As I turned yet another corner in search of the entrance to The Midway, home to The Cheesemonger Invitational for the second year in a row, I wondered what I was walking into. The RuPaul’s Drag Race of cheese challenges? The Great British Bake Off of curd competitions? It was 10 a.m. and honestly, I hadn’t had enough coffee to be prepared for either possibility.
I stepped into the venue and instantly felt the “adrenaline-pumping cheesesplosion” I’d been promised. It was electric. Mongers buzzed around me, already engaged in the day’s tasks. They’d arrived hours prior to begin the written portion of the competition: a series of three tests including one cheese exam, one meat quiz, and a blind taste test in which they’d needed to correctly identify the cheese name, milk type, country of origin, and pasteurization status without any clues or visual indicators. Suuuper easy, piece of cake… Just kidding. (I think I teared up multiple times whilst grading these tests out of sheer admiration for those who’d taken them. Lots of these questions were really hard, y’all!)
Once finished with the written portion, the mongers moved on to a series of technical exams that I most certainly would’ve failed. I watched with the other judges—many of whom were past CMI winners and participants—as the competitors moved through the veritable cheese obstacle course stretched across multiple 6-foot tables. The first technical challenge was the “1⁄4 lb. Cut,” in which contestants had 45 seconds to cut two quarter-pound pieces of cheese from one whole wheel, only weighing the wheel once before making the first cut. Next up, the “Paper Wrap,” in which mongers had to neatly wrap and sticker the two pieces from their cut round with cheese paper. The cheese needed to be wrapped to “origami-like perfection” for a perfect score and once again, the mongers had 45 seconds to do so. “Glass Wrap” was the third and final portion of the technical, and probably the most intense to watch. Mongers were instructed to wrap a ⅛ and ¼ wheel in plastic wrap so that it resembled “cheese dipped in glass,” all while judges, fellow competitors, and our fearless leaders (Adam Moskowitz and Lilith Spencer, I’m talking about you) cheered them on. And yet, even under all this pressure, the atmosphere in the room was downright euphoric.
By noon, folks had completed the technicals, eaten lunch, and were ready for the Salesmanship portion of the day. It’s important to preface this bit by saying I had absolutely zero clue that judging CMI would also serve as my acting debut. In a gallery adjacent to where they’d held technicals, the CMI team had arranged five identical “shop” setups: 4-foot tables equipped with a selection of cheeses, a knife, and various serving implements. The goal for the mongers was to “sell” each judge a piece of cheese based on our needs, and as judges we were to act out the same character and scenario to every monger we encountered. This made me excited and nervous, and it meant, much to my delight, I got to eat the same goat’s milk Gouda five different times.
With adrenaline still pumping from Salesmanship, the mongers rushed off to prepare their perfect Drink, Slate, and Bite: a drink and cheese pairing, cheese plate, and cheesy bite-sized item, respectively. This is when things started to get real. My partner (Lydia Clarke of DTLA Cheese) and I judged one drink pairing after another, then all judges (including 2019 Chicago CMI Champion Evan Talen and 2018 San Francisco CMI Champion Rory Stamp) conferred to pick a winner, quite literally, on the spot. We did the same for Slates, then moved on to Bites. At this point it was 4 p.m. and guests were starting to show up for the awards ceremony, which meant added pressure for everyone involved. We quickly sampled all of the gorgeous Bites, then carried our favorites back to the judges room for a final decision and debriefing.
The end of the day was a cheesy blur. We made some very difficult decisions, tallied up the scores of all the tests, and reflected on the beautiful creations and hard work from each and every monger. Adam announced the top six contestants to a live audience, and after a slew of final lightning round challenges on stage, a winner was chosen. Sarah Munly, who I’d seen expertly wrapping cheeses in the “Glass Wrap” round earlier that morning, took home the coveted CMI Champion trophy.
At the risk of sounding cheesy as hell, I genuinely feel that all of the mongers were winners. Everyone showed up to CMI with passion for cheese, commitment to learning, and dedication to the cheese community. Some of the mongers were first-timers like me and Michelle Vieria, and others were seasoned competitors like Julia Gross, but everyone competed like this was the most important day of the year. And honestly? It kind of feels like it was.