Tia Keenan: An Artist in an Artisan Cheese Revolution

by kirstin on February 12, 2010

Cheese Pairings by Tia Keenan

Cheese Pairings by Tia Keenan

The start of a new “It’s Not You, it’s Brie” era, ripe with interviews of people who live, breath, swim in, or just do incredibly cool things with cheese, has begun. Starting today, “It’s Not You, it’s Brie” will feature weekly or bi-weekly spotlights on those that are charming the world with fermented milk.

I am happy to announce that the first interview is with Chef Fromager Tia Keenan, a friend, a dairy advocate of the highest order who always thinks outside the cheese box, and an all-around bad ass. Keenan launched the acclaimed cheese and wine bar Casellula nearly three years ago in New York City, where her style, pairings and focus on artisan dairies made the restaurant a national cheese destination. And she didn’t stop there.

What inspired you to go into a life of cheese? In other words, how was your road to cheese worship paved?

I started my career in restaurants in 1999, a transformative time in the NYC restaurant scene. There was a professionalization happening.  The work was potentially no longer about being an actor who’s a waiter.  People were developing specialties, and the industry was attracting passionate, creative people who worked with food and drink in new ways and who had IDEAS.  I was initially a “front of the house person” — a waiter, and then a manager.  In 2003 I had the good fortune of landing at Fleur de Sel, a Michelin-starred Breton restaurant operated by the amazingly talented Chef Cyril Renaud.

We had an investor who’d come in and want a family-style cheese course.  Cyril asked me to call Murrays Cheese and arrange for the cheese.  I opened up an account and started tasting.  Liz Thorpe, who is now the VP of Murray’s Cheese and author of The Cheese Chronicles, was my wholesale rep.  I think she was the ENTIRE wholesale department! We may not have been able to clearly articulate it back then, but we knew there was great change and growth in artisan cheese in the U.S. Recently, Daphne Zeppos, the goddess of Comte cheese in the U.S., called me part of Cheese 2.0.  A cheese revolution was happening, so to speak.  I was blessed to become part of it.

You launched what is, to my knowledge, the only entirely cheese-consumed restaurant in the U.S., Casellula in NYC. Explain your inspiration for this and why you knew something so different would be a success.

I cut my teeth running a cheese program at The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art.  It was in many ways a classic, Euro-centric program: 30 selections on a cheese cart, tableside service, one condiment, raisin-nut bread. I carried some American cheeses.  I began to tell people “there’s a cheese revolution happening in the U.S.” In fact, THEY began telling me: by asking more sophisticated questions, requesting better cheeses, loving on their cheese plates with gusto.  It was 2005, but there was something so OLD about the paradigm of cheese programs, so EUROPEAN.  I began to think about what an AMERICAN cheese approach would be.

I decided it would be fun, whimsical, irreverent and focus more on “local” cheese, i.e. cheeses from the U.S.  The bar was set so low I felt I had a blank slate to work with.  I had gone to art school and then gotten a degree in journalism.  I wanted to create and communicate with cheese. Through cheese I was able to explore everything that interested me: flavor, food politics, the discovery of pleasure, creating new paradigms. So I did that at Casellula.

Your time at Casellula introduced a new way to approach cheese. Explain your concept of “cheese as sushi,” and how you come up with your cheese pairings. For example, what inspired you to pair Twig Farm’s washed-rind with miso-mustard pickles?

When I explain my work with cheese I often tell people “I’m like a sushi chef, but instead of working with fish I work with cheese.”  I connect very much to the values of Japanese food culture.  They really understand fetish as a food concept. The preciousness of product, the thrill of something perfect, the MOMENT of enjoyment, the universe conspiring to create this one nourishing, pleasurable bout of eating. The acceptance that something may never again be as pleasurable as it is RIGHT NOW.  It’s the opposite of American food culture, which venerates conformity and disposability.

When I create compositions of cheese and condiments, I’m listening to what the cheese asks for.  Does it want sweet, sour, bitter? Vegetal, floral, meaty?  Crunchy, creamy, toothy?  Then I’m also thinking about the experience I want to give the eater.  Do I want to conjure childhood memories by using, for example, marshmallows?  Do I want to confound and provoke them by using seaweed with cheese, which is not part of their flavor lexicon?  But when I made the miso-mustard pickles it was simply because I thought miso would work well in a brine.  And I thought the Twig washed-rind had asked me for acid.  And I thought it would look beautiful, the brightly colored baby carrots with their shocking green tops, the white oozy paste of the cheese.

