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Vanessa Tilaka Kalb’s Perfect Cheese Pairings

Like many others who end up behind a cheese counter, Vanessa Tilaka Kalb was first behind a stove. With a degree in Culinary Arts from the Art Institute of California, Orange County, she worked at top restaurants in her native Los Angeles and then in San Francisco, where she met her husband, Iowan Thomas Kalb. When one of those restaurants offered her an educational grant to explore an element of the industry, Vanessa chose cheese, and subsequently studied at the Cheese School of San Francisco, which she credits for putting her on the path to becoming a monger. “I thought, ‘This is insane, how have I never tasted these cheeses?’” she says. The couple took a six-month sabbatical to travel the world; her goal when they returned was to work in cheese, his was to open a restaurant. In 2018, before they believed they were ready to take the leap, they learned that a location in quiet downtown Pasadena was available. “We thought it was too big, so we looked at a bunch of other places and nothing was quite right,” Vanessa says. “We met with our architect, who said, ‘This is just enough space to do what you want to do.’ Now we’re running out of space to do everything we want to do.”

Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery, named for Thomas’s grandmother, opened in June 2021 in a 1922 building that once housed horses for the Pasadena Fire Department. Featuring exposed brick walls, an open kitchen, and a spacious rear patio, it’s a blend of California cool and Midwestern comfort. While Vanessa oversees the street-facing shop and Thomas helms the restaurant behind it, they collaborate closely. “Because I have the culinary background, I can offer opinions on flavor and texture,” Vanessa says. Naturally, there is a cheese plate on the menu, but cheese is also an ingredient in several dishes, such as the crême brulée toast with whipped chèvre and orange blossom honey offered at brunch, and the Reuben ravioli with Old Witch, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Switzerland, on the dinner menu. 

That said, “Almost every table at Agnes orders the cheese plate,” she says. “The monger chooses the cheese, writes the description and goes to the table to explain every cheese and connect with the guests.” For culture, Vanessa put together a plate based on one of her cheese classes, Geography of Taste.

1. Mitica Wooly Wooly

Origin: Jumilla (Murcia), Spain

Milk: Pasteurized sheep 

+ BRINS Salted Concord Spread

“This is a play on a cream cheese and jelly sandwich, but the Brins jam is nothing like Welch’s grape jelly—it actually tastes like grape juice. I think this rich and decadent cheese converted a lot of people to sheep’s milk cheese.”

2. Alemar Cheese Company Bent River

Origin: Minneapolis, Minn.

Milk: Pasteurized cow

+ Driftless Provisions Saucisson Sec

“Bent River is an American classic—a camembert made with organic, grass-fed milk that rivals anything coming from France. Pairing it with a zesty saucisson sec is equally classic.”

3. 5 Spoke Creamery Tumbleweed

Origin: Goshen, N.Y.

Milk: Raw cow

+ Jose Gourmet Smoked Small Mackerel in Olive Oil

“Tumbleweed is a nice, approachable cheddar, and people in California are always surprised that New York makes cheese. The texture and smokiness of the fish compliments the nuttiness of the cheese.”

4. Agour Ossau Iraty

Origin: France

Milk: Raw sheep

+ Mama Lil’s Pickled Hungarian ‘Goathorn’ Peppers in Oil

“I like to do peppers or hot sauce with nuttiness or creaminess. The Basque region, where Ossau Iraty is from is also known for Espelette peppers, which would be an expected pairing—I’m giving it a twist.”

5. Champignon Cambozola Black Label

Origin: Lauben, Germany

Milk: Pasteurized cow

+ John Kelly Chocolate Dark Chocolate with French Grey Sea Salt

“This pairing was inspired by a chocolate cake with blue cheese ganache that we made for a tasting menu. John Kelly Chocolates are made by a couple in Hollywood—I almost cried when I tried the one with the French grey sea salt—and I thought a pairing with this fudgy blue would be perfect and balanced.” 


Susan Axelrod

Susan Sherrill Axelrod is a former editor of Culture. Her love affair with cheese began at age 12, when she bicycled to a gourmet shop to taste an exotic newcomer—French brie. She lives with her partner in midcoast Maine, where she enjoys a well-made cocktail, hiking with their dog, Lucy, and spending as much time as possible on the water.

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