December 26, 2014

Talking Cheese with Maître Fromager, Max McCalman

I first met Max a few years back when he was the Dean of Curriculum and Maître Fromager at Artisanal Premium Cheese Center, in New York City. We recently sat down for a discussion on the state of cheese today in America and his latest adventures in the world of cheese.

To give you some background on Max's cheese cred, I'll start with a bit of his bio. This, folks, is definitely a man who knows his curd and is known as America's foremost master of cheese. Early in his career Max worked for a European owned and operated Little Rock restaurant, Restaurant Jacques et Suzanne as Chef de Rang under the tutelage of Maître d'Hotel, Louis Petit. Max became General Manager of Manhattan's The Water Club in 1990. After taking some time off to be a full time dad to his daughter, he joined Picholine Restaurant as Maître d'Hotel where he launched its cheese service in 1995, becoming Maître Fromager and spearheading the installment of the first temperature and humidity controlled cheese cave in a North American restaurant. Max's new 'office' became the talk of the town.

Max authored his first book on cheese 'The Cheese Plate' in 2002 and became an instrumental part in the planning and designing of the Artisanal Bistro in New York City, which featured a retail counter for selling cheese and five separate cheese caves. His second book, 'Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best', went on to be the only cheese book to ever win a James Beard Award. Max was involved in the Artisanal Center as its Maître Fromager and Dean of Curriculum, while still serving as Maître Fromager for Picholine and Artisanal restaurants.

Max has been awarded the title of Maître Fromager as designated by France's Guilde Internationale des Fromagers Comfrérie de Saint-Uguzon, and in January 2011 was given an award from Les Trophées de l'Espirit Alimentaire (French Food Spirit Awards) for Entrepreneurship for 2010. Max's third book, 'Mastering Cheese: Lessons For Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager', went on to win Best Cheese Book in the World, at the Gourmand Cookbook Awards in Paris.

Max's most recent publication is his Swatchbook of Wine and Cheese Pairings. He is one of the founders of the American Cheese Society's (ACS) Certified Cheese Professional program launched in 2004, becoming Chairman of its committee in 2012. Max left the Artisanal company in May of 2014 to focus on the creative endeavors within the cheese industry and is currently developing a new cheese app due out sometime in mid 2015. Whew, quite a list of accomplishments. 

I asked Max of his earliest exposure to cheese and he responded, "As a two-year old, I reached out for a piece of cheese while sitting on the counter. " he recalls, "I had a cold and my mom, said something to the effect that I should stay away from the cheese because I might make the cheese sick. Funny, now, that I have learned more about cheese and it's nutritional properties through the years, and contrary to popular belief, it was in fact possible that the cheese may have been exactly what I did need." He continued, "I grew up in Brazil from ages 5 through 12, but we we're warned off dairy products, so I did not get my cheese/dairy fix on until I came back to the states. I firmly believe I'd be at least an inch taller if I had eaten cheese as a kid," he quipped.

I asked him about his introduction into culinary and speaking on this; he explained, "Growing up in Brazil, I became aware that working in a restaurant was treated as a lauded profession; people took a lot of pride in their work. Being Americans in Brazil. We were exposed to  a lot of fine restaurants. I was always enamored with the theater of a restaurant, I saw that service was treated like an art form. After college, I still looked like I was twelve, and I became a waiter. Back then, it really impressed the girls if you were a bartender, but I was too young." he laughed. "I enjoyed the front of the house as well as the back of the house, but the front of the house appealed to me more, especially due to the interaction with the public and table-side service." 

While working at Picholine,  Chef Terrance Brennan expressed his desire to do a cheese service in the European style and asked Max to become the restaurants Maître Fromager. I asked where his cheese training came from. "I attended tastings around New York City," he replied, "joined the American Cheese Society and learned my craft in the Socratic style, grabbing everything I could find in print, these being the days before the Internet. When customers would ask me about specific cheese, I would learn everything I could about that cheese. It was hands on, no school. Later, I actually developed my own school at Artisanal. 

Max has always espoused the health benefits of cheese, many times over looked. With the trend that dairy and certain fats were bad for us now being somewhat reversed, coupled with new proposed FDA restrictions on cheese making in America with regard to raw milk cheeses (In an Aug. 29 letter to the American Cheese Society, the FDA announced that it would be changing its testing protocol for non-pathogenic bacteria in cheese and admitted that it had made some mistakes in its raw milk cheese testing procedures), I asked Max to expand on this a bit. "There are cheeses that have not met the legal requirements, that are in fact good for you, causing certain cheese-makers to remove these cheeses from their offerings," he stated.

Continuing, he expanded, "I want to believe that the FDA wants to work with the cheese-making industry. There will be changes without a doubt. If we are going to work with the FDA, at least to maintain the status quo (cheese made with raw milk must be aged at least 60 days at a cool temperature), we see now that dairy scientists, artisan cheese-makers, educators, retailers, and also those in the medical fields are all starting to look at cheese-making a bit differently now. I want to believe the debate is starting to make some headway. If the FDA does in fact move the aging from 60 to 90, even 120 days, this will put a lot of people out of business," he explained. "It would be cost prohibitive."

