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Training for the Olympics of Cheese

After months of rigorous practice and study, Courtney Johnson and Sam Rollins are set to represent the United States at the World’s Best Cheesemonger competition this month.

An assortment of cheese artfully arranged on a green plate.
A cheese plate by Courtney Johnson
Courtney Johnson
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

Courtney Johnson and Sam Rollins are currently in training. They’re meeting with a team of coaches to finesse their routines. They’re spending their days practicing the same moves over and over. They’re reminding themselves to keep calm and focused when performing in front of an audience. They’re fine-tuning their senses. And when they arrive in France next week to compete in the World’s Best Cheesemonger competition at the Mondial du Fromage, the prestigious international trade show for cheesemakers, they will be ready.

Reading Joe Berkowitz’s American Cheese opened my eyes to the world of cheesemonger competition, specifically to the Cheesemonger Invitational, CMI Masters, and the Mondial du Fromage. The gauntlet goes like this: In America, every year, cheesemongers gather at the Cheesemonger Invitational, which usually takes place in New York or San Francisco. Launched in 2010 by cheese importer and cheerleader of the American cheese industry Adam Moskowitz, the Invitational crowns the best cheesemonger in the country. Then every two years, there is CMI Masters, the winners of which — this year that’s Johnson and Rollins — get the honor of competing as Team USA at Mondial du Fromage, which takes place in the Loire Valley from September 10 through 12. An American has yet to win the crown of World’s Best Cheesemonger at the competition, which was founded in 2013.

Artisanal cheese culture in the U.S. didn’t really pop off until the ’70s, which puts America hundreds or even thousands of years behind the generational knowledge throughout much of Europe and Central Asia. “It is true that the good cheesemongers in France who we’ve had the opportunity to speak with this summer know their stuff on a really profound level, to a degree that is just not expected in the U.S. at all,” Rollins says. “And that is really intimidating.”

But things are slowly changing. In 2019, a U.S. cheese won the World Cheese Awards for the first time, and with every year, the industry continues to grow.

“I think both Sam and I are fully capable of coming in and showing them that the stereotypes [about Americans] are not real, and maybe surprising them a little bit with what we can do,” Johnson says. “We have to try a little bit harder and be a little bit more creative with our craft to reach people who aren’t used to having a bunch of cheese counters around them. So I think that it’s an opportunity for us to bring something to the table that is our unique experience.”

Johnson, who has been a cheesemonger since 2015, is extremely used to bringing cheese to the customer. She’s the owner of Street Cheese, a mobile cheese shop in Seattle, and the executive director of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association. “I actually became aware that there were competitions for cheesemongering before I started my cheese career,” she says. “That was one of the hooks that got me excited about becoming a cheesemonger.”

Rollins, a monger at Cowbell Fine Cheese in Portland, Oregon, discovered competitive cheesemongering after he started his career, attending the Cheesemonger Invitational as a spectator while he was in the same city for a different convention. “My mind was blown,” he says. “I’d worked as a cheesemonger on my own” and “kind of taught myself, for better or worse. So then to go to a room packed with like 300 people and watch somebody on the stage masterfully doing what I had thought I was doing right was really cool.”

Half a wheel of cheese sits on a wooden plate.
Display by Sam Rollins.
Courtney Johnson
A small cheese sculpture sits on a white table. Courtney Johnson

The competition is open to both candidates who have won national competitions (two per country plus one alternate) and those from countries without cheesemonger competitions, the latter of whom must submit extra proof of their expertise with their applications. Then, the competition itself consists of nine tests. There’s a blindfolded taste test where competitors must identify not just the cheese names but also details like their countries of origin and maturing times. There’s a test to see how accurately they can cut cheese. And there are also more creative categories, like making a plate that must include a cheese of Mondial’s choosing, and creating artistic cheese platters and sculptures.

