The cheese industry mourns a trailblazer, supporter, and friend to all
Update, October 14, 2021: Through Slow Food USA, family and friends of Anne Saxelby have established the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund to provide training opportunities to financially distressed teenagers and young adults. To donate and learn more, click here.
The cheese universe has been shocked and saddened by the unexpected death of Anne Saxelby, founder of Saxelby Cheesemongers and a champion of American artisan cheesemakers. Saxelby, who was 40, died in her sleep on Saturday, October 9 due to a heart condition. She leaves behind her husband, Patrick Martins, founder and president of Heritage Foods and Heritage Radio Network, and their three young children.
“When we first started culture one of the first people [co-founder] Kate Arding told me about was Anne, and when we started Victory Cheese she was the one of the first people we got in touch with,” says culture co-founder Stephanie Skinner. “The thing that I hear so often beyond ‘legend,’ ‘icon,’ etc. is that she was a friend to everybody, and completely open. It’s heartbreaking to lose someone like this because she was one of the superstars that everyone recognized as being a superstar. It leaves a huge void. Not seeing her at American Cheese Society events is going to be so sad. When she walked into a room she lit it up—not in a wild person kind of way, but her goodness just surrounded her.”
Judy Schad of Capriole Goat Cheeses in Indiana got to know Saxelby about the time Saxelby was opening her shop in 2006. “She liked our cheeses and was very supportive,” says Schad; however, shipping issues continually prevented Schad’s cheeses from arriving at the shop in good shape. While Saxelby didn’t become a regular customer, she remained a friend. “She was gracious,” Schad says. “That’s not a word you hear used a lot to describe people. She was thoughtful, supportive. There are so many people who don’t walk the talk, but she did. We just kind of fell in love with Anne—who didn’t?”
Mary Keehn, founder of Cypress Grove Creamery in California, shared her thoughts in an email. “Anne was a gift—not just to the cheese community but to the world. Kind and always generous of spirit, she influenced perhaps all of us in so many ways. My heart goes out to her family and all who loved her.”
Yoav Perry, a longtime cheesemaker who opened Perrystead Dairy in Philadelphia earlier this year, echoes Schad and Keehn. “I adored Anne. Her work validated to me the need to ditch a former career for cheese,” he said. “She was the first to distribute my stuff years ago. Her insistence on putting American artisan cheese at center stage in New York City changed the entire perception of what American artisan cheese is for those stakeholders, top chefs, jaded foodies, and traveled europhiles, and she changed this industry well beyond NYC. Her special brand of patience one needs when working with fledgling new producers was her investment in everyone’s future.”
By all accounts, Saxelby was not only knowledgeable and passionate about her mission to create a market for fine American cheeses, she was humble, generous, and kind. Adam Moskowitz met her when he was working at Formaggio Essex, in the same market as the original Saxelby Cheesemongers. “I was struck by a few things,” says Moskowitz, founder of the Cheesemonger Invitational and owner of Columbia Cheese and Larkin Cold Storage. “There was such a gentleness, sincerity, and affability to her that was attractive and inspiring. There was a depth of knowledge and a willingness to share it with zero arrogance—Anne unequivocally should be considered a cheese expert, but she never carried the pretension of one.”
Saxelby discovered fine cheese while studying in Italy as a college sophomore at New York University. After graduating with a degree in studio art, she got her start in the cheese business behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese in the city, and earned the process of making cheese at Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut. A meeting with the famous French affineur Hervé Mons led to a stint working with cheesemakers in the Loire Valley. She boldly opened her first shop in the decidedly not upscale Essex Market—offering only artisan American cheeses at a time when many of these cheeses were unknown to most consumers—and developed a restaurant clientele, delivering cheese in the early days on her bicycle. “Her forward thinking in terms of committing solely to domestic production was frankly revolutionary,” says Moskowitz. “Especially on the Lower East Side, where the general consumer was eager for cheeses they were familiar with.”
In 2017, Saxelby Cheesemongers opened a second and larger location at Chelsea Market. When she spoke to culture for Voicings in 2016, Saxelby said she wanted to write a book, and in October 2020 Ten Speed Press published The New Rules of Cheese: A Freewheeling and Informative Guide, to rave reviews. In the early days of podcasting, she also launched Cutting the Curd, which is still broadcast on the Heritage Radio Network. “So often, she was the first,” says Moskowitz. “One of my fondest memories of her (and she wasn’t even there) is being at Murray’s for a business meeting and being in awe of a painting on the wall, only to find out that she painted it. At the core she was a true artist, and her approach to cheesemongering, cheese curation, cheese collaboration, and cheese education is her masterpiece.”