The 2024 Hot List: Rob Graff | culture: the word on cheese
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The 2024 Hot List: Rob Graff

This story is part of culture’s 2024 Hot List. Click here to learn more about the selection process and to see the entire list of recipients.

Photo courtesy of Rob Graff

Rob Graff

Events Director and Cheesemonger, Venissimo Cheese
Co-founder, Venissimo’s Academy of Cheese and Veni Voyages
Co-founder, Liquid City SD
San Diego, California

Rob Graff started working in sales, but quickly found his way to cheese after landing a job at Venissimo Cheese in San Diego in 2008. At first, he thought this career pivot would just be a bridge back to the corporate world, but Graff soon realized that curds were his calling. About one year in, he stopped looking for a “real job” and dove head- first into specialty food. In 2009, he started Venissimo’s Academy
of Cheese, and over the next several years, he led dozens of intimate tastings, as well as large, monthly corporate events, partnering with hundreds of area businesses. In 2017, he launched Veni Voyages: fully-immersive consumer cheese trips to various destinations around the globe. To date, Veni Voyages has taken groups to Northern Italy, Southern France, Normandy, Sicily, the Alps, Paso Robles, and Northern California. Another passion project of Graff ’s has been conceptualizing and launching Liquid City, a cheese-focused, multi-day event complete with a Maker’s Night and Cheese Expo.

Who is your biggest inspiration in the cheese world?

Several individuals influenced my early career and made me believe there could be something beyond the cheese counter. Laura Werlin and Janet Fletcher are published cheese writers I looked up to. I saw Will Studd and thought maybe someday I could get paid to travel. Anthony Bourdain made me think I could be edgy and arty in the food space.

My biggest influence, though, was my boss, Gina Freize. She and her husband Roger started Venissimo Cheese in January 2004. After I decided to be a career monger, I had to ensure there was a path of continued growth in the cheese world. Gina became more of a mentor on the business side of things. Early on, she gave me creative freedom to build the Academy of Cheese. She gave me confidence to speak in public. She encouraged and then corralled my nutty ideas and polished them up for public consumption. We still meet weekly to riff and catch up on life.

What’s your number one goal for your career in the cheese industry?

20s: grinding and learning, 30’s: mastering, 40s: growing businesses, 50s and beyond: sharing, teaching, helping, giving. My goal is to never get a real job. I would like for my career to continue to provide me with emotional and intellectual contentment. I would like to be financially comfortable. I would like to find passionate stewards of the various programs I’ve built—Academy of Cheese, Veni Voyages, and Liquid City. I hope these projects will help provide others with long careers in the cheese industry. I would like for Liquid City: Cheese Expo to become a staple on the cheese circuit.

You’re on a desert island and can only eat one cheese for the rest of your life. What is it?

My desert island cheese is Comté. Comté would be fabulous paired with the tropical fruit I’d find on the island. Then, I’d find a pile of sticks and make a fire on the beach so that I could enjoy it gooey and melted. If I were stranded for a very, very long time (Tom Hanks in Cast Away), I would plant wheat to eventually make bread for a Comté grilled cheese topped with jam I made from the island’s tropical fruit.

What is an underrated cheese that everyone should know about?

This might sound weird, but I think the classics are underrated. Roquefort, Brie de Meaux, Appenzeller, Camembert, Parmigiano Reggiano, a good Clothbound Cheddar.

What is a pairing you’re ashamed to love?

Philadelphia cream cheese and wheat thins.

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