In this week’s Hooked on Cheese column, we interview Rob Kaufelt, the owner of New York’s oldest cheese shop: the inimitable Murray’s Cheese. A third-generation grocer, Rob ran his family's supermarket chain through the 1980s. He moved to Greenwich Village in 1990 and has been at the helm of Murray’s ever since.
Murray’s has flagship stores on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and in Grand Central Terminal, but they also now have an online business and an ever-expanding partnership with Kroger, where Murray’s Cheese kiosks can currently be found at more than one hundred stores nationwide.
Rob is a frequent author and educator on cheese and specialty foods, and wrote The Murray’s Cheese Handbook in 2006. He divides his time between SoHo and his beloved farmhouse in Stockton, New Jersey with his wife and their three children.
Raymond Hook: First of all: who is Murray? People must often assume that you are.
Rob Kaufelt: Murray is – or was – Murray Greenberg, who founded the shop in 1940 as a wholesale butter and egg shop, back when they had such things in New York City. His widow told me (he died before I got to town) that he was an immigrant, a refugee from Eastern Europe who fought on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War. When he arrived in New York he became a capitalist and he'd buy cheese for cash and pay from a roll of bills he kept in his pocket.
RH: Your family comes from the conventional grocery business; how and when did you transfer into specialty cheese?
I always liked good food, and I thought mom and pops were cool; even my grandfather had a grocery store back in the day (in the 1920s, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He was an immigrant, too). I left the grocery business to open what I hoped would be a small group of gourmet stores (full-service specialty food shops) and opened a pair in Summit and Princeton, New Jersey. Times were tough but I learned plenty, and cheese was one of my passions.
RH: You've now brought Murray's kiosks into Kroger stores all over the country – well over one hundred right now. Tell us a little about your decision to shift from simply helming an intimate cheese shop on Bleecker Street to making great cheese available nationwide.
The small thing is great, and so is the larger thing; the one being intimate and hands-on, the other good fun because it brings good cheese to the communities the Kroger markets serve across the country (excepting the Northeast, where they have no stores yet) and in the process creates a whole new career path for those interested in fine cheese.
RH: Where's the weirdest, wildest, strangest place you've been compelled to go to seek out the maker of an incredible cheese you've tasted?
A yak cheese was once brought to me in New York, and I tasted a camel cheese at the Salone di Gusto once in Torino.
RH: You have a lot of fantastic coworkers who are all incredibly knowledgeable. Can you tell me a little bit about Frank Meilak? He's been at Murray's longer than you have!
Frank was the original winner of the Best Monger in New York title in New York Magazine almost twenty years ago. He represented the United States in the International Monger Invitational in Lyons, France twice. But he started as a delivery boy at Murray's before I bought it, a local kid, son of Maltese immigrants – his father was a building supervisor nearby in the Village. After college, instead of a "suitable" job, he stayed with Murray's as a monger, then as store manager and finally now as a Vice President. He is the most loved member of all my staff.
RH: I know you're a family man with young kids. What types of cheeses do you keep in the fridge for them? Follow up: what types of cheeses do you keep in the fridge for yourself?
These are the cheeses in the fridge right now: Parmigiano Reggiano, fresh mozzarella, Montgomery cheddar, Irish cheddar, Cambozola black, grana padano and Ben's Cream Cheese.
RH: What do you see as the next great trend in cheese?
Cheese cooked as comfort foods; cheese to eat as a grab-and-go in airports and such; better versions of cheeses scorned, such as Muenster (American), pepper jack, Havarti; more cheese shops; more artisan cheese makers; more dairy farmers making dairy (yogurts, puddings, etc.); more great makers growing to medium-size from small; more mediocre cheese sold simply because it is local somewhere; the growing up of the American Cheese Society and the world of cheese we've been living in since its toddler years.
RH: When people come to your home, what is the perfect cheese plate you serve?
There is no such thing. My wife would have to answer that, anyway, as she shops most of the time in order to have the experience of the mongers, so the real answer is: whatever the mongers recommend. Typically, a soft or washed rind; often a goat cheese; often a blue; and usually something aged in our caves exclusively.
RH: How many times a week do you eat cheese?
Daily. I do like a bit of cheese and a bite of apple or pear after dinner.
RH: What are your passions in life OTHER than cheese? While running such a large business, how do you find time for them?
My passions are my wife and family; life at the farm; riding around the back roads in an old caddy convertible; writing songs on my guitar; reading and writing; hanging out in downtown New York; getting my tired ass to the gym; teaching my young staff; and I've just discovered Game of Thrones and the new Sherlock.