Hooked On Cheese: An Interview With Artisanal's Max McCalman

The following is Hook's interview with Max McCalman, Maître Fromager and Dean of Curriculum for Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York City. He is the bestselling author of Mastering Cheese; Cheese, a Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best; and The Cheese Plate. In addition, McCalman received international acclaim by launching the celebrated cheese program at venerable New York City restaurant Picholine, and is currently the Chair of American Cheese Society's Certified Cheese Professional Committee. In other words: he is a true giant of the cheese world.

This interview focuses on McCalman's recommendations for establishing a successful cheese program, and how it feels to be the best-selling cheese author in America.

Raymond Hook: First off, tell us about creating the world-renowned cheese service at Picholine.
Max McCalman:
It was groundbreaking. Nothing like it had ever quite matched that program (at least here in the United States) when it was peaking around the turn of the millennium. Part of its success was the theatre; being a block from Lincoln Center did not hurt, since many guests were headed to performances or returning from them late at night. The cuisine of the restaurant was great, but the cheese program made the restaurant a destination. Not long after we launched the cheese service we were hearing about coverage in European newspapers; that was only the start. No other advertising was needed; the cheeses spoke for themselves.

We started with only fourteen, thinking the captains would the ones who would be presenting the [cheese] trolley. But they were either too busy or uninterested or lacking the confidence (most of them) to manage the trolley so it fell on my shoulders, working as Maître d'Hotel simultaneously. Within weeks of its launch I was not able to juggle both jobs. Naturally, I stayed with the cheese. People would come back a couple nights later and say to me: Those were great cheeses; what are you featuring tonight? Some people asked about favorites other than the few I offered, so the selection grew quickly. People had many questions so I made it a life-long study.

What are a couple of things that restaurants should be aware of when starting a cheese program?
A well-stocked cheese program should make money and does not have to rely on the concomitant beverage sales to make it worthwhile. The greater the variety (assuming good care), the more successful the program will be. Cheese lovers like to try new cheeses. One person on staff should "own" the program, preferably someone in the front-of-the-house who interacts directly with the guests.

What is a reasonable number of cheeses a restaurant should have on a cart?
No less than a dozen, otherwise it becomes more difficult to satisfy diversity of tastes, and still offer a minimum of three cheeses. The portions should not be too small (guests will notice) but not so large that they become less "precious." A little extra cheese might drive the sale of a second glass of wine.

What kind of mix should it include, i.e. cow/goat/sheep/mixed milk, and soft to firm?
Again, the greater variety the better. More cow than anything else (since there are far more cow cheeses anyway) but make sure to include a few goat, sheep, mixed-milk, and the occasional other species. Soft is a must, but less waste and better costs will be realized with the firmer cheeses, and better synergies with wines or other beverages (generally).

I know you said a cheese cart has the potential to make money for an upscale restaurant, but how about serving plated cheese from the kitchen?
Yes; see above. Assuming a plate of three cheeses at $15.00 (they're often more) at a cost of $18.00/pound (about average) and you can offer one-ounce portions of each of the three. Do the math and the margins are not bad, even with accompaniments thrown in. Cheese plated in the kitchen is okay but it's a far better experience if served tableside, cut to order if at all possible. A Fromager can interact with the guest and better match expectations, and can recommend a suitable wine partner for the selection (which is where the greater margins reside — in the bottle), and this puts a face on the cheese service.

Switching gears: how many books have you written on cheese?
Five, if you include my new Wine & Cheese Pairing Swatchbook, and the Cheese Deck.

Which book is your favorite?
Mastering Cheese.

Do you have a book in the works?
I would like to write a book about cheese's healthful qualities and its relatively great safety record. Have to find the time to take this project on, though.

Which cheese book other than yours would you suggest reading?
Caldwell's Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking. A bit technical for most people but not overly so.

You have inspired so many cheese folks; who inspires you?
Many cheesemakers I have met over the years – many, but not all. I am also inspired by the next generation of cheese persons: the 253 American Cheese Society's Certified Cheese Professionals. I helped found this project ten years ago and want to see it succeed, for the industry, so I am currently serving as Chair of the Certification Committee.

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.