A Way with Cheese: An Interview with Lilith Spencer, @cheesemongrrl
A conversation with Lilith Spencer, winner of The 2016 Cheesemonger Invitational, and creator of the kaleidoscopic cheese platters @cheesemongrrl on Instagram.
I first met Lilith Spencer when we were mongering (mongressing? mongrrling?) together in Brooklyn, years ago. In the food world, where many of us were in the middle of switching from one thing to the next or in between here and there, I found Lily’s 100% pure love of cheese almost as spellbinding as her knack for making the raunchiest pop songs perfect and new again whenever she cued them up to blast from the shared speakers in the cheese shop while we cleaned and did other menial tasks together during closing shifts. As a generalist who is frequently distracted and quickly bored, I’ve always had a special spot in my heart for those rare souls who can choose a thing and stick with it no matter what until it becomes almost holy. Lily somehow managed to do this with the supposedly opposing worlds of both fine cheese and dirty pop. Once you know her, the idea that those things ever seemed opposite becomes absurdly reductive, and their union begins to make perfect sense. Lily is a person who can encompass so much varied beauty, knowledge, experience, and wonder all at once, and her unparalleled work with cheese is just one example of that. For further evidence, check out the tiny house she and her fiancé are almost finished building together from scratch on her Instagram account, when it pops up between images of her jewel-toned food masterpieces, exploding with lusciousness. You should also hear her sing karaoke with a flask of moonshine hidden in her garter, which, of course, she will be delighted to share with you, and which will make you wonder why you never thought to show up to karaoke with a bottle of moonshine strapped to your own tender thigh. She has this way of making the most decadent and impossible things necessary, easy, affordable, and within reach. It’s revelatory.
You’re extremely committed to cheese. The best word I can think of to describe your relationship with it is devotion.
There’s a feeling I have about cheese as a craft. If I continue working with it, I’ll tap into something essential and important. It’s not like I’m constantly shifting gears, but I transitioned so much from at first loving being a cheesemonger, where you talk to people about cheese and teach them about it. That was my favorite part of that cheese job. Then, after a few years, I wanted to see what else I could do. I tried helping open a cheese shop, and being in management at a cheese shop. Both of those were also interesting to me. I liked learning how a business ran and thinking about customers in a new way. Eventually, I started craving the freedom to be creative, and that’s how I ended up where I am now in my current role at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe. Another way to put it would be that I just keep pulling on this string, and it’s taken me to all of these places that I didn’t necessarily plan to go, but that I feel really comfortable at once I get there.
If the string you keep pulling on is your love of cheese, when did that spark initially hit you, and when did you know you were in really deep?
I’ve always loved cheese as a food, but I didn’t start thinking about it in a more complicated way until college, when I took a nutritional anthropology class. I had to choose a single food to write about from historical, scientific, and nutritional perspectives. Obviously, I chose cheese. Once I started doing the research, I got sucked in and realized that I could learn and think about cheese forever. There are the politics of it because of how we police raw milk in this country. Then there is the history of pasteurization and the science behind if raw milk is better or worse for you than pasteurized milk. Cheese making is a science, but it’s also an art. Once I realized how multi-faceted cheese was, I stuck with it, because I knew I’d never get bored, and I haven’t.
The gorgeous platters on your Instagram @cheesemongrrl are clearly, singularly yours, and yet you don’t own the shop you create them for or have a managerial role there. So, even though it’s clear that you’re making these sumptuous mandalas for your catering job, anyone looking at them can feel that there’s this whole next level thing going on that’s purely yours. How do you create such unique products within the constraints of your day job?
On the days that I don’t have to make platters at work, it’s really hard for me to stay focused because I feel like I need that creative outlet. It’s the methodical way that I go through it that feels cathartic: laying everything out, setting up the meat, and then the little things like cutting open blood oranges. Thinking about all of the colors and where they’re going to go and what would look good next to what. It’s something I can contemplate at length. There’s this time when I’m slicing meat or I’m picking the cheeses that I can just really focus. A lot of my work in the shop involves interacting with people, and the customers are demanding in terms of the energy you need to have to do a good job helping them, so it’s a nice reprieve to stand in a different part of the store and create my platters. I get lost in the colors and shapes while other things are happening all around me. That kind of makes it feel even better, like a special little island where I don’t have to worry about any of that customer service stuff for a bit.
You’ve compared the way you orchestrate the platters to going on a hike or following a trail…
It’s like building a garden out of food. My favorite time to make the platters is in the summer because of the farmers market. All of the produce is so bright, ripe, and in season. I usually go to the farmers market twice a week just to make sure we always have the freshest ingredients. I like to get a little bit of every color possible and present in food. In summer, there are lots of great yellow and red tomatoes, and sometimes even green and purple ones. I try to find the brightest, most saturated colors, and then things to balance them out like white radishes or something of that nature for contrast. I look for colors and unusual things that people wouldn’t necessarily think to put on a cheese plate that I can also imagine tasting well with certain cheeses. For example, I don’t think people put fresh vegetables on cheese plates nearly enough. You know, you have salty, sweet, spicy, and crunchy. That’s great, but you also need something fresh because cheese is so dense and rich. I’m obsessed with texture.
