Seattle cheesemonger leads underdog Team USA to world championship

By Jackie Varriano in The Seattle Times, published August 31, 2024

For epochs, humans have eaten and sold cheese. In France, where the written record of Roquefort goes back centuries, today’s cheesemongers — those who sell cheese — are as esteemed as the cheesemakers who produce some 1,200 types of fromage there

The cheesemongering world’s crème de la crème will gather Sept. 10-12 in Tours, France, for the Mondial du Fromage, a three-day competition in which 16 international cheesemongers duke it out to be named World’s Best Cheesemonger. An American has never won the competition. 

Two mongers from the Pacific Northwest will represent the underdog United States, where the profession has a shorter history — and a stinky reputation in the cheese world as unrefined newbies. The team, mentored by a reformed coach eyeing redemption and a Seattle cheesemonger who fell short at Mondial in 2019, has a better chance than ever to win the tournament — and to earn the U.S. respect in the international cheesemonger scene. 

It sounds cheesy, but this group — like the plucky team in “The Mighty Ducks” or the amateur U.S. Olympic hockey players who shocked the dominant Soviets in 1980 — believes it can make a statement for American cheesemongers at Mondial du Fromage. 

Meet the cheese dream team.  

Cheese in the U.S. 

The U.S. produces around 600 types of cheese. American mongers don’t enjoy elevated professional status — while in France, cheesemongers who have won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a tournament of elite tradespeople, wear red-white-and-blue collars on their uniforms like Olympic medals. In the States, you may find a world-class cheesemonger behind the deli counter at your local grocery store, selling cheese in addition to scooping soup.

“I spend probably an equal amount of time putting back random things people have deserted as I do cheesemongering,” joked Jordan Edwards, who works at the Murray’s cheese counter at the West Seattle QFC. 

His sixth-place finish at Mondial in 2019 is the second-best for any American since the competition, the only international cheesemonger tournament, was founded in 2013. Edwards didn’t make the cut this year, but has become a mentor for Team USA’s new secret weapon.  

Enter Courtney Johnson.

She has a doctorate in German literature, a master’s and two bachelor’s degrees, and a life that’s entirely about cheese, down to the sleeve of cheese tattoos on her right arm. The co-owner of the mobile shop Street Cheese, Johnson is the executive director of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association and has worked as a cheesemonger for Metropolitan Market and PCC.

She knows this is about more than dairy. 

“Cheese is a transaction; you’re getting food you’re taking home,” said Johnson, who will represent Team USA with Portland-based cheesemonger Sam Rollins. “But cheese is also rich with stories.” 

Johnson believes the role of the cheesemonger is to tell those stories. Tales of the animals and the farms where they live, the history of the people who make cheese, why it’s so delicious and what you should pair with it.

Don’t be fooled, though: Johnson has a competitive side. 

“Courtney is my cheese samurai,” said cheese coach Adam Moskowitz, calling her a “great white shark, a competitive beast.” 

“She’s unassuming, polite, respectful, but goddamn she could kill you with one swipe of the cheese knife.”

The New York City-based cheesemonger, Team USA’s self-described “coach, captain, mentor, sugar daddy,” founded the Cheesemonger Invitational competitions in 2010, where he dances onstage in a cow costume. Moskowitz started CMI to throw a “cheese rave,” a siren song to curd nerds looking to connect, learn and show off their skills.

Johnson placed second at CMI in 2020 and 2022. In March, she was invited to compete at CMI Masters for a shot at going to Mondial. Johnson said she was “in shock” when she won.

“I was excited to compete in CMI Masters to push myself and become inspired by everyone else competing, but I didn’t imagine that I would come out on top,” she said. “I thought it might be a few more tries before I would become a real contender.” 

The path ahead won’t be easy. 

Mondial is the preeminent cheesemonger tournament. Winners earn a cash prize and bragging rights, and success in this arena can open doors in the cheese world with makers, marketers and shop owners. Having a Mondial winner at your cheese shop is like having a James Beard Award-winning chef on the line.

Moskowitz views Johnson as America’s best chance yet of winning the tournament. During a recent Mondial prep event at Logan Brewing in Burien, Johnson showed why, whipping through five of the tasks she can expect at the competition with surgical precision. 

