Shannon Berry has been at Fromagination almost three years, now its Floor & Kitchen Manager.  She traveled to the West Coast, East Coast, and back to Wisconsin before becoming a cheesemonger, and settling into training other cheesemongers to showcase the Badger State’s most famous product.

“I work here because I like food, I like people and I like a job where I can move around all day and work with my hands,” Shannon said.  “…it seems to be a perfect fit right now. I think I would have a very hard time in an office.”

Turns out, Shannon got a job a Fromagination the second time she applied.  The first time she dropped off a resume with owner Ken Monteleone in 2012, he took the application and she never heard anything.  By chance, she ended up staying in Madison and applied again four years later.

Shannon’s background

Shannon grew up in Rhinelander, in a very large family.  She was the oldest girl, and often was charged with making sure her younger siblings ate.  Hence, she is now a natural at customer service, and has a strong interest in food to boot.

She also comes from a formal culinary background.  Shannon trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon, and later worked at Aquavit, a well-regarded Manhattan restaurant for a year.  She was “young, passionate, probably naive,” and learned in a very stressful environment that required precision, attention to detail, and a lot of energy.

“Plating was my forte at Aquavit.  I used to use tweezers.”  She called it “super intense, in every single aspect,” and says she learned techniques that not many restaurants would employ.  “We got a Michelin star as a team, which was cool.”

“There’s a certain level of appreciation for food that I have never been around again,” Shannon said.

She returned to Wisconsin to be near her family, and landed in Madison, intending to eventually land a job in Chicago or Minneapolis. But she stayed, then working at Batch Bakehouse and Field Table restaurant before arriving at Fromagination.  Since New York, her life has become more relaxed.

“I’m a very different person now,” she said.

Shannon manages the sales floor and the kitchen, which sometimes arranges Raclette dinners for Fromagination customers.

Attraction to Cheesemongery

Shannon helps train cheesemongers to work with customers to give them a pleasant experience, but also inform them about the various aspects of cheese, including Wisconsin’s best products and what goes with those products.  She encourages her co-workers to learn, and to enjoy their work.

“We have to be relaxed, and get into that ‘zone’ so that our service is good,” Shannon said.  “It’s a very collaborative culture [at Fromagination].  I can’t do all this by myself.”

“Reading” customers and helping them find interesting things to eat can be a group effort in retail.

“There’s a team aspect,” she said.  “You get to move around and work with your hands.  Every single day is different,” she said.  “We’re guessing….”

Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone says Shannon’s creativity with cheese is an asset to the shop.

“At Fromagination, we are always seeking out people that compliment our skill set.  Shannon is the perfect fit.  A trained chef with a wonderful palette for pairing cheese with what we call ‘companions.’  She is very creative and always willing to try something new,” he said. “Her creativity inspires a food’s presentation, which is very important to the overall experience…be it making a cheese tray, a cake of cheese, merchandising the shop or working one-on-one with customers.  Her passion has helped us take our business to the next level.”

Fromagination Cheesemonger Shannon works with cakes of cheese for events.
Shannon arranges cakes of cheese for clients who have wedding parties or other events that incorporate wheels of artisan cheese.

Fromagination Classes

Fromagination began offering cheese classes again in February, and Shannon is an instructor.

“I have really been loving it.  It’s fun because in a class I get to be a little more intimate (with customers).  I get to hopefully excite people about food and pairings.”  “I get to bring people together with food.”  “I get to share my passion with others – food and people.”

Shannon has been teaching classes that involve pairings with beer, wine and spirits.  She is very attracted to the pairing aspect of the food business.

“That creative incentive is very powerful for me, personally,” said Shannon. “That’s something I value.  It’s been a learning experience too,” she said.  “It’s not always easy to speak in front of people.”

A Favorite Cheese Experience

While Shannon worked as executive chef at Field Table, she was invited to the boss’s table one evening while he was hosting a French visitor.  There was a cheese plate going around the table which Shannon had worked to perfect, including some baguettes and Jasper Hill’s Harbison, a soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheese.  Shannon was tired and hungry, and the other guests were ignoring that cheese plate.

“All I remember is watching that cheese go around the table, and just waiting for it to come back.  It blew my mind.  It was warm, gooey and delicious…and I ate the whole thing,” she said.

Fromagination also imports blue cheeses from Europe
Shannon likes many types of cheese, including blue cheeses.

