll be handed five cheeses and challenged to create a plate with appropriate accompaniments. Contestants must also create a restaurant-caliber dish featuring Camembert but without cooking it. Johnson’s idea, still in development: macarons with Camembert, candied orange peel and pistachios. Team coaches recruited by Moskowitz are helping Johnson and Rollins refine their concepts and practice their moves.

I asked Moskowitz, a cheese-industry disruptor with a troubled past, why he is so deeply invested in this endeavor. “The short answer is love, respect and redemption,” he replied by email. “I have had the good fortune of watching cheesemongers elevate their craft over the years and believe they are world class. This competition gives us a chance to demonstrate that. For the past decade I have brought Team USA to this competition but used it as an excuse to abuse drugs and alcohol. Now that I am sober and practice 12-step recovery, this is the first time I am leading the team with clear eyes and a full heart.”

Winners get a modest cash prize and a priceless career boost. Rollins is currently a monger at Cowbell Fine Cheese in Portland. Johnson has educational ambitions.

“The reason I went into academia was because I wanted to teach,” says Johnson, “but I realized that I was going to be teaching high-performing students who were going to be successful no matter what. It put me into a crisis because I’m a millennial and my work has to be fulfilling. Something about cheese connected the dots for me. It has history, culture, language. My mission is to make cheese accessible to people who wouldn’t normally have access. Food is a language we all understand.”

Courtney Johnson’s Fantasy Cheese Plate

I asked Johnson to curate a summer cheese plate with favorites that Planet Cheese readers could likely find.

“I like to follow the rule of a hard cheese, a soft cheese and a blue cheese,” she said, “and Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen is often my go-to for the blue. It tastes like bacon and cream.” For her soft cheese, she went with burrata because it’s so compatible with summer fruit. Her hard cheese is one of my favorites as well: Majorero, the Spanish goat cheese. She describes it as “delightfully snackable” and I couldn’t agree more.