Hooked on Cheese: Women in Cheese
Jessica Little, Stephanie Ciano, and Tia Keenan are superstars of the cheese world
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about cheesemonger Emily Acosta’s victory in the 2014 Cheesemonger Invitational, an annual cheese competition attended by top mongers from all over the USA. Acosta was the first woman (and first New Yorker!) ever to win the title, and she did it wearing heels and pearls. Having known Acosta for over a year, I wasn’t surprised by her win: not only does she have an impeccable palate, but she holds a Master’s Degree in Food Studies from NYU and is one of the most knowledgeable and personable mongers I know.
However, my friend pointed out that cheesemongering has long been a “boys club” of sorts, making Acosta’s triumph all the more noteworthy. It set me to thinking about all the women who are influential in the cheese industry. This story is about three of these great role models, and I’m honored to count all three as my friends.
Little grew up on a dairy farm in southern Georgia. After an early start as a cheesemonger while in college, for the past twelve years she and her husband Jeremy have run Sweet Grass Dairy. Sweet Grass’ cheese has been served everywhere from the White House to The French Laundry, and their retail cheese and wine shop was named a retailer of the year in 2013 by the Specialty Food Association. The Littles also recently opened Blue Coop, a true farm-to-table restaurant with a strong cheese element, and they run a farm where they raise heritage-breed pigs and bees for honey. Clearly, Little is a tireless worker and the ultimate cheesemaking/farming multitasker.
Ciano is VP of International Purchasing for Crystal Foods, a division of the titan distributor World’s Best Cheese. She grew up working in the family cheese business and has now been an importer and distributor for over twenty years. She has impeccable taste and has fashioned Crystal Foods’ portfolio of great European cheeses to be a true best-of-the-best collection. She cites Cathy Strange, the global cheese buyer for Whole Foods, as a huge inspiration. She watched Strange grow from working the counter in a Virginia store to directing the cheese program at every Whole Foods Market worldwide. Ciano has also said her passionate, dedicated Crystal Foods co-worker Shelli Morton is an important influence in her life, and credits Morton with encouraging her continued dedication to the industry.
For my money, the concept of a Cheese Chef can be attributed to Tia Keenan. She is known as a creative force in the industry, an iconoclast who isn’t afraid to push the culinary envelope. Keenan has worked at several stellar restaurants in NYC, initially receiving accolades at Casellula, the intensely focused cheese restaurant where I first met her. I was working for a cheese distributor at the time and when I was assigned Tia’s account, I was told right off the bat that she was a notorious “tough sell.” In fact, while confirming our first meeting, Keenan brusquely commanded, “Don’t bring me bad cheese!” After that, I couldn’t wait to meet her. We hit it off right away – we have a shared philosophy on what makes a great cheese. I was brave enough to bring her a couple of samples at our second meeting, a Green Hill and a perfectly ripe Teleme. She tasted them both, smiled and said she had just the right pairing for the Teleme. Darting to her kitchen, she returned with a house-made creamed corn, and though I was reluctant at first, I tried the combo and it was incredible. She has consistently amazed me ever since.
It was tough to limit this story to these three amazing women since there are so many influential, pioneering female cheese professionals who continually make giant contributions to our food culture. I’m happy to report that the future looks great for women in cheese: there are increasing numbers of cheese counter gals with so much talent and knowledge, producers who are passionate about sharing their craft, and women at all levels of the distribution and brokerage systems who work tirelessly to make strides in a traditionally male-dominated field. With so many strong contributors to the industry, I can’t wait to see what’s next in the world of cheese.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.
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