Meet The Man Behind The Inn at Little Washington's Viral Cow Cheese Cart | culture: the word on cheese
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Meet The Man Behind The Inn at Little Washington’s Viral Cow Cheese Cart

Q & A with Cameron Smith, the Maítre du Fromage at The Inn at Little Washington

Photo courtesy of The Inn at Little Washington Instagram

When you opt into the Inn at Little Washington’s $32 cheese course, you get dinner and a show, thanks to fromager and “cheese whiz” Cameron Smith. For nearly 17 years, Smith has been serving cheese with a side of comedy. His act starts the moment he wheels the cheese cart—a rolling cow—into the dining room. Heads turn. iPhone cameras flash. Sure, you get to learn about cheese from a Certified Cheese Professional, but what’s most impressive is how effortlessly Smith intertwines his cheese knowledge with an endless supply of dairy-themed entertainment. I caught up with Smith to discuss all things cheese.

Tell me more about the famous cow cheese cart; how and when did that idea arise?

Initially, there was a regular-looking cheese cart at the Inn, but it wasn’t that well-received. It was the chef’s idea—“Why don’t we put it on a goat? That would be more approachable.” But they couldn’t find a goat. Instead, they found a lady who made life-size cows, so they asked her to make a smaller one. That was in 2000 (the “churn of the century”), so [the cow cart is] 24. She was inspired by a Jersey cow born at the Clay County Fair in Iowa—hence her name, Faira.

You have a reputation as a pun master— how did this become an integral part of the cheese course?

This comedy routine developed over time. Way back when, there was a guest who made a cheese joke, and it snowballed into a barrage of all these jokes. Chef O’Connell has a theater background; he feels the dining room is the living theater, and this is my act.

How do you curate the cheese cart, and do the cheeses rotate?

There are usually around 25 to 30 cheeses on the cart; it just depends on what fits. It’s all about covering
the different groups. There’s always going to be a few chèvres, goat milk cheeses, sheep’s milk cheeses, blue cheeses, bloomies, washed- rind cheeses, something you can scoop out with a spoon, something really pungent, and something pungent-yet-mild. Then there’s the hard cheeses. I also try to order seasonally and directly from some local farms. I’ll sometimes take finished cheeses and “doctor them up” to make them exclusive to us, for example cold smoking a chèvre, or taking a cheese and rolling it in herbs. The cart will change every day; I don’t buy in mass quantities.

How did you wind up at the Inn at Little Washington?

I used to work at my parents’ B&B—it was the first job I ever had—and I had worked at a few restaurants in Charlottesville. But I always was trying to work my way into The Inn at Little Washington. I moved from Charlottesville to Culpeper to be close to the Inn. I’d heard about the Inn from other guests coming to the inn where I had been working. I had heard about the stars who’d visit and I knew of the reputation. So, once I was in the restaurant world and I knew it was close to me, I decided “let’s see how I can work there eventually.”

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job is watching guests laugh. The satisfaction from putting on a performance and having people say “bravo!” If they are about to fall out of their chair because they’re laughing too hard and they can’t even eat their food, then I know I did a good job. Life is all about having fun and enjoying what you do for a living. Maybe I could make more money doing something else, but I really love what I do, and it puts a lot of smiles on people’s faces. And then you get to taste a lot of great cheese on top of that.

What do you think makes the Inn’s cheese service unique/special?

It’s a performance and a tasty plate of cheese. It is the theatrics that make it different. That’s something I’ve never heard of with other cheese presentations. It’s also about the education and all the information and science behind cheesemaking. They really appreciate when you explain how these cheeses are made; it’s eye-opening.

What do you serve alongside the cheese?

The accompaniments change seasonally. I’m looking for things that spark curiosity and may be different for customers, such as an Ethiopian honey and a 100-day sous vide beet. I’ll also include some more classic accompaniments, like Marcona almonds, jam/marmalade, and dried fruit. We also offer specific crackers and bread just for the cheese course.

What is your absolute favorite cheese?

Honestly I can’t figure it out, because that’s what’s so interesting about them. If we had this one best cheese, why even have a cart? That is the whole glory of life, all the different experiences. However, you can crave something, I have craved certain kinds of alpine cheeses—like Chällerhocker and Scharfe Maxx. But I feel like all the other cheeses are crying “I thought you loved me.” It’s like picking my favorite workout at the gym; I don’t want to go to the gym and just do biceps.

What are your favorite cheese accompaniments?

I really like this vegetable marmalade from the chef’s garden. I’m still on the hunt for something creative to fill the space of the Marcona almonds that might take that to the next level. Also, we’re lucky enough to have this exclusive bakery at the Inn, so we have lots of different breads to offer with the cheese, including this sourdough bread that’s incredible and mini-French baguettes. I’ve even done tea pairings with the cheeses; it doesn’t always have to be wine. We’re looking into doing water pairings, as well. As far as alcohol goes, I like low-alcohol, aromatic red wines, like a Gamay Noir wine or some wines from Greece we’ve had recently. Nothing too tannic or with too much alcohol because I feel like it’s too strong, and I like a wine to have finesse and be graceful.

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