In June, our very own Kyra James (cheesemonger and chocolate buyer for our South End location and event coordinator) placed third in the annual Cheesemonger Invitational in NYC – a two-day competition for 40 cheesemongers from across the country, testing their knowledge of and skill with cheese.
Day one of the competition includes a written test, recognizing cheese through taste and smell, practical cutting and wrapping skills, their mongering ability and interpersonal skills, pairing flavors and constructing cheese plates. Throughout all these tests, the cheesemongers are ranked on a point system. On the second day, there is a showcase of cheese vendors and producers for the public, and then finally the last round of competition.
After all those tests, Kyra ranked sixth among the competition and stepped on stage to compete in the finals for the judges and an auditorium full of spectators, including her family and friends. Representing Formaggio Kitchen in her t-shirt and apron, Kyra pulled out of sixth place and into third with her outstanding perfect bite.
I took some time to ask her about her experience and success.
What made you decide to enter CMI?
I knew it would be a good test of my skills, I knew it would be a challenge to have to present myself in front of all these people, and I wanted to showcase what I’ve learned at Formaggio because I think it is the best cheese shop. The way we approach cheesemongering is very unique and it is really special what we do here. I wanted to show that and see what’s happening around the industry.
How did it feel to come in third place out of 40 contestants?
Thirty-nine, one person did not show up. But, jeez – amazing! Very surprising, very unexpected, but also one of the most invigorating and most exciting moments as a cheesemonger, I’d say. It sounds corny and weird, but we don’t have a lot of those moments at our job.
The word I’ve been saying a lot is validation – validating. My own invisible pat on the back as a cheesemonger for five and half years. I left a career that was really lucrative and no one really knew why I did it. For me, it was really cool to see that you can make a sharp left turn off life’s path and have people there to wave at you and give you hugs. I didn’t know I’d be here, but it’s nice to know that I’m good at my job and it’s nice to be recognized for my skills.
Which aspects of the competition did you feel the most and least confident in?
The mongering part, very confident. I’ve always loved people. I’ve always loved service. So that was the easiest part for me. What made me comfortable was the fact I brought an apron and brought my Formaggio Kitchen shirt, so for that part of the competition I put on the same things I’d wear for work. Basically, I went into it like: just do what you do. Act like this person is a regular customer. And that was probably the best part.
The worst part was probably the written test. I knew I was unprepared for it. The questions are based a lot on the CCP (Certified Cheese Professionals) exam developed by ACS (American Cheese Society). It’s a lot of science about cheesemaking. I made flashcards of really big words, but they’re all bacteria. So, I did really bad on that. But for me, what my takeaway was that I need to learn that. I know, I want to know more about the science of cheesemaking.
Tell us about your Perfect Bite.
I got third place on my perfect bite, it’s what saved me from coming in sixth. You get assigned a cheese and you have to make a bite, where when you eat the whole thing it makes a new flavor. The cheese is still present, but you have a whole new flavor with your add-ons.
I’m the only one who had Bayley Hazen Blue. One of my best friends, Leah, who’s a cook (and part-time Formaggio South End cheesemonger), supported me by preparing a bacon jam with Backyard Bacon with coffee and onions and a little side of vinegar. I think that was my gem. I sliced a piece of green apple, cheese on top, a little bit of the bacon jam, and then crumbled Effie’s Nutcakes to top it off.
My perfect bite winning was definitely a confirmation for me. I know what goes together well, what tastes good together, especially because I was one of only two people who had a blue cheese selected for them. Simple works sometimes and it got me third.
What was your greatest takeaway from the competition? Did you learn anything from your fellow competitors?
It’s one of those events where even if you don’t make top six or even you don’t win anything, you still walk away feeling like: this is my job and this is a career and I’m passionate about it and that’s why I’m here. I just feel like it’s so fun, and your odds of making it on the stage are so slim, but all you’re doing for two days is your job.
For all of us, past competitors and newbies – it’s camaraderie. For me, it was cool to get different perspectives. Being a cheesemonger is so vague and we’re still in our infancy in this country and there were so many cheese shops – I had no idea. But it was similar to my experience at work, where all my coworkers are so different than me, I would have never met any of them if we didn’t work here. We love what these producers are doing. We love supporting animals. We love supporting the land. We love supporting people in these artisanal situations. Day-to-day, I don’t think about these things, but it reminded me of why we do what we do.
Even if I’m not a cheesemonger forever, I will always remember how important it is to be a cheesemonger. I will suggest it to anyone who wants to work in food because it’s a really good avenue to understand all aspects of food production. From beginning to end, I think cheese is the best. And I’m confident in that statement.
Do you think you’ll compete again?
Yeah. If I could just study the science stuff, next year, I’m gonna know the answers and I’m going to win. I have been an athlete since I was five; a good athlete since I was sixteen – state awards, national awards as an athlete – very competitive. I have never been more confident for any competition than I am for next year’s CMI.