Max has always preached that certain bacteria in cheese are good for you and removing them from our diets may in fact do more harm to our immune systems that not. I asked him to talk about this in more detail. He stated, "Looking at the microbiome ( a microbiome is "the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space) that resides in our bodies, I can go for days about the positive health benefits of cheese. We don't teach cheese in medical school. Nutrition receives cursory treatment. This is in fact the next book I want to write. It's not a pretty topic, but cheese has maligned far too long." I asked him for an example of cheese that is 'good for you. "I strongly prefer the unpasteurized cheeses," he replied, "the proteins in pasteurized cheese, when they are denatured, don't bond as successfully; the amino acids don't bond to form protein chains well. Many of the milk-fats, minerals, vitamins and food proteins are reduced and made less bio available by pasteurization and much of the good bacteria being is removed along with the bad." 

"Different species also bring different positives," he expanded. "You get certain nutrients from sheep's milk in higher concentrations, from goat's milk in higher concentrations, from cow's milk in higher concentrations.Contrary to how it sounds, it's one of those ironies, but high fat cheeses can actually help you lose weight. Obesity became prevalent when we started adopting low fat foods. Fat is flavor and to replace the flavor, the food manufacturers substituted, sugars, salts and artificial ingredients that your body doesn't recognize. Take the Mediterranean Diet. What I always found funny is the focus on less meat, more grains, vegetables and fish, But, the true Mediterranean diet has cheese as an everyday part of it."

In keeping with the emerging technologies and the current growing love of cheese here by America's foodies, Max has a new cheese app coming out to help cheese lovers choose the right cheese when pairing. This app will pair not only wines with cheese but cheese with wines, so you'll be able to choose the wine you like and it will give you a list of cheese that would go with it. Conversely, Should you choose the cheese first, the app will give you a list of what wines may be paired with it.

I asked Max if he agreed with me that the 'state of cheese today' in America had changed, with folks being more willing to try new cheeses and if he thought that foodies in the US were becoming more knowledgeable about cheese and willing to make cheeses a part of their diet. He replied, "Absolutely! Cheese consumption in the US has tripled since 1970. We haven't caught up with many countries in cheese consumption per capital but we have recently passed British consumption and Spanish as well.

Back to what I said about the Mediterranean diet, we hear all about fish and grains, and olive oil, etc, but we never hear about the cheese in their diet. Cheese is a big part of the diet, take Italy, France, Greece, Cheese is a huge part of their diet. That's the great thing about Americans, they're increasingly curious about their food. Look at the craft cheese wave, the craft beer wave, even the craft cider wave. I think as far as pairings go, we have gotten a bit obsessive though, as if you make a mistake in a pairing it's some sort of egregious error. I think we over analyze now, instead of just enjoying a piece of cheese and some scotch, or whatever. That said, I don't know another country where people are willing to spend $50, $75 or more, to attend a cheese seminar. Pairing make that possible. Folks love a cheese pairing class though. Now people are even going on cheese themed journeys, or tours, much like wine and beer trail tours, I Joined the Cheese journeys company ( as their Guest Educator for tours to France, england and other domestic tours planned for their 2015 calendar. Maître Fromagers are now becoming as normal as Sommelier.

Lastly, I asked Max to describe his perfect cheese plate for you all, so that when serving your guests, or bringing cheese as a guest, you'll be the hit of the party. Rather than give a specific type of cheese, Max gave me rules of thumb when selecting cheeses for your cheese courses. "First, offers Max, "is to make sure your cheese is at room temperature. Second make sure you offer a minimum of three cheeses and, of course, a variety; one cow's milk, one sheep's, milk and one goat's milk. Vary your textures as well as your intensities of flavor."

"Start with the milder cheese and work you way through to the more intense flavored of cheese. Blues are always popular, especially this time of year. I like raw milk cheeses, but should you have someone who is not comfortable with raw milk cheeses, be sure to include a pasteurized cheese. Don't buy too much," Max continues, "especially when buying good cheeses. Buy enough. Most don't realize a little cheese can go a long way. If you are serving cheeses as an appetizer course, follow the flavors based upon the wine you are serving. Choose a more mild cheese so it doesn't dominate the palette and interfere with what you are serving. I personally prefer having the cheese course at the end of the meal, in the European fashion, so if you are serving a sweet dessert wine, pick appropriate cheese that balances with it.

To learn more about where you can see Max in person, visit his website You can also follow Max on Social media at the following links, twitter, facebook & Instagram.

Max is a highly visible advocate for artisanal cheese production, and is renowned as one of the cheese world's living legends for his expertise, insight and passion. He is a dedicated scholar of cheese, where he acts as consultant to the trade, judges at cheese competitions and is a frequent guest lecturer.

I hope you have learned something today and I encourage you to expand your palette and try new cheeses. Experiment, enjoy and be sure to let me know how your next cheese board offering goes. I always love learning new things and hearing about your next great culinary adventure.

As always, Bon Appetit!


No comments:

Post a Comment