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Certified Cheese Professionals: 4,000 Hours In the Trade Is Just the Start

Whole Foods specialty team leader Crystal Poon cheesin' for the camera
Whole Foods specialty team leader Crystal Poon cheesin' for the camera
Lyssa Goldberg

We all know that a sommelier is a trained wine professional. And we've each encountered beer snobs - perhaps less refined, but they have an equally enviable level of specialty knowledge.

While wine and spirits experts are fine and dandy, in the world of gastronomers, it's certified cheese professionals (CCPs) that rise above the rest.

Each CCP has sat for a 3-hour, 150-question multiple choice exam at an annual conference of the prestigious American Cheese Society -- covering topics like the cheese-making process, ripening, storage, categorizing, and more -- and has passed a test.

See also: Top Five Vegan Cheeses

These cheese connoisseurs come in many forms -- cheese-makers, cheese marketers, and even cheese writers. You need 4,000 documented hours of experience in the cheese profession.

That means it may take a while until I'm qualified to put my cheese knowledge to the test (by my count, I have 3,998 hours to go), but fortunately, we have a good number of these members of high society right here in our grand ol' state.

In fact, Whole Foods Market employs the largest number of CCPs in the world (147). And 24 of them are in Florida (the most of any region). Closest to home, two are at the South Beach location, and one works in Pinecrest. Ten of these Florida CCPs joined the ranks just this year -- only the second time the American Cheese Society has administered the exam.

Cheese, please.
Cheese, please.
Lyssa Goldberg

Since October is American Cheese Month, Short Order spoke to one of Whole Foods' CCPs, Crystal Poon, who is the specialty team leader at the Whole Foods Market Pinecrest store. Poon shared with us her insider tips on becoming a true cheese expert and told us how she works with customers to provide the best cheese-buying experience.

Poon, who has been working at Whole Foods for six years, has developed a fascination with cheese and the way it gives people a taste of the nicer aspects of life.

"It amazes me because, with cheese, basically it's just milk. But then you can change it into such a big variety of cheeses," Poon said. "You can have Brie, you can have mozzarella, you can have Parmesan. You can have all these different cheeses, and they all come from the same basic ingredient."

At Whole Foods, Poon and other cheese specialists receive whole wheels of cheese and then cut wedges in-house fresh daily. They also let customers sample or request wedges cut to size, no matter how large or small.

"Sometimes customers come in and say, 'I'm just having a little something for my lunch today, so I just want a teeny tiny little piece of cheese.' We can do that too, or they say, 'I want to try a few cheeses before I decide,' and that's what we let them do," Poon said. "We're here to help them when they try the cheeses because I want to make sure that when customers go home, they have the cheese that they like."

Mild to Strong: Goat's Brie, Farmhouse Cheddar, Pecorino Toscano, Harbison, Rogue River Blue
Mild to Strong: Goat's Brie, Farmhouse Cheddar, Pecorino Toscano, Harbison, Rogue River Blue
Lyssa Goldberg

When assembling a cheese platter, it's important to arrange the cheeses clockwise from mildest to strongest. Poon usually asks her customers four important questions to help them choose the right cheeses:

1. How many people are you serving?

2. Is this for lunch or dinner? Or are these hors d'oeuvres?

3. What's your budget? Do you expect to pay a few dollars a pound or up to $40?

4. What type of guest is this for - people at a tailgate or friends at a wine pairing?

For cheese lovers looking to become cheese professionals in the future, Poon's best advice is to become familiar with as many different varieties as possible. CCP candidates at Whole Foods attend webinars and train for months, and they also participate in a one-week intensive training at the University of Wisconsin - Madison during the American Cheese Society conference over the summer.

"It was so cool. They took us to a farm to visit the cheesemakers to see how the cheese is actually being made," Poon said. "There was a farm owned by Amish people who work with a horse and buggy, and you could see the girls in the long dresses cutting and packing cheeses because they don't use a lot of machinery, so things are done by hand."

See also: 55. Cheese Plate at The Cheese Course

The next CCP exam isn't until July 29, 2014 in Madison, Wisconsin (because, where else?). The take-away here is that we all have time to brush up on our cheese facts until then.

Even with her years of experience, Poon had to crack open a few books and study. Here's some recommended reading:

- Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager by Max McCalman

- Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best Cheeses by Max McCalman

- Cheese Essentials: An Insider's Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese by Laura Werlin

Here in Florida, Whole Foods has started up a Cheese Club in all of its stores. To learn about free tasting events and find out when your favorite cheese is in stock, visit the specialty department and fill out a card with your contact information and cheese preferences. Sounds like something you don't want to Swiss out on. (We had to save the cheesy pun for the end. No regrets.)

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Whole Foods Market

11701 S. Dixie Highway
Pinecrest, FL 33156

305-971-0900

www.wholefoodsmarket.com


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