Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jill Zenoff, winner of the 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational. This semiannual competition is the Wimbledon of the retail cheese world, an opportunity for the people behind the counter to strut their stuff. In a series of zany challenges, the contestants flaunt their skills at cutting, wrapping, pairing, plating and selling cheese. A combination of Jeopardy!, Top Chef and America’s Got Talent, the day-long battle ends with a winner crowned on stage before a frenzied audience. Despite the contest’s madcap nature, victory confers prestige. For the monger who prevails, doors can open.
The 36-year-old Zenoff has worked for Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, California, for the past two years and was recently promoted to sous-chef. I was a judge and can attest to her salesmanship and irrepressible warmth. Like the 33 other CMI contestants from around the country, she had to complete a knowledge quiz and aroma test, prove her cutting accuracy and compose a Perfect Slate (an original platter), a Perfect Pairing (cheese plus beverage) and a Perfect Bite (a one-bite creation) using randomly assigned cheeses. Assuming the persona of a summer-camp counselor (at Camp Sleep-a-Whey, of course, on Fondue Lake), Zenoff made sure she was unforgettable. When she won, she grabbed her guitar and performed the camp song.
After college and culinary school in Chicago, I started working in fine dining. Then I got into the Jewish food and farming scene. I did a fellowship at a Jewish retreat center, an incredible farming program that brought in concepts of social justice. I started a quarter-acre farm in Chicago, then did a short stint in L.A. at a tech company. I was helping a San Francisco friend cater a wedding when I went to Cowgirl Creamery to get some cheese. I saw a “We’re hiring” sign and moved here 10 days later.
What was that “summer camp” theme all about?
All mongers have their own personalities. How can I take what I love about being a monger and synthesize it into something super-fun? I spent nine years at Jewish summer camp. Being a camp counselor is about being enthusiastic about whatever you’re doing that day. It was a way to make the whole Cowgirl Creamery team feel like they were participating. “Does anybody have ideas for the camp song or the camp logo?” I was trying to get everybody to feel like they were contributing to my experience.
How did you prepare for CMI?
It was a group effort. My managers put together a tour of cheese shops in San Francisco so I could taste PDO cheeses that we don’t carry. I bounced ideas off the marketing department for my signs. They did whatever I needed to make this cheese camp come to fruition.
Your Perfect Slate was brilliant. How did you dream that up?
I had L’Amuse Gouda, with all those tyrosine crystals and crunchiness. It would totally hold up on a hiking trip, but how do I turn it into a plate? Trail mix! Gouda, Dandelion Chocolate, roasted pumpkin seeds, candied walnuts and dried cranberries, with Two Chicks beef jerky on the side. We were definitely snacking on it around here.
How did you approach the Perfect Pairing segment?
I had Jasper Hill Winnimere and I thought, “Bug juice!” The recommended pairing for Winnimere is porter so I started Googling breweries near Jasper Hill. Hill Farmstead had just released their porter, but they don’t ship. The coolest thing I did was getting some of that beer to leave Vermont. It was smuggled out.
What was the scariest segment for you?
The Perfect Quarter-Pound. I horribly undercut during the first round, and I’m usually good at that. The aroma test I knew would be challenging. I only got one right. But the great thing about CMI is that you can bomb the aroma test and still be the best monger if you get high points on your presentation and salesmanship.
You really seemed to be having a great time. Apart from winning, what was the highlight?
The people. Oh, my goodness, they were so much fun. Everybody was helping everybody else. “Here, use my cutter.” Or helping others put the jam on their bites. The two guys from Utah stopped what they were doing to help me get the lids off my tumblers. Competition is kind of a misnomer. We were really just doing what we do every day but in a way that’s more fun. If you’re hyper-focused on being the best at CMI, you’re going to miss out.
Any sense that this win will change your life?
It already has. Today the owner of Rogue Creamery came in and asked to meet me. Anybody on that stage could have won; I doubt our scores were more than one or two points apart. The thing that has changed is that I have a platform now. Whatever I can do to keep advancing what mongers do, I will.
Why do you think you’re a good cheesemonger? What personal qualities help you?
I love what I do, and I love the people I’m with. I specifically wanted to work at Cowgirl because they connect everything: the farmers, the land, the makers and sellers. They have the principles I was trying to find in the restaurant world, combining food, community and nourishment.
What’s your desert-island cheese?
Can I just bring a goat with me?
Photos: Ellen Cronin | Courtesy of Cheesemonger Invitational