Behind every cheese, there’s a good story waiting to be told. You just have to ask the right people. In this blog series, Amanda will be interviewing cheesemongers from around the country and relaying their most fantastic tales of international travel, in-shop aging, and curious customers. Last week, we hung out with with Linni Kral of Boston’s American Provisions. This week we get to know Jordan Edwards of Chicago’s Pastoral Artisan. Read on, and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of our Cheese+ ultimate pairings issue!
Jordan Edwards has always had a taste for the earth. But we’re not just talking about terroir here. We’re talking actual dirt.
“When I was a little kid, I used to eat the dirt under my grandma’s oak tree,” he explained. “Montgomery’s Cheddar reminds me of that same dirty, earthy taste.”
Jordan may have received some scolding as a child, but it’s now clear that his unconventional palate was simply a herald of the skill he now wields as a cheesemonger. Behind the counter of Chicago’s Pastoral Artisan, he has to convince the customers to adopt the same adventurous mentality he had as a boy. “When I’m trying to sell [Montgomery's Cheddar] to customers and I tell that story, I have to assure them that it was some pretty good dirt,” he said.
Somehow, in spite (or perhaps because) of unappetizing comparisons, Jordan delivers his recommendations with such charm and knowledge that his customers literally eat up his advice. The man’s fan base is huge. So huge, they voted him all the way to the top of culture’s Send Your Monger Packing competition. “I was making mini business cards, and asking customers to sign petitions to vote for me,” he said. “I was pretty much hustling, doing everything I could. But it was definitely worth all the hard work.”
Jordan’s win earned him a ticket to the Cheesemonger Invitational in New York City in June, where he elegantly curated his “perfect bite:” Neal’s Yard Dairy Stichleton with English oatcake, port jellybean, and pistachio.
Oh, did I mention that Jordan has only been mongering for two years? “I didn’t embarrass myself too badly,” Jordan said, playing his humility card without a hint of affectation. “Being around that many people in this industry who are so passionate was pretty great. Chicago doesn’t have that many cheese shops; there aren’t gatherings of cheesemongers on a day-to-day basis.”
To be able to blend in with veterans at one of the biggest cheese events in the nation after just two years on the job is no easy feat. But then again, Jordan is unusually devoted. He’s hiked his way up an impossibly steep learning curve with record speed. Jordan started off as a delivery driver for Pastoral Artisan, supplying restaurants with the shop’s products. “I would always try to learn something about the cheese so that I would have something to say to the chefs,” he explained.
And then Jordan’s car got stolen. Perhaps it was a sign, pulling him away from the wheel and leading him to the cheese counter. The shop’s managers were impressed by the knowledge he’d accrued while working in delivery, and wholesale cheesemonger Lisa Futterman offered him a position.
It was that memory-inducing Montgomery cheddar that woke up his taste buds to his innate appetite for cheese. “I guess that was the gateway cheese,” he said. From there, Jordan methodically worked his way through the shop’s cheeses. “I would do it by style and variety,” he explained. “Every day I’d go out of my way to try one washed rind, one bloomy rind, one semi-firm, one aged, and one blue. I’d make tasting notes, and if I could meet the maker, I’d ask questions. I built a cheese encyclopedia for myself. I think I have about six notebooks of just chicken scratch.”
Nowadays, Jordan is eager to share his findings with customers. “The regulars are my favorites… They want to know what you have to say about [the cheeses]. As a staff member, you spend a lot of time learning, and it’s nice to be able to pass that on.” The clientele at Pastoral Artisan isn’t always so easy to please. “Our downtown location tends to attract corporate business people who don’t really know what they want, but have strong opinions on things, for better or worse,” he said. “But they are usually trusting after their second time in the shop.”
Maybe that’s because Jordan sends them home with crowd-pleasing Zingerman’s Burrata. “If you’re a customer, you definitely hear about it,” he said of the cream-filled cheese. “One of my favorite things is how versatile it is. It’s a three-meal cheese; you can have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I’d eat it with grilled peaches, balsamic, olive oil, and black pepper.”
Though Jordan has a repository of pairings and recommendation up his sleeve, he’s always looking to learn about new varieties. “Try everything,” he advised aspiring mongers. “If there’s a chance to sample something, sample it. Being able to explain how a specific cheese relates to you – that’s what customers want to hear.”
And even after the post-Cheesemonger Invitational fame and fortune, Jordan’s still got his head on straight. “Cheese shouldn’t be pretentious, and I think it’s becoming less snobby. It was a peasant food – it’s just a way of preserving milk.” Indeed, Jordan has a knack for keeping us at once humble and curious, reminding us that cheese is just milk, reincarnated into the rich, nuanced, delicious curds we love.
Have you met a cheesemaker or retailer who has reinforced your food politics or inspired you to adopt a different outlook? Tell us about it in the comments section, and you could win a copy of our Cheese+ pairing issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Monday, August 18, 2014 to be eligible to win. Good luck!Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of Jordan Edwards