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How It All Began…

Max Cheese Cart How It All Began...

Terrance Brennan opened Picholine restaurant in October of 1993, one block east of Lincoln Center. At the time there was a dearth of fine restaurants in the neighborhood: some nice ones here and there but few that were truly exceptional. Terrance honed his culinary skills in southern Europe where cheese is a part of everyday life and “celebrated” as a stand-alone course: the cheese plate. He believed that a superior cheese course should be offered here in New York City as good as the ones he experienced while a young chef in Europe. Terrance wanted to replicate that cheese course experience at Picholine but not until he was assured that the restaurant would survive its first critical year in existence – the one in which nine out of ten restaurants usually close.

Fortunately Terrance is a great chef with a palate that can detect the one missing grain of salt in a Paella or discern the potential of the addition of lemon thyme in a sauce. It was also the “theatre” that attracted his attention to the cheese course. The days of tableside Crêpes Suzettes and Bananas Flambées had long passed and tableside carving of meats or filleting of fish was becoming a little worn out too. A grand presentation of cheeses had enjoyed modest success in New York, and what tableside presentations there were did not qualify as especially “grand.” We rolled out our chariot des fromages with a selection of fourteen cheeses on day one. Within a few weeks that number had nearly doubled.

I was able to hold down both jobs at the start: Fromager and Maître d’Hotel. The cheese program was a near-overnight success however so I was not able to give either of those jobs the full attention required. Naturally, I gave up the Hotel and kept the fromage. It was something new; I had loved cheese all my life anyway, and the Maître d’Hotel job (though well-paying) was far less challenging. That challenge is what caused the selection to grow quickly, and also what ensured the program’s ultimate success.

Well-traveled guests would come in and ask for other cheeses, or they might come in the very next night and say something like: “That selection you had last night was magnificent; what do you have this evening?” or “Do you have Stilton, my favorite?” So it was customer demand that grew the selection. As Terrance would expect with every other menu item, I was entrusted with knowing each of the cheeses. With the many gourmands that Picholine attracted, it behooved me to become as expert as possible, as quickly as possible. Thus began my cheese education.

Within a few months we had guests coming in for the cheese course having read about it in a European newspaper. The food media in New York was enthralled. Terrance is a great chef, no doubt, but there were already more than a handful around town yet none of them was taking the cheese course that seriously. Picholine became a destination for cheese. The New York Times came back in to review the restaurant within a year after the launch of the cheese program and gave the restaurant three stars, highlighting the cheese course in the review. Other restaurants got on the cheese bandwagon eventually, today, the cheese course can be found in most fine dining establishments throughout North America.

As the cheese trolley began to fill up with more and more exquisite cheeses, Terrance decided to install a cheese “cave” based on the expert guidance we received regarding cheese storage. A small walk-in closet was retrofitted into a cheese cave – the first of its kind in a North American restaurant. The installation of the cheese cave was a second “first” for Picholine. The restaurant could claim the first full-time Fromager in the United States, and the first cheese “cave.”

The cave’s tile walls were easy to clean and they helped maintain the proper temperature and humidity levels. This was a single-unit cave set to 50º F and 85% relative humidity, hence similar conditions to what one might find in an actual cave, ideal for storing most cheese types. We did have some concerns about cross-contamination: what if the blue crept into non-blue cheeses?

Fortunately this was not a problem whatsoever; the cheeses moved through this cave at a brisk pace. As the number of cheeses on the trolley increased, so did the excitement, and the check averages in the restaurant increased dramatically. Part of the increase was the cheese but a larger part of it could be attributed to the concomitant beverage sales. Some guests would opt for high-end dessert wines to accompany their cheeses, such as an aged Château d’Yquem. Instead of having one fixed price for a cheese plate (especially with so many to choose from) the prices were set on a scale, depending on how many cheeses the guest desired, from only one to as many as ten.