Johnson says the blind taste test is the most intimidating. “They cut the rinds off the cheese and don’t put them in an order that would make sense for normal tasting, so you might get a stronger cheese first that will cloud your palate,” she says. She’s focusing her energy on getting her pairings right and making sure she has her timing down. Rollins has been studying cheese facts and spending all day cutting cheese at work. And they both have met over Zoom with a team of industry professionals — Moskowitz, Lilith Spencer of Jasper Hill Farm, and cheesemonger Alex Armstrong, the team alternate — to help further tweak their visions. “We had a Zoom call this week, and I was like, ‘This is what I’m doing for this one test.’ And everybody was like, ‘No, that’s too much. Don’t do that,’” Johnson says. “I absorb all of that input and aggregate that into whatever comes out. I’m always learning and trying to refine things.”

Perhaps the test that best encapsulates just what it is a cheesemonger does is the five-minute presentation contestants must give on a cheese of their choice. Essentially, they’re recreating the cheese-buying experience for judges — demonstrating their expertise, but also their enthusiasm for a cheese they believe is special.

Both Johnson and Rollins brought cheeses from Washington to CMI Masters, but getting an American cheese from the West Coast to France for Mondial du Fromage just isn’t possible. According to Johnson, it would be extremely costly to ship individual cheeses themselves, “and there would be no guarantee that the cold packs/insulation would keep the cheese cold for the entire journey.” And as little U.S. cheese is sold in European cheese shops, it’s unlikely they could find what they want there. This is an issue in its own right for a supposedly international cheese competition; ultimately, it means Johnson and Rollins can’t bring the best representation of a U.S. cheese. So they’ve both looked throughout Europe for a selection that embodies just what drew them to the industry in the first place.

Cheese with the silhouette of a cow cut into the middle on a white plate.
Courtney Johnson’s Tete de Moine pairing.
Courtney Johnson
Various cheeses and dips arranged on a table.
Courtney Johnson’s display at CMI Masters.
Courtney Johnson

Johnson has gone to Sweden for a cheese from Almnäs Bruk. “Every wheel has a baby’s footprint pressed onto the outside of it, to symbolize that the manor used to make bricks. They found bricks in the attic with children’s footprints on them from when they ran over bricks drying in the sun,” she says. “So it’s this historical reference to the building and what was happening there.” The creamery has also produced the first name-protected cheese in Northern Europe.

Rollins is going with something perhaps more familiar: Roquefort, which must be made in Southern France. But the story of Roquefort, he says, is the story of everything good — and everything at risk — with the cheese industry today. The land the sheep graze on is good for little else, and it’s aged in naturally occurring caves. “It’s kind of a naturally limited production cheese,” he says. However, climate change has been threatening production. “The geography is becoming less hospitable to sheep, and the temperatures in the caves are going up, which means there’s less and less physical space in the caves that’s usable as an aging space for Roquefort,” he says. Roquefort is also traditionally made with raw milk, but as temperatures rise, that risks more bacteria growth. It’s a world-famous cheese and one of the most consumed cheeses in France, Rollins says. “But they’re really struggling to figure out how to keep it going into the 21st century.”

Behind the towering displays and the theatrical cheese-cutting competitions, this is why Johnson, Rollins, and other cheesemongers get into the business. The artisanal cheese industry is a well-situated gateway to issues like regenerative agriculture and sustainable foodmaking. Cheese inspires obsession in a way many other foods do not, and cheesemongers can translate that obsession into knowledge and care, whether that means guiding you toward new favorites that are made locally or spotlighting makers who prioritize animal welfare and keep sustainable traditions alive.

Johnson and Rollins held a practice battle in Seattle in late August, the first time they put all their displays and plates together against the clock. Next week, they’ll arrive in France to face some cheesemongers whose national competitions have been happening for far longer and some who come from countries with even younger artisanal cheese traditions. But Rollins says winning isn’t the draw. “I think that it’s going to be inspiring … I’m just going to bring what I got and see what everybody else has got.” And, win or not, the U.S. will have a seat at that table. For the country’s ever-growing artisanal cheese community, that is a kind of victory in its own right. But a win would be nice, too.