What are your favorite ingredients to add to a cheese plate?
There’s all this stone fruit here in New Mexico in the summer, like plums and apricots. A lot of them are on the smaller side because we’re in the high desert, so things grow a little differently, but they’re so flavorful. There are also beautiful, edible flowers.
Describe your process.
I just start on one end and either work across the whole thing or sometimes I build like little kingdoms on different areas and then fill in the gaps in between. I begin by setting everything up, you know, grabbing my olives, et cetera. I always drain the olives, dry them off, and toss them in olive oil, because they stay really shiny that way. I slice a lot of the vegetables on the meat slicer, super-thin. There’s a lot of preparation, but once I’ve prepped all of the ingredients, it only takes me about half an hour to make a platter. I make sure that there are a variety of spreads, like fruity ones, honeys, and mustards. I like to make sure that there are not just sweet but also savory accompaniments—not just a bunch of jams. I like to add weird stuff too. It’s totally fun and fine to put kimchi on a cheese plate, for example, or even just plenty of fresh vegetables to add crunch that’s not coming from a cracker. It lightens and brightens the whole thing up.
Is being creative with food different than other kinds of creativity or art making?
It’s a different medium for sure, but I still think of the same stuff when I build a platter; colors, lines, shapes, balance, and all that. Like anything, the more you know about food, the more comfortable you feel working with it. The main difference is that you can make something look great, but it might not taste great and vice versa. I guess you can screw up any kind of art, but I think that you could say that a specific food creation is objectively disgusting, and you might not be able to do that with other kinds of art.
Do you have any advice about cheese pairing and plating for novices?
Lots of people want someone to tell them that something goes with a specific cheese, but there aren’t really any rules, and there are so few things that you can put together that taste bad if you’re using quality ingredients. For example, an alpine cheese might taste a lot like caramelized onions. So, not even thinking about cheese, but thinking about what you would usually enjoy eating with caramelized onions such as roast beef, you could pair a cured beef like a bresaola with that alpine cheese instead of a random salami. You can put a bit of thought into it by isolating those flavors. That’s one way that you can begin to develop an intuition when it comes to flavor pairings.
What are some surprisingly successful pairings using atypical ingredients?
Asian flavors. I like the flavor of sesame with cheese, for example. So, if you wanted something sweet you could do halvah, or if you had crackers that had a lot of sesame seeds in them, I think that always tastes so nice, because it is like a different kind of nuttiness, and you don’t have to eat like a big, round thing—you know sometimes you just need like a little sprinkling of something crunchy. I also like to use miso on a cheese plate, like a darker miso, because it is a bit boozy, and you can taste that it is fermented and sweet and savory at the same time. Umeboshi plums can be really fun if you can find the right cheese like a nice, strong, kind of funky cheese. I already talked about vegetables, but I really, really like to put fresh vegetables on a cheese plate. I also like to take plain pairings and bring them up a notch. You know marinating olives in warm olive oil and spices for a couple of hours. They just taste so much better if they’re warm and in the oil like that. Or you can take dried fruit and soak it in booze and bake it, and then it becomes this totally different, exciting thing that goes with cheese.
Wait, what can we do with dried fruit?
You know, like if you have dried figs, you can soak them in some port, and then you can bake them in the oven for a little while. Dates are also really awesome if you soak them in bourbon or whiskey, and then you bake them. They get really fudgy. I like to put cracked pepper on top of honey too. It adds a little heat and makes it sparkle.
How do you feel about the idea that fine food can be inherently aristocratic and exclusionary?
This is something I actually do struggle with, which is the way in which the food community is inaccessible or very inaccessible in terms of class but also race too. I’m having this ongoing conversation with other cheese friends, and we’re also trying to write about this issue in our community, about how people who work in the industry are usually people who have been exposed to this kind of food growing up, you know like nice food, which means they’re probably coming from a higher or at least middle income place, and it just kind of is like a self-perpetuating cycle. I do have a problem with the way we price food here in the United States and the foods that are subsidized and available to lower income people. It’s not fair. I don’t really know what to do about it. But I do think that you can make really good food at home on a budget. I don’t think that cooking techniques are inherently inaccessible, but I think we’ve made them that way in this country over time. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or fancy ingredients, but I think a lot of people believe that you do now, just because food is like such a competition now—it is so competitive and trendy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be fancy or have a lot of money to make delicious food. You can make a really amazing meal in one pot. I do it all the time.
- A Way with Cheese: An Interview with Lilith Spencer, @cheesemongrrl - March 25, 2016