Favorite Cheese

Ask Shannon about her favorite cheese and she’ll answer in types of cheese – creamy, funky, Blue or “a really good crystal-ly, aged cheese” (well-aged Cheddars develop crystals in the cheese).  “Sometimes Marieke Penterman’s Overjarige is just incredible,” Shannon adds.

Find some of Shannon’s favorite things

Favorite Cheese Pairing

So what is the head cheesemonger’s favorite cheese?  “It depends upon my mood,” Shannon said.  Evalon, a goat cheese from LaClare Farms, is probably her favorite, served with Raspberry Rose preserves from Madison producer Quince & Apple.  She favors other goat milk cheeses, too.

But she has another suggestion, too…of course.

“My boyfriend’s breakfast is the same every day: coffee, cheese, dates and pistachios.  It’s a great combination,” Shannon said.  So what kind of cheese does the boyfriend eat?  “Ossau Iraty!” …which is a  French sheep milk cheese that is buttery and semi-firm.  She could keep making more suggestions, if you let her.

Jeff is a Fromagination cheesemonger as well as purchasing and inventory manager. He has extensive background in farming, food and cheesemaking. He has deep knowledge and passion about all things cheese, meats and companions.

After working for a cheese making company in Milwaukee, Jeff started working at Fromagination cutting cheese in the back of the house during the holidays. Before long Jeff was working the front of house sharing his passion and knowledge with Fromagination customers as well as helping educate his fellow cheesemongers wherever he could.

We sat down with Jeff to discuss his experiences and to tell us a little bit about himself.

How long have you been working for Fromagination?

I’ve been working for Fromagination for about four years, in various capacities. I started out working in the back of the house cutting cheese for the holidays, and now I am purchasing and inventory manager.

I work several days a week as a cheesemonger and I’m really interested in picking out new thing for the store and enhancing our staff’s knowledge on what they are and how we can offer them to our customers.

You’ve been teaching classes recently, how was that experience?

The classes have been a lot of fun. We just got done with the first series of classes that we’ve done for several years now. We’ve just rolled out a second set of classes that will begin late this spring and run through the summer.

Fromagination hosts Science on the Square event
Jeff teaching a class

What made you want to work for Fromagination?

Before I worked here, I actually worked for a cheese factory in Milwaukee. I really like that. When I was in college actually I studied food. I did a program that was about ethnobiology, which is essentially the study of how people relate to food. And I found that to be really fascinating. That’s was inspired me to go for for the cheese factory.

What I liked about Fromagination was the big variety of cheeses that we were able to carry. The cheese factory was interesting but we only carried cheeses that we made, which meant we were limited in scope. And so my favorite part about working at this store is the sheer plethora of different thing we’re able to offer our customers.

How much of what you studied have you been able to apply here?

A lot. Cheesemaking is a strange thing to most people. It involves topics that are typically unsavory conversation such as bacteria, mold, rotten milk and things like that. I do take some pleasure in learning about all that because it is widely misunderstood by most people. I like to educate people on what it actually really is, how it got that way and why people started doing this in the first place.

What would you say is the cheese that changed everything for you?

When I was working for the Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, one thing the company did was rent out cheese making space to other cheesemakers, aspiring entrepreneurs that want to gain access to cheese making facilities so that could create cheese without making a big investment of buying or building a cheese factory. So there was one company in particular, who’s products we carry here, called Landmark creamery. That specializes sheep’s milk cheeses. Seeing their take on it from a very small perspective working towards building a company that’s specializes in a product like sheep’s milk cheeses which is a product that is relatively new to Wisconsin. So some of their sheep’s milk cheeses were some of the most inspiring to me early on in my career. Such as the Anabasque, which is a washed rind Basque style cheese.   

How have you seen Cheesemaking evolve in Wisconsin?

Our store is certainly focused on small batch artisan cheeses, and we’ve certainly seen a lot of growth in that by market data from the DFW. 23% of cheese made in Wisconsin is considered artisanal cheese. We’ve seen a big growth in that, which is wonderful for us because our options continue to multiply for what sorts of locally produced products can fit our esthetic in our store. That section has grown immensely in the last few years and continues to provide us with new options of interesting cheeses, which is important to our model of showing the next best thing.

What would say is your latest favorite cheese pairing?

One of my favorite new pairings is cheese with tea. We’ve begun to sell a line of cheese from Brooklyn from Bellocq. They do a whole variety of different true pure tea blends as well as herbal tea blends. One of my favorites is their Jasmine Silver Needle, which pairs really well with the Fresh Chevre from LaClare Farms.

