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The 2024 Hot List: Ji Soo Hong

This story is part of culture’s 2024 Hot List. Click here to learn more about the selection process and to see the entire list of recipients.

Photo courtesy Ji Soo Hong

Ji Soo Hong

Illustrator and Marketing Specialist, Forever Cheese
New York City, New York

Ji Soo Hong left college with a painting degree. However, she quickly transitioned to specialty food, first at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread, and Wine; and then Whole Foods Market, which paved her way to becoming an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. Working at Whole Foods allowed her love of cheese to blossom, despite her growing concern that she may have to leave art behind. When she started working at Zuercher Cheese, the company let her take a stab at marketing—a chance to finally flex her drawing skills. Now, Hong is a full-time marketing specialist at Forever Cheese, where her illustrations have become an integral piece of the company’s branding—a perfect marriage of her two passions: food and art.

What was your big “aha moment” when you entered this industry?

Oh, I remember the exact moment. It was because of Lisa Futterman. I was working as a wholesale assistant at Pastoral in Chicago. I had zero experience working with cheese, but Lisa, who was responsible for the wholesale program there, was super patient with me and shared her passion in many ways. A lot of my formative cheese knowledge came from the people there, such as Lydia Burns and Cara Condon. I was opening a wheel of Point Reyes Farmstead Toma and Lisa said, “It tastes like the sea breeze its surrounded by while it ages.” And when I tasted it, it tasted like a “sea breeze.” I had never heard anyone describe flavors like that, and never thought about the flavor complexities of a dairy product that’s made with only 4 to 5 ingredients. I had to learn more.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced or overcome in the industry?

Being Asian. Especially in my retailing days. It was surprising how some people would react when I told them I was the monger. They’d look over my shoulder or try to spot someone who “looked” like they had authority or knowledge about cheese. One woman stopped mid-sentence and said, “Ohs orry, you’re the sushi person,” and rushed over to my white colleague. A lot of that has changed over the years, but I’d be lying if I said it has stopped. I’m lucky to have supportive colleagues in these moments and to live in a time where I see more people of color in our industry. My word of advice when faced in situations like this: shut it down with knowledge.

Pair a celebrity with a cheese.

Florence Pugh and Cornish Yarg. She’s British, incredibly stylish, and has a tangy edge.

You’re on a desert island and can only eat one cheese for the rest of your life. What is it?

Meredith Dairy Marinated Sheep and Goat Cheese. I can drink that herba-licious oil on its own. At Zuercher, they used to keep a giant bucket of it in the fridge, and I put it on EVERYTHING—sometimes even on other cheeses. I use the leftover oil in dressings or as a dip for bread.

What is an underrated cheese that everyone should know about?

G-rated answer: OK hear me out—everyone knows about it, but it doesn’t get the credit it deserves: low-moisture mozzarella and other commodity block cheeses. I used to pooh-pooh block cheeses as basic and boring, but there’s so much science that goes into making the perfect meltable, stretchy cheese. I learned a lot about it at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin, while I was studying for my Certified Cheese Professional Exam. Is it the most flavorful cheese? No, but it sure does have function, and my pizza wouldn’t be as fun without it.

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