Eric Miller: Cheesemonger Invitational Finalist, Pickle Guru, and Maker's Common Co-Founder
After reading the title description of Eric Miller above- Cheesemonger Invitational finalist, pickling guru, Maker's Common about-to-be-founder...
one might just naturally assume that it would be impossible for Eric to be anything more. Oh my friends, it is possible!
Eric and I met years ago when I was visiting friends at Mission Cheese. Then we hung out later on the Cheesemonger Invitational competition dance floor (not part of the competition, part of the party!). Then I watched him charm judges with his Perfect Bite the next year. Next, I traveled with him to Wisconsin on a recent cheese tour- see above. From these experiences, I can tell you that not only is he a cheese pairing master and able to pickle and cure everything from vegetables to charcuterie with skill, Eric is also very smart, funny, and he might even be able to break dance. And, he's about to launch Maker's Common with his Mission Cheese partners Sarah and Oliver in a very innovative way. So I thought it would be a good time to help you get to know Eric a little better.
Below is an interview with Mr. Miller. He's very involved in the cheese community, an awesome guy, and.... I think you should know the man who individually fried 100 quail eggs for His Perfect Bite a little better.
The Man, the Pair-er, the Pickler: The Maker's Common Co-Founder
Kirstin: If you could be one cheese for the rest of your life, what would you be? Why? If you wish, you can pick another cheese to morph into once you turn 65, too.
EM: I think I have to go with Rush Creek Reserve to start with. Everyone knows it’s special. It shows up once a year for a couple of months and everyone celebrates. It’s treated like royalty – the star of every cheese plate. And I’d get to be made by Andy Hatch and his crew. That sounds weird now that I think about it. In my second life as a cheese, I might go with a dearly departed cheese from Goat’s Leap Dairy – Eclipse or Sumi. I really miss those cheeses. And if I could bring them back I sure would. They were like our local little piece of the Loire.
As a cheesemonger who has been behind the counter of Mission Cheese slicing dairy for the discriminating eaters of San Francisco for years now, what are three things that you've noticed people assume about cheese that is not true?
EM: There are so many! One of the most absurd is that they think goats and sheep are the same animal. Seriously? I figured that would have been clarified by the time you’re an adult. Another is that there’s no gluten in blue cheese. There are studies that correct this one. Look them up. Get the facts. Lastly, I’d have to say that triple creams are bad because of all the fat. People don’t realize that 45% of the weight of a triple cream is moisture. It’s not like they’re eating a stick of butter here but they seem to think that’s what it is.
What are three things that you wish people knewabout cheese that many might not know?
EM: First and foremost, that not all goat cheese is created equal. So many think that they don’t like goat cheese because they has some nasty version of it that sat on a Safeway shelf for far too long and tasted of ammonia and filthy goat bedding. Sorry, but that’s not it. I also wish they knew the diversity in cheese styles. People ask for Brie, Manchego, and smoked Gouda (why?) all of the time. There’s so much more to cheese than those. Lastly, and this isn’t specific to cheese, they knew how to describe flavor. We need to move beyond just “sharp” or “sweet”. There’s so much more nuance that people don’t really think about. As a bonus answer, I wish people knew that America was making amazing cheese. So many people just assume we only have pre-wrapped singles and the ubiquitous orange block of cheddar. There are hundreds of amazing cheese makers in the US at this time. This is something I want everyone to know, and I take that challenge very personally.
You've worked on both the east and west coasts in the cheese world. What do you see as the main difference(s) between the east and west coast cheese scene and tastes?
EM: I knew next to nothing on the east coast – I was volunteering in the Murray’s Cheese classroom as an assistant as often as I could. That being said, a big part was simply the selection. I barely experienced any cheese from the west coast. I think there was also more access, in general, to cheese that’s well beyond your typical grocery store schlock. That makes a big difference in how people see cheese and its diversity. That’s all changing now though. I have to say that the west coast cheese community is amazing – from mongers to makers. I think that the network out here is really impressive. We’re able to visit cheese makers all of the time. I couldn’t really do that in the same way back east.
Right now you're looking for a spot to house your cheese baby, Maker's Common. I'm super excited about it. With its all-American cheese menu and support for local wine, Mission Cheese has been a wonderful addition to the Bay Area community and I'm sure Maker's Common will shine just as brightly. Can you talk a little bit about what will set Maker's Common apart from its big sister, Mission Cheese?