In under an hour, she assembled a plate of five cheeses with practiced efficiency, slicing with speed using her wire cutter, artfully placing cheese slices with cherry halves and chocolate shavings. She twirled a girolle cheese cutter through a wheel of Tête de Moine, creating delicate ruffles of the Swiss-made cheese, setting them atop a caramelized onion pate de fruit and crisps made from the same cheese. She created Camembert macarons, carefully wiping down her workstation between each task, her laser focus never breaking. 

With her attention to detail, Johnson is ready to refute the stereotype of cheesemongers from the U.S. The lingering perception in the international community is that Americans “are dirty, messy, don’t take the competition seriously, don’t have a real ‘cheese culture’ in our country that helps us understand traditional cheeses and cheese making,” Johnson said.

The competition itself may also seem foreign. Moskowitz said the different rounds in which cheesemongers are judged at Mondial are “very French.”

“They have cheesemongers doing things that we don’t normally do,” he said. “We do grazing tables now, we do charcuterie boards, but plateaus? Themed? Cutting and presentation? Edible sculpture? Cheese transformation? We don’t do cheese like that here.” 

Johnson is just trying to keep a cool head. She’s spent the past six months ruminating on cheese and brainstorming the theme of this year’s artistic presentation, “Cheese in the Stars.” Building plates, refining cutting, dreaming up wacky pairings and studying flashcards.

Johnson is planning on covering her cheese tattoos at Mondial. She knows appearances matter in this competition, on and off the plate. Johnson wants the judges to see her for her work, and “not see the American flag as the sole indicator of my identity in the ring.”

“I just have to go in with a clear head,” Johnson said, “knowing that I see myself as a professional in my field and being confident that I strive for excellence in everything I do.” 

Fight for fromage 

In 2010, there wasn’t a cheesemongering competition circuit, and most cheese trade shows and conferences centered on cheesemakers. That year, when Moskowitz launched CMI, he saw mongers from across the States looking “stupefied and starry-eyed.”

“What they said was, ‘Thank you, nobody ever shines a spotlight on us,’” said Moskowitz, the son of a dairy importer. “The cheesemakers have always been the rock stars — tonight, you made us the rock stars.” 

CMI is now a rigorous, dayslong event with a complex point system and stiff competition. Competitors undergo cheese knowledge tests and blind tastings, show off cutting and food-pairing skills, craft cheese plates, and prepare oral presentations “selling” the judges on a perfect cheese.

The success of CMI led to Rodolphe Le Meunier, third-generation cheesemaker and a friend of Moskowitz, founding Mondial du Fromage as a biennial competition in 2013. With Mondial, the winners of CMI found an even higher, more prestigious prize to aim for.

Mondial turns the heat up a notch. There’s a blindfolded tasting, a test to cut four half-pound pieces of cheese without pre-weighing, an oral test and a multiple choice quiz — in addition to the gantlet Rollins and Johnson re-created in Burien, which is weighted more heavily in scoring than the other tests.

Mongers have four hours to complete a tall task: a five-piece cheese plate, a perfect bite of Tête de Moine, a cold combination cheese plate with Camembert, a sculpture and a giant themed platter. Competitors are judged on finished products — and how they conduct themselves during the competition, their amount of wasted cheese, workstation cleanliness, and how they adapt to working in a warm environment with a product that could melt or crumble. 

Edwards, the Seattle-based Team USA mentor who works at QFC, hopes his sixth-place finish at Mondial in 2019 is a cautionary tale for Johnson and Rollins.

He said a lack of refinement contributed to his downfall. In one round, he was required to make an artistic presentation using up to 20 kilos of cheese. The theme was “The Originality of a Cheesemonger.”

“Which probably sounds beautiful in French, but it’s so open-ended,” Edwards said.

His idea was to render in cheese what it would look like if someone “took my head and cracked it like an egg. It was a bacchanal of cheese and food and sculptures.”

Judges repeatedly stopped by Edwards’ station, looking at his sculpture of “food pouring out of a brain” and making casual remarks like “you’re done,” but Edwards kept shaking his head, knowing there was still cheese left and time on the clock.

“I couldn’t read between the lines,” he said. “I got told I had way too much cheese.” 

