“This is the best job,” Monte Stoakes said, “because of the people.”
“A lifetime of being cheesy” was Stoakes’ only qualification for his best job, as Cheese Coordinator at Open Harvest Co-Op Grocery in Lincoln, NE. But moving into a new role in the summer of 2016 was nothing new. He’s had more than 80 jobs, from sword fighter to snorkel guide, since he left the University of Nebraska’s theater program in 1993.
He noticed a job posting on the bulletin board of the store and, because the produce manager is a relative, he got an interview. The food service manager, Christophe Bossaert, “thought I didn’t need experience, just desire.” Stoakes was hired just two days before Bossaert left on vacation. “I had two days of haphazard training, and then I got turned loose,” Stoakes recalled.
That was no problem for Stoakes. “It’s cheese—either you’ve always loved cheese or you haven’t. I like to learn stuff all the time. There’s an endless amount to learn.” Through cheese, Stoakes feels connected not just to the co-workers and customers at Open Harvest but with cheese lovers through history. “Some of the cheeses we sell are nine hundred years old, and the recipe hasn’t changed. Imagine somebody eating that exquisite cheese before their palates were changed by corn syrup and MSG.”
Best Job = Great Cheese + Great Stories
Stoakes has learned that “A good cheese with a great story is a great cheese.” For example, a cheese called gjetost, or Ski Queen, is made in Sweden from a combination of cow and goat milk. “They separate the curds from the whey, and then they caramelize the whey and add it back in, so you get all the nutrients in milk. Cheese is usually half of that. It’s called Ski Queen because it’s great for backpacking because of the nutritional density,” Stoakes said. “The first archeological evidence of caramelizing whey is from 650 B.C. in Scotland. In the 1880s, a woman introduced cream into the caramelizing process and revolutionized this cheese. She was just trying to make the most of what she had—you can’t just throw away the whey. She saved her region from famine.”
Roquefort, the first protected cheese, is another great story, Stoakes said. “To use the name, it has to be one of seven companies that have rights to the caves where the cheese is aged. It’s a sheep’s milk cheese. The story is that a French shepherd boy had sat down at the mouth of a case with to eat his lunch when a pretty lass walked by. He set his cheese sandwich down and followed her. He didn’t get back for a few weeks. His sandwich had turned blue, but he took a bite anyway. That’s the legend. The French philosopher Diderot called it the king of cheese—or the cheese of kings.”
Stories and Cheese Take Flyte
Stoakes shares stories and cheeses through pairing events with Zipline Brewery, one of the best parts of his best job. Stoakes and Craig Reier, cicerone of Zipline, test the pairings first. “You talk through it, letting your palate and imagination elaborate together. Good beer and good cheese—there’s not a bad pairing,” he said. He does admit that a lemon IPA didn’t work well with goat cheese. “The lemon cleanses the palate, and it cleansed everything but the goat taste at the end.”
The final pairings are offered at the events held at the new Zipline facility. For two hours, people sample cheese plates with flights of beer. Stoakes says, “For some people the presentation would be the challenge—‘now I have to talk to all these people.’ I really like that part. I know about the cheeses. But the challenge is to make sure I’ve got enough of everything cut, employees lined up, not forgetting anything at the store. I’ll think about it for days in advance.”
Stoakes compares the tasting experience to live music. “If you go to a good restaurant, you know everybody’s eating good stuff. But they’re not having the same bite of the same thing and being encouraged to talk about it,” he said.
For those not lucky enough to be able to get to an Open Harvest/Zipline event, what advice would Stoakes give about cheese? “Try it all. Whatever you like is okay. Some people like Colby, and they’re right. For me to tell you what the best cheese is would just be foolish.”