A three-fold cheese menu was designed so that the guests could follow along with their cheeses set in a progression on their plates. The menu listed as many as eighty cheeses – the ones that were typically available for the season as well as “special appearance” cheeses – with a space to write in tasting notes. The cheese menu was updated every season as the program evolved and as cheeses would come and go. The cheese menu also served as a marketing tool for the restaurant. Many regulars collected these menus from each visit and some claimed to have a wall full of cheese menus. Guests could return and request cheeses that were favorites from their previous visits.

Some guests wanted to purchase extra cheese to take home with them. The cheeses were still priced the same as if they had had them served in the restaurant. There were times when this placed an extra burden on the Fromager, and sometimes the sheer demand for cheese courses in the bustling restaurant would cause a lag time to receive the presentation. A “dance card” was devised for the cheese trolley wherein the captain would write in the table number waiting for cheese service, with a space to make a notation about whatever wine they might be enjoying – this to give the fromager some guidance in the cheese selection recommended. Terrance noted the demand for purchasing cheese to take home and eventually this led to the inclusion of a retail counter at the second restaurant in the group – Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie. The additional demand for the high-end top quality cheeses put pressure on the small walk-in cheese cave.

Not long after this first cheese cave in a restaurant was up and running, we had a visit from a literary agent – Angela Miller. Terrance said that I would be the guy to write a book on cheese. Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer had been out for a couple of years and since its publication no other books on cheese for the wider market had come out. I worked with Angela on a proposal for a book and within a few months a contract was signed with Clarkson Potter for a book to be entitled The Cheese Plate.

In the meantime, Terrance found a space for a second restaurant on 32nd street off Park Avenue. This new restaurant would be, as its name implies, a cheese-centric restaurant. The Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie would be a little less formal than Picholine, and just a little less expensive, with that retail counter included. Instead of the labor-intensive classical cheese trolley service the guests could simply go up to the cheese counter and confer with the fromagers, or the fromager could come to the table and discuss cheese options with the guests, or the guests could simply refer to a cheese menu.

The Artisanal Brasserie et Fromagerie opened in early 2001 to wide acclaim. The interior was designed by Adam Tihany to look like a brasserie in Paris, and indeed it did. The restaurant also had more seating than Picholine, quite a bit more – another reason why the cheese trolley service might be problematic. Having learned from the successes as well as the limitations of the Picholine program, it was evident that one well-functioning cheese cave is good but it would be better to have multiple caves, with each set to specific temperatures and humidity levels for different families of cheeses.

As it turned out, we could have made the space one large cheese depot with much larger caves. We had chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, airlines and others coming into the restaurant just for the cheeses. The restaurant itself was busy too, in a neighborhood that seemed a little tired and where the sidewalks seemed to roll up after dusk. With a growing residential population in the area the opening of the restaurant was welcomed with open arms, and the offices above it and surrounding it made Artisanal their preferred dining room. Of course it made no sense to convert this new and popular restaurant into that cheese depot; instead the idea of a cheese “center” was conceived, with much larger and more state-of-the-art cheese maturing caves, as well as a classroom for teaching classes and for hosting private cheese-themed events.

Within a year of the restaurant’s opening The Cheese Plate was published with a book launch party held on premises. The book became a standard introduction to the world of cheese and a best-seller in the category. Picholine continued to be the cheese destination that it had been, but it catered to a more upscale clientele, Lincoln Center fans and the surrounding neighborhood. Having been the first, Picholine became more of a cheese “shrine” whereas the Artisanal Brasserie & Fromagerie became more of a “cathedral.” If it was the cathedral, there needed to be another unit to manage the aging, distribution and the education component. The need for a classroom was indicated by the popularity of cheese classes in the Big Apple. New Yorkers, as well as many out-of-towners, were becoming increasingly curious about cheese, so the need for a classroom was indicated as another revenue stream.

Daphne Zepos was hired to assist me with this little cheese empire. Picholine’s program often required two fromagers to manage its demand, and on busier nights a third person would be required: the lead fromager would make the initial presentation (following the waiting list on the “dance card”) and a second would then receive the order from the presenter, then the third person would deliver the cheese selections to the guests and go over its contents, and suggest suitable wine partners. The brasserie usually had the same number of fromagers: two at lunch, and three during dinner service. Daphne’s hiring helped grow the program at both restaurants, and she would be called upon to assist with the opening of the center.