Why do people love cheese?

People love cheese because we’ve been eating it for thousands of years.  It’s an expression of mother’s milk, our first food.  It’s good for us! It’s high in protein and good bacteria, nutrient dense.  It’s the perfect food in so many ways.  It’s mysterious and potent.  It tastes good. It’s visually intriguing. I’ll reiterate: It comes from boobs!

Even after leaving Casellula late 2009, your cheese presence has not faltered. Your twitter following has increased and you are continuing to spread the dairy gospel wherever you go. It’s safe to say that you’ve got street cred. How do you plan to use your influence in the cheese world?

I don’t think about influence.  I want to do good work that is provoking.  I want to engage people to think about ALL food differently, to ask What does this mean to me, to my community, and to the planet? What is this ACT of eating?  I always knew I’d be an artist. As a little kid I went through a millenary phase.  I grew up in the 80’s and I wanted to make hats!  I’ve always been a dreamer.  I used to draw pictures of nightclubs as a kid – the people, what they were wearing, what the space looked like. But I’d never been in a nightclub!  I never imagined cheese and food would become my medium, but I was never good at oil painting…

The role of the artist in society is to ask What if? And to show people a new point of view.  To that end, my work in the food world is broadly about showing another way and creating a unique, alternative, food-based experience.  If I do that well people will connect with my work, and I suppose that’s it’s own kind of influence. On a more literal level, I am more and more focused on American artisanal cheese and the value of connections between rural and urban economies.  There is a great shift happening in human society.  We MUST begin to re-prioritize our relationship with each other and the planet.  Food is a touchstone.

Any projects in the horizon?

I have lots of interesting projects in the works.  Some are cheese-centric and some are more broadly about food.  I teach, always.  I connect people. I explore.  This is the first time in a decade that I haven’t been working in a restaurant every day.  It’s scary and liberating!  I just agreed to do an event for Vermont Restaurant Week. I’m planning on serving cheese in a 15 foot feed trough.  I want people to eat cheese in the context of the animals who gave their milk (to make the cheese), to think about that while they enjoy the hard work of Vermont’s diary people, cheese makers, herd-managers, affineurs and milking animals.  I want people to understand the community of work that goes into a piece of artisan cheese.

Describe the sexiest cheese plate you’ve ever experienced.

Tough question! I don’t usually eat cheese at a restaurant unless they carry something I’ve never had before.  Honestly, I’m bored by a lot of restaurant’s cheese plates.  I prefer to eat cheese in the context of working with it.  That’s when I enjoy eating cheese the most. It’s more personal and mystical for me when I’m working with it.

Name eight cheeses that any cheese head must try before being given the honor of wielding such a title and share with us three cheese makers that we should be watching.

I’m going to flip this question around! I can’t help myself! The goal of a cheese head should be to try EVERY possible cheese they can. Good cheese, bad cheese, ALL cheese.  The great thing about cheese is that every wheel is different, mutable.  There are cheeses I’ve eaten for years that STILL surprise me and express something new to me when I eat them. There are so many talented cheese makers!  Some just have “the touch”.  Because my approach can be quite mystical, I tend to admire the work of iconoclastic producers who are able to somehow infuse a ‘fingerprint” on all of their cheeses, a unique point of view so to speak.  Their work is not necessarily consistent in terms of production amount or style, but their cheeses are consistently great.

Consumers need to start looking at cheese as producer-driven, like wine.  Not “I want a cheddar”, but I want something from this producer, whatever they are working on RIGHT NOW.  That said, I’d gladly cuddle in the barn with Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm, Kelly Estrella of Estrella Family Creamery, Michael Lee of Twig Farm, Rick and Helen Feete of Meadow Creek Dairy, Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy, Brad Parker of Pipe Dreams Farm, Nancy Richards of Bronson Hill Cheesery, I could go on and on and on…

And lastly, pastry chef Plino Sandalio of gouda ice cream fame wants you to explain for him the meaning of “they need some cheese for that cracker,” besides, well, you know, that crackers need love too.

I’m no linguist, so I can’t be sure about the origin of this phrase, but I’ll go with my gut.  There’s something sexual about it, the assumption of SPREADING something luscious and decadent.  There’s also a double meaning for me in that phrase, like crackers are boring white people and cheese is some soul, some flavor, some spice.  It’s possible that “They Need Some Cheese For That Cracker” is the follow-up single to James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn”.

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