EM: We love what we do at Mission Cheese. But, to put it simply, we’ve run out of space for new items for the menu. I added a lot to the menu a few years ago but there are so many ideas that we have that are nearly impossible to execute. So with Maker’s Common, we’re looking for something that’s around three times bigger. We’ll have a full kitchen so that we can expand our menu, we’ll serve brunch, make more in-house charcuterie. There will also be a retail market with cut-to-order cheese and charcuterie, and wine and beer to take away, and prepared food items. To goal for the market is to make it your perfect spot for all of your picnic needs or for a nice and simple dinner with friends. As important as everything else we plan on doing, it will be just as accessible and family friendly.
You're going a very different route to raise funds to open MC2 (Maker's Common). Instead of using something like kickstarter, as is common with the food biz right now, or calling in big investors, you're going the way of a DPO (Direct Pubic Offering). This makes it so that the investors are everyday people, and instead of just getting one thank-you gift when your needs are financially met as is the case with orgs like Kickstarter, investors are "founders" who will get returns on their investment over time. Can talk a little bit about the type of people who are investing in you and what they expect from the MC2 future?
EM: We’re really excited about how this has gone. We’ve raised over $250k through our DPO – most of that coming from the Bay Area. Most of our Founders to date are in the greater Bay Area. Everyone from foodies to tech industry movers and shakers are investing in Maker’s Common. It’s also a way to balance out your portfolio and actually know who – and I mean the actual people – you’re investing in. If you like good food then it’s a worthy investment. If you believe in what we do at Mission Cheese then it’s a worthy investment. We always hear people talking about buying local and shopping local. Well, let’s close that loop and put our money where our mouth is and actually invest local.
Why is it important for you to support local when there is deliciousness everywhere?
EM: Deliciousness is everywhere and we support those producers. All of our products are domestic. We love that we are part of their businesses and we can showcase what they’re doing. But when you actually invest in local businesses and you shop at those businesses, you actually keep more of that money in your local economy. I love European cheese but I’m pretty sure that a cheese maker in Petaluma or Dodgeville needs my dollars more than a subsidized cheese maker in Europe does.
Back to cheese gossip. You were a finalist in the 2015 Cheesemonger Invitational. I was there. I saw your perfect bite. Topped with quail eggs which you individually fried, your Perfect Bites were beautiful. And a little crazy. You cooked 100 eggs perfectly. How many did you not cook perfectly while practicing?
EM: That was a serious challenge. My wife thought I was insane for frying up over 100 quail eggs for CMI. Once I was in the thick of it, I started to agree. Once I realized that the easiest way to crack open the shell was to use a sharp knife and cut an end off I was in good shape. Before I figured that out I was probably at a 60% success rate. I don’t know if I could top that one if I were to compete again.
What were the most surprising CMI moments for you?
EM: For me personally, it was just making it to the finals. I specialize in domestic cheese. My imported cheese chops are not what they should be. So that was a real honor – especially considering some of the seriously talented people that I got to share the stage with. I was also blown away crowd. I’ve never seen so many cheese lovers in one place that weren’t actually from the cheese industry. It was amazing.
I've gathered from experience elegantly imbibing with you that you enjoy whiskey. And beer. And you also like wine. But really, what are your top three cheese pairings, ever?
EM: A favorite has to be Queso de Mano from Haystack Mountain in Colorado with some Le Merle Saison from North Coast Brewing in California. The earthy nuttiness of the cheese along with the yeasty tropical fruit of the beer comes together as lemon zest and toast. I’ve served this pairing dozens of times and everyone loves it.
Fat Bottom Girl from Bleating Heart in Tomales and Charbono from Calder Wine in Calistoga is a great duo. Almonds, cherries, butter, and herbs. It’s one of my favorite California combos.
A classic has to be Cabrales and Alvear Pedro Ximenex Solera 1927 – both from Spain. Cabrales on it own can be quite sharp, acidic, and strong. The PX can come across as cloyingly sweet and syrupy. Together though, it’s like fireworks…Pop Rocks come to mind. They balance each other out beautifully.
Eric is the co-founder of the forthcoming Maker’s Common, an eatery and market that will showcase America’s best cheese, charcuterie, beer, and wine, opening in 2016. In this role he is focused on developing menus, raising capital, and scouting locations for the business. He is also the director of the Mission Cheese in-house charcuterie program, creating products that have become an integral part of the menu.
Since moving to California, he has fostered strong relationships within the American charcuterie movement by serving as the Charcuterie Chairperson for the Good Food Awards. Eric was also a top-ten finalist at the Cheesemonger Invitational and can be sometimes be found teaching classes at the Cheese School of San Francisco.
To find out more about Maker’s Common or to invest, check out the website.