Jill Zenoff Wins the Winter 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational
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Jill Zenoff Wins the Winter 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational

If your idea of competition includes reality TV-level drama, stay far away from the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI). However, if your preferred rivalry resembles screaming encouragement with the other competitors as a contestant cuts the perfect quarter pound of cheddar, then you have found your tribe.

The Winter 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational

Ask a competitor at the Winter 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational to describe the event, and the description sounds more like a party of supportive best friends. “The cheese community is one of the best communities that I’ve ever been a part of,” remarks Alex Armstrong of Mission Cheese, second place winner of the event. “The thing I’ve found to be the hallmark of the cheese industry is everyone standing together…you wouldn’t see that in other industries.”

Adam Moskowitz (aka “Mr. Moo”) conceptualized CMI in 2010 allegedly to support the artisan cheese scene. But it really was an excuse to throw a party in his warehouse. Each participant is assigned three different cheeses. They then must create a Perfect Beverage pairing, a Perfect Plate, and a Perfect “Bite.” Each monger receives the cheeses two weeks before the competition, allowing them to brainstorm riffs on traditional pairings or to experiment with something totally new.

Jill Zenoff (first place), Alex Armstrong (second place), and Adam Moskowitz (Mr. Moo) Photo credit: Ellen Mary Cronin.

The Champion Monger

The Winter 2019 CMI Champion was first-time contestant Jill Zenoff of Cowgirl Creamery. After spending almost a decade in Chicago focusing on farming in the Jewish community, Zenoff then relocated to California to be closer to her family. A subsequent job at Cowgirl Creamery allowed her to continue her passion to use food to rebuild and revitalize communities. “It was a way for me to exponentially extend my reach of food and farming out of the Jewish community and into the world at large,” she says.

After working at Cowgirl’s table for two previous CMIs, Zenoff then decided to participate in the Winter 2019 event. Through prior observations, she’d noticed that people who create a persona have the most fun (ie Mr. Moo). As a result, she drew on her nine years of camp experience to transform into the Cheese Camp Director. “The idea was to be an exaggerated version of myself,” she laughs. “But it’s really not that exaggerated.”

The Cheese Camp Director singing the camp song. Photo credit: Ellen Mary Cronin.

Enter the Cheese Camp Director

Cowgirl’s tight-knit crew echoes the strong bonds that develop between camp staff. The role of Cheese Camp Director therefore allowed Zenoff to create a collaborative experience as she prepared for CMI. Her coworkers brainstormed ideas for a camp song, t-shirts, a logo…even her Perfect Bite inspiration. Her store manager Alli commented, “I really hope that whatever cheese you get, you can make a s’more out of.”

It was serendipity when Zenoff was assigned Gruyère AOP. The next two weeks saw a lot of experimentation. The cheesy marshmallows were a flop (the fat wouldn’t bind properly), while the graham crackers were a success. The end result? A Gruyère graham cracker, chocolate stout sauce, and a brulèed marshmallow, topped with more Gruyère and a sprinkling of salt.  

Jill Zenoff’s Perfect Bites. Photo credit: Ellen Mary Cronin.

The Perfect Bite We Need to Try

Other Perfect Bites, however, took a more traditional, but no less circuitous route. Armstrong combined a classic pairing with fun culinary techniques. His assignment, 1605 Manchego, often shows up in a breakfast dish that includes potatoes, tomato sauce, and topped with a fried egg. In his quest to incorporate eggs, he stumbled across saffron salt-cured egg yolks.

The end result was an intense, rich flavor. “I ended up blending [them] with some homemade mayonnaise to create this crazy iridescent yellow sauce that tasted like butter,” he remarks.

Alex Armstrong. Photo credit: Ellen Mary Cronin.

From the Perfect Bites to the round-table discussions with cheesemakers and affineurs, CMI is definitely the place to bond with other curds nerds. For future competitors, Armstrong advises, “Don’t think of it as a competition. Have fun and use it as an opportunity to challenge yourself.” The Cheese Camp Director’s advice is much the same: “Go in and have the best time of your life.”

Thanks to Ellen Mary Cronin for the photos from Winter 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational.

Madeline Upson

A longtime lover of cheese and wine nights, Madeline finally got to use her love of cheese as former Editorial Assistant at Culture Magazine.

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