She is California’s first-ever winner of the Cheesemonger Invitational, and she prevailed in a landslide. Jessica Lawrenz, you rock. The 32-year-old monger from San Diego vanquished 34 other contestants from around the country in this grueling test of talent. She cut, she wrapped, she paired, she plated. And then, she almost blew it.
The day-long competition, held semiannually in New York and in San Francisco, tests both cheese knowledge and cheese-counter technique. Dreamed up seven years ago by Adam Moskowitz, a New York cheese importer, the contest bestows some cash and other prizes as well as aheap of prestige on the victor. Rounds include sensory tests, a written quiz, a salesmanship challenge and timed segments on cutting cheese accurately and wrapping it neatly. Entrants also present their pre-conceived Perfect Bites and Perfect Pairings for the judges’ scrutiny. The six top scorers compete before a screaming audience in the frenzied final rounds. Lawrenz was so far ahead of her colleagues going into the finals that the judges decided to start the scoring from scratch.
Here’s her take on the whirlwind experience:
A little background, please.
After I graduated from San Diego State, I started going to a little cheese shop (Venissimo) in Mission Hills once a month. I had $30 to spend, and I loved going there so much that when my hours got cut at work, I applied there. I’m now going on eight years and I’m the manager.
Your Perfect Pairing tied for first place. What was it?
I got assigned an 8- to 10-month-old Gruyère. I’m part Japanese, and I wanted to do a pairing that has a connection to me. So I paired it with gen mai cha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice and toasted popcorn. My grandmother always drank it. It’s a little more toasty than other green teas, and the cheese has toasty notes as well.
And your Perfect Bite?
My assigned cheese was Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. I love potatoes, so my idea was a wedge of Cheddar on top of a blue potato chip, with a dollop of American Spoon Apple & Onion Jam and a slice of bruléed Fuji apple. But I left the jam at my hotel, and the competition was going to happen in 15 minutes. I called my aunt, who came with me to San Francisco, but she didn’t answer. I needed that condiment!
I was calm outside, but I was freaking out on the inside. What am I gonna do? I called the hotel and got the concierge and said, “I have a really weird request. I’m giving you permission to go in my room and go through the polka-dot suitcase. Unwrap all the wrapped things and look for the apple and onion jam.” Then I requested a Lyft driver to go to the hotel. The concierge gave the jam to the driver and he drove it to where I was waiting outside, in the rain. He dropped it off right before we started the assembling. It felt like “Top Chef.” The other girl at my table, she was making her Perfect Bites and someone knocked them over. All of her bites fell on the ground. They should do a documentary.
And the cutting competition? Tell me about that.
You get to choose a wheel on the table—I chose Manchego—and then you get 60 seconds to cut as many quarter-pound pieces as possible. They weigh all your pieces, and you get a point if you hit a quarter-pound. If it’s .24 or .26, you don’t. I got two points, which was second best. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at this. I know I can do better.
So I’m coming into Venissimo with $30 to spend…
Cheesemonger Contest Heats Up
Seven years in, the madcap Cheesemonger Invitational is achieving what founder Adam Moskowitz hoped: lifting standards and nurturing community among the people who operate America’s cheese counters. “I kind of feel like CMI has become this bellwether of best practices and innovation,” says Moskowitz. “And cheesemongers feel more legitimized thanks to the spotlight.”
Moskowitz points to Lilith Spencer, the 2016 Winter Champion whose eye-popping cheese platters for the Cheese Shop of Santa Fe have raised the bar in that niche.
Renowned for showing up at the contest in a cow costume and leading the audience in moo baa maa chants, Moskowitz talks of expanding CMI, perhaps with international combat or a master’s level match.
“I think CMI inspires the elders, too,” says Moskowitz. “Hearing moo baa maa reverberate against the walls is really magical for them. The walls shake with cow noises and it’s inspiring. It’s a strange moment that I feel a bunch of people put in their pocket and save for a rainy day."