Cuisine culture runs deep in Portland, but there are few people as connected to it as Steve Jones. His retail operation and kitchen, the Cheese Bar, has provided him with the opportunity to showcase his theatrical knowledge of cheese with essential pairings of meat, bread, beer and wine. Surely, it’s one of Mt. Tabor’s signature spots. It’s the go-to place in Portland to buy a hunk, or ten, of whatever satisfies your cheese craving. After all, that’s what many of Portland’s best chefs do. Anyone who visits Portland’s best restaurants can’t avoid a “Steve’s Cheese Plate” on menus or specials boards.
I caught up with Steve just days after he was crowned champion at the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational in New York City, besting 39 other cheesemongers from around the US. A cheesemonger doesn’t make cheese. They choose it, pair it, describe it, serve it, and showcase it. And it’s rather fitting that Steve’s victory wasn’t his alone. He did it the Portland way, with the help of his great friend and chocolatier David Briggs (of Portland’s own Xocolatl de Davíd), with whom Steve once worked at Park Kitchen. It was the secret accompaniment—David’s caramel and bacon popcorn served in a tiny paper cone sporting the retro Cheese Bar logo—paired with Steve’s choice of an extra-aged Bergkase cow cheese from Austria that wowed the judges. I had the opportunity to enjoy the winning plate as Steve and I sat down at the Cheese Bar to talk about the life and times of the USA’s—and Portland’s—champion of cheese.
What were the requirements for the dish you created at the competition?
I knew I needed one food item that wasn’t cheese, and, of course, cheese. I had David’s bacon caramel popcorn set as the other food item. And then you had to pick the cheese off their buffet of cheeses. I figured they would have a mountain cheese I would use. But, as I was leaving my house on my way to the 5:45am flight to New York, I checked my e-mail for the last time, and they changed the rules. Suddenly, they said, “You may have one non-food item.” But I had no time—one non-food item? Of course, my competitors would be using one, so I HAD to.
So then on the plane I came up with this idea—what would be great is this little circus sleeve. As soon as I got to New York, I bought a six-pack and brought it over to my buddy’s house in Queens. “Let’s design this thing!” So we hammered it out.
So how are you supposed to eat this? Little bit of this, little bit of that?
You know, people ask, “The cheese first or the beer first?” As a cheesemonger I always go, “Cheese, beer, cheese…”
So what specifically did you pick up there that you brought back, other than a grand and a Swiss cheese book?
There is going to be a whole bunch of East Coast cheese that has never been out here before—a bunch of little bitty farms. There’s some Portuguese cheese that I’m really hopeful I can pull off. There were a few new Swiss cheeses that are really, really funky and weird that we’re working on getting. If everything goes right, in about two months about half of the varieties in the Cheese Bar should be all brand new cheeses that we’ve never had before. So… yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a really good trip like this one.
So do you think those people on the East Coast might be more envious of your access to varieties than you might be of the East Coast?
Well, they’ve got Vermont. If you took Vermont out of the picture, it would probably be an equal playing field. And I honestly think that we are going to become a major, major player in artisan cheese within the next ten years. I mean, like on the level with Vermont. We have green grass here year round and all these young creamers.
Did you hear a lot of talk about Portland there?
People love Portland. Vermont’s got the same “do it yourself” attitude and the whole “hipster” thing like New York.
Do you have a particular trip that you took that sticks out in your mind where you thought, “I love being a cheesemonger?”
It would be a toss-up between the trip I just took to New York and one to Bra, Italy for the cheese festival. The festival is simply called “Cheese,” and the entire village is overtaken by 400 cheese makers from all over Europe and a handful from North America, too. But it’s just teeny tiny producers and everything is just unbelievable. And you’ve just got a density of cheese dorks. We’re just rolling around, drinking beer and eating cheese and having a blast. Not pretentious and just totally fun. Learned a ton. Got to see the inside of some great facilities. Just really, really—definitely made me want to keep doing what I’m doing.
Is there a common thread among cheesemongers—a personality type?
