Seattle cheesemongers prepare for the Olympics of their field

By Grace Madigan on KNKX, aired/published March 6, 2023

There are a lot of people who say they like cheese, but not many can say it’s their job. Courtney Johnson is someone who can say both.

Johnson was finishing her Ph.D. in German when she got a job at Metropolitan Market, an upscale grocery chain in Western Washington. It was there that her subsequent journey into cheese began in 2015 when she became the store’s cheesemonger apprentice.

Johnson said a common misconception about cheesemongers is that it’s an easy job absolutely anyone can do. On the contrary, her experience taught her it takes a lot of time and learning outside of the actual job to be a good cheesemonger.

“You’re dealing with culture, language, history, flavor, science,” Johnson said. “We take care of cheese to make sure that the cheese the consumer goes home with is the cheese that the cheesemaker intended it to be. So we have to know a little bit about every style of cheese and how to take care of them.”

It’s safe to say that Johnson’s love for cheese goes beyond most people’s affection for the dairy product. Her right arm is covered in a tattoo sleeve dedicated to cheese. When she arrived for this interview, she wore a t-shirt that read “Last night a cheesemonger saved my life.”

Johnson has moved beyond her days of apprenticeship and now co-owns Street Cheese, a mobile cheese shop that sells to and educates consumers in the Seattle region. She also is the executive director of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association and teaches cheese and fermentation classes at Seattle Central College’s Culinary Academy.

Since 2019, Johnson has competed in the Cheesemonger Invitational. A sort of Olympics for cheesemongers that her mentor at Metropolitan Market originally told her about. It’s held twice a year, once in San Francisco and another in New York City.

“The person who founded it, Adam Moskowitz, envisioned it as a cheese rave in its inception, so it actually comes from that history,” Johnson said. “There’s a DJ, there are tons and tons of cheese samples, and like, the show in the evening where they pick the winners, is absolutely like a performance.”

Courtney Johnson runs Street Cheese with her business partner Tailor Kowis. Kowis will accompany Johnson to New York for the Cheesemonger Invitational Masters competition and will be her helping hand in the display challenge.

The first year Johnson participated she placed in the top 10. In 2020 and 2022 she took second which earned her one of 13 spots in the Cheesemonger Invitational: Masters competition. The winner will secure a spot in the World Cheesemonger Championship in France, held later this year.

It will be Johnson’s first trip to the Masters. Jordan Edwards, the other cheesemonger from Seattle in the competition has won the Masters once already.

Challenges like a blind taste test, aroma test, and the ability to cut the perfect half pound of an undisclosed type of cheese are given to competitors in the normal version of the Invitational. The masters edition is a little different.

“It’s based on the exercises that we go through in France, if you make it to France,” Johnson explained. “And those are very different from a lot of the things that many American cheesemongers do at their counters. One of the things that we have to do is build like a large-scale display of cheese that is not a grazing table.”

The cheesemongers are also asked to do a “cheese transformation” in the masters edition. Which means adding flavors to a cheese to make it into something else that is then presented as a sort of restaurant dish.

Competition aside, Johnson, loves the education aspect of her jobs. One thing she hopes to help people understand about cheese, is that it’s for everyone.

“I think the biggest thing that we want people to know is that cheese doesn’t have to be fancy,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have to be this high-brow thing that, you know, if you don’t know anything about it, then you don’t have any business talking about it.”

Johnson is taking all of her cheese knowledge she happily imparts on others with her to New York, where she’ll compete on March 12.