The Cheese Master

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When chefs want to get creative with cheese, they consult the expert: Claire Menck, corporate chef for Emmi Roth.

It wasn’t long ago when consumers favored a good ol’ slice of American cheese on their burgers. But chefs know all too well that times—and palates— have changed. Today’s diners are seeking an adventure for their taste buds, and cheese offers a familiar (and comforting) medium for exploring new flavors, textures and spices. At retail, “cheese and plant-based cheese” is the top-selling category out of 61 specialty foods, according to the Specialty Food Association, bringing in $4.4 billion in 2016.

“People want to push their palate, and they want that intensity of flavor; so blue cheese and very spicy things seem to be doing that for people right now,” says Claire Menck, corporate chef for Emmi Roth, who often works with independent chefs and restaurant owners to enhance and monetize their cheese program. To give diners some heat, she recommends pepper. (Emmi Roth, for example, offers Ghost Pepper Cheese, Sriracha Gouda and Three Chili Pepper Gouda.) For a fun jolt of flavor, however, she says go for the blue.

“Take a hamburger: You can increase the perceived value, or market value, of the burger with blue cheese because it adds another level of flavor for the consumer, and it doesn’t cost that much,” she says. “It’s a different experience, and it’s more unique; it’s kind of that ‘wow’ factor.”

Part of what keeps cheese leading the pack at retail are the stories behind the product that tell consumers where it was made, who made it and the mission behind the farm’s concept. From milk to production to aging, the artisanal craftsmanship of cheese-making inherently lends itself to fascinating storytelling that evokes emotion and compels shoppers to buy. To justify a premium price for a more premium product on a restaurant menu, it’s crucial for chefs to market that same story, just as well as retailers do.

“I say people always eat stories, and that’s what it is,” Menck says. “Consumers want it, and chefs are trying to meet that need. They want transparency of label and understanding where it came from; they want the story behind the ingredients.”

Revealing the backstory is also a medium to convey ethical or health claims, such as 100 percent natural, locally made, no growth hormones or no antibiotics. “Branding the story on your menu–or wherever you market it–increases the value of your product,” she says. “So if you’re going to make a deluxe burger, you’re going to pay more for the cheese, but you get that story as well.”

Compelling stories might elaborate on family ownership; hand-made or small batch production; or the quality of ingredients. For example, Menck brags that Emmi Roth’s milk is sourced only from Wisconsin cows, all of which are raised no farther than 60 miles from its production facility. “We know almost down to the wheel of cheese, the farm and the cow that that cheese comes from, and I literally can go talk to that farmer,” she says.

Another way to take diners on an adventure–and produce a more premium product–is to capitalize on the surprise element by using cheese in nontraditional ways, a challenge that requires in-depth knowledge of chemical composition, melting points and flavor profiles. When chefs go looking to break the (cheese) mold, they often tap Menck for her expertise.

“I know the product inside and out, that’s what I do. So I can help with application and help pick out a product that works for that dish,” she says. “Specialists can help with technical issues and also offer a historical perspective to help you understand what the product is and where it came from, so that then chefs can go out and break the rules and re-apply them.”

Menck helped one chef pick out the perfect blue cheese for a Chocolate Cherry Blue Cheese ice cream, finished with a port wine reduction. “It’s great because when you heat the milk for the ice cream base and blend the cheese and chocolate, it really emulsifies and you don’t get clumps of cheese,” she says. “And those are all flavors that go really well together. So we talk about compatible flavors and how do you extend those into dishes and play with those flavors profiles.”

Other chefs have tapped Menck for her guidance in incorporating cheese in unexpected cuisines, such as Asian (for which she recommended a fondue made with saki instead of white wine) and even seafood (she had the chef blend a ginseng-infused cheese into the sauce of a shrimp dish).

“So Asian cuisine is not a traditional cheese-heavy cuisine, but that’s changing. I’ve worked with a few chefs that are looking to integrate cheese,” she says. In fact, with vegetables now moving toward to the center of the plate, Menck says cheese can “play a really big roll” in providing that hearty “umami” flavor. “It’s easy to get trapped in your own kitchen when you’re a chef, so (consulting an expert) just gives you an opportunity to really get creative and break the mold of what you normally do,” Menck says. “It gives you a chance to develop new concepts and flavors and plates, and I think that’s the coolest part of the industry.”

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