Hooked on Cheese: Interview with Tia Keenan, Cheese Rebel

Keenan is a cheese chef, educator, and fromager

Keenan is best known for her innovative programs at Union Square Hospitality Group's The Modern and at cheese-focused Casellula Restaurant.

Tia Keenan is a chef fromager, teacher, culinary consultant and cheese rock star based in New York City. I’ve known Keenan for over five years, and her originality and culinary daring never cease to inspire me.

Keenan began her career as a restaurant-based cheese specialist and chef, known for her innovative programs at Union Square Hospitality Group's The Modern and at Casellula, which is recognized as a pioneer in the cheese-focused restaurant format. She has worked with clients ranging from multi-national companies like Disney to smaller, distinctive brands like Murray’s Cheese and Bien Cuit Bakery. Keenan’s unique, holistic approach to establishing and growing food-based businesses encompasses many areas of expertise, including strategy, branding, marketing, design, and execution of ambitious, cutting edge food-focused brands. Her work has been praised in various media outlets, including Food & Wine, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Cooking Channel. Keenan lives in Queens with her husband, award-winning sommelier Hristo Zisovski, and their son.

Raymond Hook: Can you explain exactly what a cheese chef is?
Tia Keenan:
Well, I started cooking professionally because I wanted to elaborate on my work with cheese. I wanted to make condiments and cheese-focused dishes that were more and more involved. I wouldn’t call myself a “cheese chef” per se, but some people DO call me that. I guess I think of myself as most similar to a sushi chef, in that one type of protein is my focus, and I try to keep it simple and let the product speak for itself.

What are your thoughts on the standardized “three cheeses, almonds, quince paste and fruit bread” cheese plate that is ubiquitous in New York City restaurants?
Listen, I’m happy that more and more restaurants offer cheese plates at all. I’m a “big picture” type of gal. Sure, many of them are somewhat thoughtless, in that they rely on the three-cheese-almonds-quince-paste-fruit-and-nut-bread paradigm, but that doesn’t bother me. The important thing is to get people eating cheese. That standard cheese plate is a gateway for many a cheese lover. What’s important is the quality of the cheese – a good cheese stands alone. One could theoretically leave the quince paste on the plate for the dishwasher to scrape off.

How well does the general “fine dining” customer know cheese? 
I’ve seen an incredible evolution over the years of customer knowledge of the cheese. People are so sophisticated now in terms of knowing what they personally like, and then their general knowledge of cheese and even the cheese making process. I think the knowledge is less class-based and more generational. Starting with Gen X, people are just really, really into food. Gen Y are food obsessives. It’s awesome.

What’s your favorite must-read cheese book?
The Cheese Chronicles by Liz Thorpe. I just love how she tells stories. Also, she’s a close friend and I was with her on some of the cheese trips she writes about in the book!

What is a simple can't-miss cheese pairing?
Good blue cheese and a very dark chocolate.

What is your absolute favorite place to eat cheese in New York City?
My home. I mean, I’ve kind of ruined myself for cheese experiences that other people or places offer me. I’m the gal who made blue cheese nori rolls! And I’m a control freak. If I want cheese, I buy it and serve it myself. I do a lot of Raclette at home. It’s easy to set up and my guests always love it – low effort, high impact.

How did you get so many Twitter followers? It’s impressive!
I think people respond to my Twitter feed because it’s a mix of Tweets about cheese, dairy, restaurants and food politics with observations and confessions about my personal life. I tweet about what interests me, and people respond to the authenticity of my feed. Also, I’m not afraid to talk about sex and be provocative. People love that. I engage. I hate people who don’t have conversations on Twitter, like they just tweet at you, not with you. Why would I want to be talked at all day? I like to talk back!

Do you have a "guilty" cheese pleasure?
Dill Havarti ALL THE WAY. Also, I like cheddar with horseradish. But seriously, I always have Boar’s Head Havarti with Dill in my refrigerator. Always.

Your husband is a big time sommelier; who wins when you have a gourmet throw-down?
Once we did a blind tasting of about twenty foods. To someone who’s never done that before, it sounds easy…but it’s not. When you try something – an ingredient, like, say, cumin – it’s not always easy to identify it. Then when you do that with twenty flavors at a time...it’s not easy. Anyway, we did that and I totally schooled him. He actually admitted I have a better palate. But really, I think I just have a good flavor memory. I can remember the nuances of flavors, and that’s what having a “good palate” really is.

Why did you become a cheese chef in the first place?
Because I always need to do things my own unique way, and I didn’t have the patience to wait for people who would understand what I was trying to do. So I did it for myself. And I still do it for myself.

Hooked on Cheese: 3 English Cheeses Everyone Should Know Hooked on Cheese: An Interview with Artisanal's Max McCalmanHooked on Cheese: An Interview with Writer Gordon EdgarHooked on Cheese: Capriole Dairy's O'BanonHooked on Cheese: Mexican Queso

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.