Teams smile and say “Chee-ooooose ... us”
Festival determines who’s the better cheddar cutters
Three teams stood around 40pound blocks of cheddar, casually talking among themselves.
Abruptly, and with a straight face, a woman announced that everyone should start cutting the cheese — the American Cheese Society’s hours-long cheese-carving competition at the 34th annual conference and competition had begun.
Caught off-guard, the teams got to work, referencing predrawn specs of photos on their phones. None of the cheesemongers, or tradespeople specializing in cheese, had participated in a cheese-carving competition before but said they wanted to join because it sounded fun.
A team of two Massachusetts cheesemongers looked at their sketch of a dairy can with Colorado flowers and planned out their path. All of the competitors had to design around the event’s theme: cheese with altitude.
“I like to think it’ll be fast, but I’m sure we’ll not be very good at it and it’ll take some time,” said Chelsea Germer, who works at Allium Market, a specialty-foods market and cheese shop in Brookline, Mass. Her teammate, Beth Falk, from Mill City Cheesemongers in Lowell, Mass., went off to find a wire to cut the cheese.
Germer said she was relieved to hear that everyone else was new to cheese carving. It helped that two famous cheesemongers known for their DIY and punk ways hadn’t shown up — they were previous winners of the Cheesemonger Invitational, the Olympics of cheesemongering. (Falk was a finalist this year.)
Next to the Massachusetts cheesemongers, the Friscobased Whole Foods’ team worked on their cheese block. The team consisted of sixmonth cheese newbie Heather Heiss and four-year cheese veteran Blake Santmyker.
Heiss designed a picture of the Colorado landscape, featuring mountains, a river, a hot-air balloon and a cow. The scene was designed to spill out of the frame at the bottom. The two used toothpicks to mark their path. Santmyker described their work as powerful, unforgettable and “another word for victory … excelsior!”
“It’s not our first rodeo,” he said. “No, it’s definitely our first rodeo. I’m just trying to be overconfident. It’s a defense mechanism.”
As the Coloradans worked, two people who could be described as punk ran up to take the empty table, moving quickly to ready their cheese and pulling out supplies. The former
Cheesemonger Invitational champions arrived after all.
The American Cheese Society, which works to promote American cheeses, is based in Denver, but this is the first year the Mile High City hosted the conference, executive director Nora Weiser said. The event, sponsored by the local Whole Foods, was inspired by Sarah Kauffman, known as the Cheese Lady, who creates giant and intricate cheese sculptures.
“The food scene in Denver and the Rocky Mountains is ready,” she said, explaining that the city has a new interest in the food scene, farm-to-table and local producers. “Denver is growing up as a food scene.”
About 2,000 tickets were given out for Saturday night’s public festival, making it the biggest one yet, she said. More than 2,000 cheeses were entered into the festival — a 10 percent increase over last year’s entries.
Despite being late to the competition’s 10 a.m. start, the punk team moved quickly to catch up. Santa Fe-based Lilith Spencer carved the base of the sculpture, while Chicagobased Jordan Edwards, of Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, created cheese cows using a cookie cutter. The two were depicting transhumance — a seasonal movement of people and their livestock to higher pastures in the summer.
By 12:30 p.m., the room had a slight smell of cheddar to it. Santmyker had fashioned a cheese microphone and began to interview his partner, Heiss. “It’s a fun experience no matter how it turns out,” she said into the cheese. Meanwhile, Edwards used a hair dryer to attach cows to the cheese mountain.
Competitors had until 3 p.m. Friday to carve. They could then go back at it on Saturday morning. Two teams — the punks and Louisiana-based Karrie White, who was re-creating a Cellars at Jasper Hill mural that is famous in the cheese community — finished early Friday.
The winners will be decided by a public vote at the Festival of Cheese and Cheese Sale from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. Tickets cost $65 and are available online or at the door. The public can also see the creations at the Denver Whole Foods stores.
Until then, the cheese creations sit in a refrigerator, awaiting their finishing touches and impending judgment.
A team of cheesemongers moves a carving created in cheddar at the American Cheese Society’s 34th annual conference and competition in Denver.
Attendees sample cheese at the Sheraton Denver Downtown.