Well, you definitely can’t be timid. Because people—if they’re going to go to the effort of going to a cheesemonger—they want the experience. And you are a big part of that experience. You can give them the best tasting piece of cheese in the world, and if you don’t use colorful adjectives and present it well, it could mean shit. But if you excite these people, and you tell them about the six cows and the four acres and so on, then that’s the theater of selling cheese.
At this competition, a lot of people had theater backgrounds. They spoke with their hands, they spoke loudly and clearly. A cheesemonger is potentially a dying breed. Every Fred Meyer and Whole Foods has a decent cheese section now. So, you know, to win somebody over—they drive way up to 61st & Belmont and find parking and walk in and buy eight pieces of cheese—you’ve got to do something more than just give them a tasty piece of cheese. Cheesemongers are generally opinionated and pretty loud.
You don’t strike me as a loud guy.
No, I’m not loud. But I’m definitely opinionated. One of my personal things that I can’t stand when I go out to eat is when I ask a server, “Of these three items, which do you prefer?” and they say, “They’re all really good.” Great! But which one is the best? Which one should I get? Tell me your opinion. Have an opinion. Help me decide. And that’s a big part of cheesemongering. You get people to come in, and they look at 250 cheeses, and they say, “How the hell am I ever going to pick?” And you have to be able to say, “I’ll go help you,” and then actually help them. And then you have to ask them things like, are you sharing this with other people? Are you eating this with wine or beer? Are you serving it today, tomorrow, or next week?
I really haven’t worked under a lot of cheesemongers, I’m kind of self-taught, but my dad is a world-class sales person, and I think he just kind of taught us all to listen well and to kind of be salesmen—me and my three brothers.
How many Steve’s Cheese Plates are there at restaurants in Portland?
We’ve got probably 30 consistent accounts.
Do you choose what they serve, or do the chefs choose?
Everyone is different. We strive for a relationship in which eventually they can say, “We’re ready for cheese,” and we’re done. A lot of chefs will give you parameters: “I only want regional cheese,” “I only want American cheese,” or, “I don’t care as long as it’s cow-goat-sheep.” Some want a particular theme, so we try to figure out that relationship as quickly as we can, and then our kind of agreement with them is that they will reorder within ten days, because that’s in most cases, the life of the cheese.
So when did you first decide, cheese? What was the moment?
I got an art degree in painting. So, what the hell was I going to do for a living? I learned how to cook. I was basically line cook. I was never a chef. People always wanted to try to put that hat on me, but I was just a cook. I worked in the industry off and on for about 10 years and I got tired of the hours. My wife hated the hours, and I hated watching people in the industry become bigger and bigger drunks and bigger and bigger assholes. I didn’t want that for my life and as I approached my 30’s, I wanted something better. But I really love food and all I had was an art degree. So I dropped into retail food, and I was managing a delicatessen and really enjoyed it. There was a small cheese section and a small cured meat section, so I slowly built that up into something that was kind of nice, but it wasn’t spectacular since I was learning on the run.
Then a guy in St. Louis saw my section and said, “Hey, do you want to come over and help open three shops for me?” He had a small wine chain in St. Louis and said, “I want you to come over and focus on American cheese.” And it was really cool. He was doing something that was so ahead of its time—15 years ago. We were doing predominantly American cheese at a time when there wasn’t that much great American cheese, but the movement had begun. It set me down the road talking to all these small farmers and building these relationships and going to American Cheese Society meetings… So, that was the beginning.
Can you recall your favorite food experiences in Portland?
About 10 years ago, when I was interviewing for the job at Provvista, they took me to Paley’s. That was my “coming back to Portland” moment. I don’t really remember specific aspects of the meal, but I just remember it being pretty amazing. I think one of my first meals at Clarklewis, back in the day, was pretty spectacular.
As the cheese guy, what’s your favorite pizza in Portland?
Dove Vivi, Apizza Scholls of course. But Sizzle Pie is a new place. For a “slice” place, you can’t beat them. It’s got a little bit of that char, but not too much. It’s very punk rock.
And your time off—what do you do?
I get about a half a day off a week. Some of our favorite things to do are we’ll run out to the gorge and do a hike, and then head on out to Hood River and have pizza and beer at Devil Mountain, because they’re open on Monday and that’s my day off. We try to tie in food and beer and kid events. We’re raising the kids, you know.