Tia Keenan Explains the Art of the Cheese Cart

Du fromage was and always will be at the forefront of the French diet (we like to throw du vin and du pain right in there, too). So yes, it’s time to upgrade your own cheese program, and you can take a few hints from the French on how it’s done. “No one has done the romance and mythology of cheese the way the French have,” says New York City-based chef/fromager Tia Keenan. We spoke with Keenan, the author of The Art of the Cheese Plate: Pairings, Recipes, Style and Attitude (Rizzoli, 2016), about why the romance of French cheese will never die and what your staff needs to know to sell the cheese cart.

Why is cheese so important to the French dining experience?

Cheese is central not only to French dining, but to French culture; it’s part of the socioeconomic and political life. The culinary traditions of France are rooted, literally, to the land. The butter, the meats, the vegetables, the wine, the bread, the cheese—they all relate to each other. The French canonized the concept of terroir, that a place has a taste. A French dining experience without cheese is missing a crucial element of what it means to be, eat and live a French life.

What do you love most about French cheese?

That’s a hard question, because French cheese is at the center of all cheese; it certainly inspired the current American artisan cheese revolution. I love the history, culture, flavors and mythology of it. No one has done the romance and mythology of cheese the way the French have, like, for example, with story of Roquefort. Legend says that a shepherd left milk in a cow’s bladder canteen and it coagulated. They are so good at telling these ancient stories which may or may not be true, but which convey the romance of cheese. And by romance, I mean our connection to the land, to each other and through time. They maintain the myth of cheese and give it that mystery that’s central to its character. They posit cheeses in a historical context and tell those stories. The French are like, ‘Government and leaders can change but cheese and wine will always remain!’

What wines or spirits work the best with French cheeses?

I don’t want to appear lazy, but ‘If it grows together, it goes together’ is especially true of French cheese and wines or cocktails. Think about the word ‘agriculture.’ The French live the words ‘agrarian' and 'culture.’ They know that all food is related to other foods (and drinks), and that the land ties them together. No one understands this as deeply as the French, except perhaps the Italians. So of course Époisses—a pungent washed-rind cheese from Burgundy—pairs so well with many Burgundian wines, from Champagne to Chablis to Marc du Bourgogne, which is the brandy that Époisses is washed in.

What should servers keep in mind when presenting or preparing a cheese cart tableside? 

Talk about what you’re doing! Tell the stories, speak to the beauty of the cheeses you’re serving. People eat with their eyes, and then their mouths. But ultimately, they eat with their minds. Give them an experience to remember. Teach them something. And if you get the vibe they don’t want to be engaged, then shut the hell up and give them a plate of cheese that’s the best they’ve ever had, and let the cheese do the talking while you stay silent.

Cheese plate from The Art of the Cheese Plate Photo: Noah Fecks

How does a chef’s cooking style impact the cheese program you help them build?

Usually a chef has a specific idea of how they want to represent themselves vis-à-vis their cheese program, and certainly the trend is for people to reflect their values and point of view through cheese. One example is Daniel Eddy of the modern French restaurant Rebelle in New York City. He’s French and wanted to do just one cheese, Comté, but he wanted it to be the best Comté he could find in the U.S. You get a plate with this beautiful, ribbony-y mess of the cheese, and it’s really visually appealing. It’s neat to see how many people post pictures of it on social media. This was a really interesting direction, because when I started working with cheese, a good program was about diversity and variety. We were in this place where we still learning about the world of cheese. Now the experience isn’t, ‘Oh my God, look at how many cheeses they have!’ It’s ‘Oh my God, I just had the best Comté of my life!’ That’s an interesting direction and something not possible 15 years ago. But now it’s seen as something worthy and compelling. Everyone knows there are all of these interesting cheeses out there, but now they’re willing to dive deeper and put a magnifying glass on just one thing.

How should a cheese list change with the seasons?

Cheese is seasonal, so a cheese list should reflect that. In winter, make sure to represent winter-only cheeses, like Vacherin Mont D'or, and stock up on hearty cheeses with deep flavors, like blues and hard-aged cheeses. In spring, roll out the young goat cheeses, and bloomy sheep cheeses; keep things light and fresh.

What's the secret to building a perfect cheese cart?

Quality, diversity, attention to detail.  A fromager whose passionate and knows the stories of the cheeses.

What role do balance and portion size play when it comes to a cheese cart?

A cheese cart should always look abundant and well-cared-for. But in terms of cheese plates, balance and portion play a big role in the success. I call it calibration: The portions need to be the correct size, the cheeses should represent an arc of flavors and styles. If you're bold enough to go with a plate that explores one type of cheese, make sure the condiments contrast each other, and are all different but also complementary. 

What are your favorite French cheeses and why?

I love the lightly pressed hard cheeses, like Salers du Baron. I love Ossau-Iraty from the Basque region, Roquefort, Epoisses and the Loire goat cheeses. How could I pick just one?

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