What is it about tea that makes it such a great cheese pairing?

The pairing in mentioned for example has really complementing floral notes with the goat milk cheese and the white tea and the jasmine give it a very flowery appeal. And the creamy goats milk cheese is a really great complement to those flavors.

What are your top five picks?

Fromagination features Martone cheese

Anabasque by Landmark Creamery, Marieke Overjarige 2 year Gouda, Treat Bake Shop’s Spiced Pecans, Underground Meats Goat Salami and B&E’s Trees Bourbon-barrel-aged Maple Syrup

Fromagination’s Matriarch

Kristi is one of Fromagination’s most seasoned cheesemongers, and its matriarch.

We sat down with her and asked her to tell us a little more about herself.

How long have you worked at Fromagination?

I have worked for Fromagination for a number of years, not since the inception but shortly thereafter. I have enjoyed my work here immensely and as a result of working here for the duration that I have gotten to know a lot of loyal customers and getting to know them on a first name basis, that creates a more personable interaction with my customers.

What is it you do here?

My title is cheesemonger. In addition to advising customers on styles of cheese or helping them with their needs, I take care of the cheeses in the cases, I look for imperfections and try to elevate the standards that we have here for our cheeses and companions. I do other things here; such as compose the cheese of the month letter every month. And try to advise my fellow cheese mongers, find out what they need from me and get what I need form them.

One thing I enjoy I giving customers tips about pairing cheeses, especially when they are thinking of putting together a cheese board. I’d recommend using cheeses of different milk types or different textures, and definitely try to include a blue cheese on the board. I can’t stress enough the importance of having something salty, sweet and savory on the board. Having salty olives and sweet chocolate makes for an interesting dining experience.

Kristi with a customer

You have a culinary background, why make the shift from restaurants to a specialty cheese store?

I was at a point in time where I wanted to make a change, take an other direction. When I heard that Fromagination had just opened, I pictured myself working the front of house, as opposed to working in the back in the kitchen. It’s been wonderful in term of interacting with different kinds of customers and personalities. I’ve also learned that I actually enjoy it. This keeps me more social compared to when I work in the back.

How much has Fromagination changed in the time that you’ve been here?

Fromagination has changed immensely! We are extremely focused on locally produced items and therefore consider ourselves very fortunate to have a number of artisans here in the city that make companions to pair with cheeses. Everything from honey to preserves, to crackers, to chocolate. We are really blessed here in Madison that we have such a wide variety of artisans. I think Madison has come a long way by having these producers in the last 10 years, and frankly I look forward to the next 10 years for this industry. Fromagination has been able to centralize all these amazing products, given some of these artisans a platform, and worked together to help curate the Fromagination identity. We have researched many producers, and we have therefore chosen the best of the best that the area has to offer.

What are your top picks?

Some of my top picks would include the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese, from Dodgeville Wi. It’s a tremendous cheese, it has won numerous awards, but this is one of my personal top cheeses. Collective Goods Rye Crackers is another item that I really enjoy, especially pairing with cheeses, it’s a thin delicate rye cracker made locally. William Marx Chocolate, also actually pairs really well with a number of cheeses. Who knew cheese and chocolate would pair so well together? Quince & Apple’s Orange marmalade with Lemon is another one of my favorites. I really like that hint of lemon that gives it that kick, it pairs well with Gouda’s, Blue Cheeses)

Kristi with Noelle and Andy

Have you noticed a change in how people eat cheese?

People are getting much more adventurous when it comes to cheese now. Above all, there has been a huge artisan cheese movement and people are willing to branch out and be more adventurous and less cautious. It really is a matter of trial and error. People are also starting to really notice that cheesemakers go to great lengths to develop wonderful flavors within the cheeses and I believe that people are just more comfortable eating more of these artisan cheeses. Much more so that in the last 10 years. It’s just wonderful to watch people’s expressions on their faces when they decided to try something they wouldn’t ordinarily and remark that it’s something very enjoyable.

What is the latest cheese pairing that has really surprised you?

Actually, trying to pair cheese with licorice for instance. Licorice is quite strong and is therefore not to be paired with something mild. The rule of thumb is to pair something strong with a strong flavor. Therefore, licorice pairs extremely well with aged gouda. In some capacities it pairs very well. Just to be clear, I’m talking about the Scandinavian style, very salty licorice. As far as I’m concerned there is only one kind of licorice. It is not for the faint of heart!

In conclusion, come on down to Fromagination if you want to discuss cheese and companions with Kristi!