After hearing about the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) for months, I thought I had an idea of what to expect when I walked into the cavernous Brooklyn Expo on the morning of Friday, October 1, fresh off a flight from Portland, Maine. I’ve participated in dozens of food events, but this day would turn out to be so much more than just an event; it was a celebration—of craft, creativity, skill, and the deep love members of the cheese community have for one another.
“Drop your egos at the door,” said CMI organizer and founder Adam Moskowitz to me and the 11 other judges—including several former CMI winners—seated around a long table in a conference room on the Expo’s second floor. “This isn’t about you; it’s about the mongers.” Our job was less to judge and more to score the 21 participants based on a variety of challenges: a written multiple-choice test; taste and aroma identification; timed cut and wrap; salesmanship; and using an assigned cheese to create a perfect bite, beverage pairing, and slate. “This is hard,” I thought more than once as I watched how focused the mongers were on excelling at each task. Meanwhile, vendors and CMI sponsors (including Rogers Collection, Jasper Hill Farms, Vermont Creamery, and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin) were setting up tasting samples of cheese, charcuterie, and other products for the open-to-the-public, rollicking party segment of the event.
Late in the afternoon, the five finalists were announced: Tommy Amorim of DiBruno’s Bros. in Philadelphia; Emilia D’Albero of The Green Grape in New York City; Kyra James of Own Your Own Funk; Samantha Spontak from Artisan Cheese Co. in Sarasota, Florida; and Reese Wool of Murray’s Cheese in New York City. In front of a live audience (much smaller than usual due to the cancelling of the usually concurrent Fancy Food Show and COVID restrictions—yet still wildly enthusiastic), the finalists answered trivia questions and performed more cut and wrap challenges on stage, while Moskowitz, now attired in his signature Mr. Moo outfit, danced and cheered them on. Finally, just D’Albero and Amorim stood in front of their fellow finalists, and judge Eris Schack, the 2018 CMI NYC winner walked from the side of the stage to hand the trophy to Amorim. “Holy heck I can’t do this job without any one of you,” Amorim said. “It’s my job to stand vigilant at the counter, and represent these cheesemakers who are all around the room, who stand on their traditions and their vigilance. … To be in front of all this talent and to be scored as such is so tough. … But if you guys continue to enjoy cheese I will continue to sell it to you, and to make sure that those farmers have a voice, here in the United States and elsewhere!” His passion echoed through the huge room as his fellow contestants surrounded him in a group hug. Cheese champions, all.
Deliberating in the judges’ room, from left: Nick Bayne, head cheesemonger of The Fine Cheese Co. in Bath, UK, who won CMI NYC in 2015; Kat Craddock; and cheesemonger Gizella Otterson.