L'Espalier mâitre d' and fromager Louis Risoli has passed the first ever American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional Exam. And by "American Cheese" it just means the society is from America, so don't get any wrong ideas about those plastic-sheathed florescent slices. Risoli says that the new exam is comparable to similar programs in Europe, though the U.S. equivalent had been lacking until now. He passed the exam at the start of last month in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is now considered an ACS Certified Cheese Professional. So just what does that mean? Eater spoke with Risoli to find out.
Tell me about the exam. This is something that the American Cheese Society has been working on for at least 8 years. There's been nothing in this country that defines what a cheese professional is, so this exam really is the beginning of setting that straight. It's really a way of helping the public, of helping cheese lovers in general, make sure that there are certain standards. So when they go into a cheese shop that has some certified professional working in it, they know that they're going to be taken care of in a great way.
What separates someone who passes the exam from everyone else? I think the exam is fairly all encompassing. It covers lots of different aspects of the cheese industry, and the bar was set pretty high for who could actually take this test: you needed to have a lot of experience working with cheese and with customers. The idea wasn't to flunk a lot of people, it was just to set standards for what could be expected. Oh, I had to study quite a bit for this test. I knew a lot already, especially about cheese, but some of the other aspects of the industry I didn't know quite so much about. So it was helpful for me to really bone up on all of that.
So who is qualified to even take the exam? I would have to check the website for the exact specifics, but I know it calls for something like around four or five thousand hours of work with cheese or certain types of educational programs. It was all based on hands on experience over the course of many years.
What's an example of something you might find on the exam? A lot of the questions ask for analysis. I can only paraphrase questions, but they were all multiple choice questions. It might be something like "which of the following groups of cheeses are placed in order based on strength, alternating types of milk, and texture?" Something like that, and then there will be four different answers listing five or six types of cheeses, and only one of them will match that criteria.
How do you study for something like this? There are a few books that cover a fair amount of this territory. So much of what I learned I learned from hands on experience. There is nothing like doing to learn what you're doing. We were sort of the guinea pigs with this test, the first batch taking it, and there will probably be more in the way of guidelines published by the cheese society. It was a challenge. I definitely overstudied certain aspects and am hoping to have a little bit of input as to what the focus of the test will be in the future.
Do you have an all time favorite cheese? Sure. That's sort of a shifting thing. I'm often thinking that the newest cheese I've gotten in is the one I'm loving the most at the moment. But in general I really love alpine style cheeses. Your semi-firm, "Swiss" style cheeses, with a really nice nuttiness that heads toward sweetness and maybe some pepperiness in the finish. There's really wonderful, complex cheeses that are made both in Switzerland and by several American cheese makers such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin or Tarentaise made either by Spring Brook Farm or Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont. Any cheese put out by Rolf Beeler is pretty wonderful.
What do you have at L'Espalier right now? I have about thirty cheeses on my cart right now. About two-thirds of those are American, many of those quite local. Wonderful cheeses from Ruggles Hill Creamery in Hardwick, Massachusetts. My selection from Vermont cheeses, several from Jasper Hill Farm and some really nice farmstead French cheese from Savoie.
Will taking the exam change anything about the cheese program at L'Espalier? Well so much of the cheese program is really based on education, and I have a fairly large staff, and they all know an awful lot about cheese. I think this program has helped guide me in my training of the staff to give them more knowledge and help in serving our guests. We just started something called the Salon Sessions taking place in our small, intimate salon once a month. I'm hosting this with Erich Schliebe, who is our beverage director and sommelier. It's going to be a series of intimate tastings, and each month we'll pick four different cheeses and four different beverages: it's going to be champagne this month. That did come out of my studying for the exam when I was reading a lot about pairings. I've been much more interested in cheese and beverage combinations.