Welcome to our new series, The Apprentice. From time to time, CP will send a writer to work in F&B, then report back with their firsthand account of life on the other side of the menu.
The cheese had been missing for 12 hours. And not just any wheel of cheese, mind you. Rather, 500 pounds of cheese — semi-softs and parmesans, gooey camemberts and smoked ricottas. "Thousands of dollars of cheese," says Trudi Wagner, co-owner of goat.sheep.cow.
A flight had been delayed from New York, and since cheese is air cargo, it got booted to make way for baggage. Now, typically air cargo gets put on the next flight, but in the case of goat.sheep.cow.'s missing cheese, even if the cargo got rerouted and made it to Charleston, there was only a small window of time to pick it up. "Charleston's hangar closes at 8:30 p.m. every day," explains Wagner. "And it doesn't have refrigeration." Like an episode of 24 guest starring gouda, time was ticking.
Whether that anecdote makes you gag from the thought of noxious Fourme au Moelleux bleu molding in the August heat or shed a tear over the image of destroyed provolone, you can imagine how anxious Wagner and her business partner Patricia Floersheimer feel every Wednesday when they make their trip to the Charleston Airport to pick up goat.sheep.cow.'s weekly cheese shipment. Luckily, the Delta staff know them well. "Our boxes say, 'Odor is normal,'" says Floersheimer.
But back to the story. The good news? The cheese made it. The bad news? It sold out fast, as it does every week. That's what I learned when I stepped behind the counter of goat.sheep.cow recently for a whirlwind stage. Staging, for those who don't know, comes from the French term stagiaire meaning to apprentice. And for one morning I trained with the masters, Floersheimer and Wagner.
But for all their success, the women could never have predicted how well their 542-square-foot shop would do when they opened in 2011. What began as simply a retail space has grown into a wine, cheese, and charcuterie boutique that provides wholesale fromage to places like FIG, 492, and Edmund's Oast.
"We'll have someone like Todd [Garrigan] at Craftsmen call and say, 'Give me three times two' or three cheese, two pounds of each," says Wagner. Others, like FIG's Chef Jason Stanhope are a little more particular. "Jason only wants domestic cheese," says Wagner. "And he only wants raw." That's a tricky order in the States. According to current U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation, cheese can be made from unpasteurized raw milk so long as the cheese has undergone an aging process no less than 60 days at a temperature no less than 35° F. which means goat.sheep.cow has to keep inventory from places like Rush Creek Reserve and Rogue Creamery at the ready.
And knowing the difference between an imported semi-soft raw cheese and a domestic hard cheese is just the start. There's also the language to consider. "You have to be a translator to work here," explains Floersheimer. What she means is every goat.sheep.cow. employee must be versed in cheese talk in order to navigate shoppers through their daunting 170 cheese options — it's 200 during the holidays.
"We'll ask, 'What do you like?'" says Wagner. "Do you like grassy? Or lactic? Or a mild, salty cheese?" Then there's mouthfeel. Turns out many a cheese shopper has strong opinions on texture. "Women tend to prefer soft and semi-soft cheeses," Wagner adds. "Men prefer the harder cheeses." Of course that's generally speaking. What is for sure though is that American customers lean toward more mildly flavored cheeses while Europeans are all about the stinky stuff.
To educate the goat.sheep.cow. staff, all employees taste test new products then discuss the flavors. With no coaxing necessary, I try my hand at it. Wagner places a slice of L'Etivaz in front of me. "Flowers?" I say hesitantly. "Herbs?" Wagner nods encouragingly. "Yes, it's from Switzerland and only produced in the summer. So you're tasting all those fresh grasses and flowers the cows feed on during those months," she explains.
Next they unveil a Grayson Cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Va. It tastes, well, it tastes like the earth, if that's a thing. A smooth texture melts as it heats up in my mouth. "Now try it with the rind," Wagner says. Washed in salt, the tougher bite reveals an altogether new flavor, more nutty. After eight different cheeses, I'm starting to become more fluent, but like a panic attack before the SATs, I look at wheel upon wheel of aged goodness in the refrigerated counter and am convinced I'd never be able to keep track.
"At first I could only remember like six cheeses, and that's what I'd tell people to get," admits Collin McKee. But after four years at goat.sheep.cow., McKee is now well versed in all the varieties. He says the key is to remember each by a story. I give it a shot.
I think back on that L'Etivaz and picture a Swiss Miss turning in her resignation letter to the cocoa company and opting for a more charmed life navigating a heard of happy cows through an alpine meadow. That's a story.
Maybe I can work in a cheese shop after all.