The space for the center was acquired in 2002, just one year after the opening of the brasserie. It was a raw space on the second floor of an office building, just one block east of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. At the time the space was acquired the neighborhood was still a little derelict and much-deserving of its name – “Hell’s Kitchen.” Architects and refrigeration experts were brought in to get this new center up and running quickly. The center opened it doors May 3rd, 2003, less than nine months after the space was acquired.

The southwest corner of the facility was dedicated to the storage and deliveries, with the five cheese caves along the south wall, each one with its own temperature and humidity. The production area adjoined these caves, and the customer service and sales offices filled out the southeast side of the center. The offices for accounting, web management, marketing and senior management were positioned along the eastern perimeter, with Terrance’s office in the northeast corner. The classroom was placed along the northern side. There had never been anything quite like it in the United States – a “center” with cheese caves, production facilities, offices for the entire company, and a classroom with a working kitchen for demos. Between the hallway and the classroom there was a reception area for classes and events which also doubled as a conference room for the company.

In addition to the architects, refrigeration experts, and our own team of cheese experts, Terrance retained the talents of a Paris “affineur” as a special consultant on the design, construction, and setup of the cheese caves. Terrance took Daphne with him to see the cheese caves at Alléose in Paris, the fromager and affineur he hired as consultant. They observed the working of their caves as well as their retail space. The process of affinage, the proper ripening of cheese, had been a part of the successes of the restaurants’ cheese programs; with the new center opening it became a much bigger concern.

Daphne also assisted in the design of the class curriculum and taught several classes during her tenure with the company. The classroom remained fairly busy with classes and private events over the ten years Artisanal was based at that location. The Master Series was a course that Daphne and I developed for industry professionals and for persons considering entering the world of cheese. Originally the series was offered on six consecutive Wednesdays; later it was consolidated to three in a row. Compressing the series this way made it easier for people from out of town to attend. The Master Series was offered once a quarter and drew in students from other countries as well as from across North America.

Not long after its opening I was given a contract for a second book, one that would be more of an atlas. Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best was published in 2005 and won a James Beard Award for Special Subjects. The cheeses included in that book all came from the caves at Artisanal and all the photographs were taken in the classroom. This book went to the top of the category, surpassing the success of The Cheese Plate. Not long after the second book was published, the publisher suggested a third book to be titled Mastering Cheese. This book was to be based on the contents of the Master Series. The publisher budgeted only three hundred thousand words for this book so I had to add a clause after Mastering Cheese – “Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager.” That book was published in 2009 and became a textbook for the Master Series; it later went on to win Best Cheese Book in the World at Paris’ Gourmand Cookbook Awards.

The company continued to expand into markets outside of New York City, all across the United States, with a few international customers in countries without restrictions on this type of overnight cheese shipping. In the early years this was less problematic – shipping cheeses to international addresses – though the cost of shipping cheeses overseas usually exceeded the cost of the cheese itself. Artisanal supplied airlines with fine cheeses that were served in their first class cabins for Europe-bound flights and in their domestic lounges. One customer in Beijing informed us that this was the only way she was able to acquire some of the outstanding cheeses we offered.

As Artisanal’s sales grew steadily from year to year, it became apparent that it would one day outgrow its Hell’s Kitchen facilities. The first indication of growing pains was noted during the first Christmas season after opening. The production team took over the classroom to help manage the flow. From that first year on the classroom would be closed early each December to help manage the heavy volumes.

After the ten year run in that location, it was evident that a new space would be required to manage the growing business with even better state-of-the-art cheese maturing caves. As of this writing, the new Artisanal Cheese Center is being constructed.

- Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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One Response to “How It All Began…”

  1. Patrick Says:

    The new Artisanal cheese center is expanding because of it's great service providing since long time. I just wish their new constructed place will become as popular as like their older ones. Thanks.