He got dinged for portion sizes being too large — despite bringing a pocket digital scale and weighing each slice to a proportion he was sure was accurate.

“It’s a hard stereotype to break away from,” Edwards said, describing our country’s rep in the cheese world. “I think Sam and Courtney are a little more polished.” 

While Americans face the stereotype of being messy, Pacific Northwest mongers are up against an additional barrier: geography.

“We’re at the end of the train tracks,” Johnson said. 

When it comes to the world of legendary cheese — those made in France, in Switzerland, where the oldest commercial cheese factory is, and elsewhere in Europe — Washington and Oregon are plane rides away. We’re not seeing the same cheeses that mongers on the East Coast or even the Midwest are getting, or mongers are selling cheese outside peak condition.

Beyond our diminished access, the artisanal cheese market and infrastructure are lesser here, with fewer dedicated legacy cheese shops in the PNW. Seattle has just one specialty cheese store, The Cheese Box at Pike Place Market, outside those that double as a grocer, like Big John’s PFI or DeLaurenti.

Frankly, the domestic cheese scene pales next to the French. But Johnson and Moskowitz are ready to put American cheesemongering on the map. 

The road to redemption 

Moskowitz has technically coached Team USA since the first Mondial in 2013. But up until this year, he’s been more of a bankroller than a role model, paying for the trips and partying “like a rock star” in France. 

Moskowitz spent previous Mondials drinking, doing drugs and “acting like a jackass.” He coached braggadocio and swagger, claiming Team USA didn’t need to be anything but themselves to win. In reality, presentation matters as much as performance at Mondial. 

“We didn’t adequately prepare. We rested on our laurels,” Moskowitz said. “They had the knowledge that they were one of the best in America and felt they had to represent America how they do.” 

He organized prep meetings before the competitions, but there was little talk of “refinement, editing, consideration.” 

“We didn’t play the game,” Moskowitz said. Instead, the team molded into the American cheesemonger stereotype. He sees that now — and knows Johnson can play the game. 

In 2019, Moskowitz hit rock bottom. He got sober, but by the time the competition rolled around, he was depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Still, Moskowitz felt he couldn’t let his team down. He made the trip — and credits Edwards with saving him there.

“Now I’m four and a half years sober, I have a deep connection to a spiritual practice,” Moskowitz said. “This is an opportunity for me on an international platform to show that American cheesemongers are world-class and we also can be redeemed. That people change. People get better. We get better.” 

The Team USA coach has his eyes on the prize this year. Moskowitz has been sending Johnson and Rollins pounds upon pounds of cheese for testing and practice. He has organized Zoom calls with former Mondial competitors and judges, who offer tips for success and pitfalls to avoid. He paid for Johnson to go to Almnäs Bruk, a small creamery in Sweden that produces Tegel, her cheese of choice for the oral test, to delve into the history and importance of the cheese. 

“For me personally, this is a journey of redemption,” Moskowitz said. “This time I’m going and feel like I’ve fulfilled my duty as a captain and coach.”

Edwards says the coach “altered my life path,” showing him what cheesemongering could mean. Missing this year’s Mondial will be hard, but Edwards is proud of how Moskowitz evolved into a real leader.

“He is fully Voltroned into this Gordon Bombay superhuman coach,” Edwards said, likening Moskowitz to the youth hockey coach who earned redemption in “The Mighty Ducks.” 

“It’s exactly who he’s always been capable of being and I’m stoked to see it,” Edwards said. 

While Moskowitz described Johnson as a cheese warrior, Rollins is quiet and reserved — though he’s still “a boss” who “performs in dynamic and delicious ways,” the coach said. 

Rollins works for Cowbell Fine Cheese in Portland. A self-described introvert, the cheesemonger of seven years appreciates events like Mondial for the sense of community he feels among fellow mongers. He’s rooting for Johnson at this year’s competition.  

“I am slightly less enthused with the idea of winning,” he said.

Johnson is trying to stay cool and collected, confident in her cheesemonger skill set. She has the total belief of her coach, who thinks Team USA can finally shock the cheese world. 

“Can I unequivocally say, for the first time, that USA has a chance to win?” Moskowitz asked rhetorically. “Without a shadow of a doubt.”