Fromagination’s catering expert, Greg Upward, has been with the shop since it opened in 2007 – the only employee who remains with owner Ken Monteleone since the shop opened.
He answered an ad, and then got a referral from a friend to meet the new cheese shop owner.
“Ken needed someone who could ‘speak cheese,’ and I’m from Wisconsin,” Greg said. “And I had a food background and knew a lot of the cheesemakers, too.”
Greg serves as a kitchen lead for Fromagination, but plans to retire in the next few months. He has been the force behind the beautiful cheese and charcuteries trays that often leave Fromagination shop bound for events at downtown offices. And he knows a lot about the food scene.
“Madison’s this fertile place,” he said. “All sorts of people come through here.”
The creative local food environment served him well in previous work as a private caterer in the Madison area, he said. Catering could be fun.
“It gave us the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do because most of the world doesn’t live that way…or have wine cellars like that,” he said with a smile.
Growing Up in Cheese Country
Greg grew up, initially, outside Monroe, Wisconsin, where the dairy industry was ubiquitous, and farmers had previously delivered cans of milk by horse. “I grew up around all of that,” he said.
“When I was a little kid, we live in an old cheese factory in the cheesemaker’s apartment,” Greg said. “There were cheese factories every few miles.”
While the trucks had stopped delivering milk cans to the place his family rented. there were benefits to living in an abandoned cheese-making facility, he said.
“One of the great things was when they delivered the milk outside, they had tracks sloping down, with rollers, into the factory so they didn’t have to hand-carry the milk cans in,” he said.
Children being the innovative creatures they are, Greg and his brother used those tracks as a slide. They also got into the large, copper cheese vats – normally used to make Swiss-style alpine cheeses – and slid around in the vats’ rounded, sloping bottoms.
Later his family lived in the small town of Argyle, where, as a teenager, Greg went to work at “The Norseman” supper club at the request of a woman who had decided to pull it out of a financial nose-dive. He started learning the food business.
Greg’s mother comes from German and Alsatian (Alsace = northwest France, next to the Rhine River) ancestry, and a family that made a lot of their own food products: Pates, preserves, cider, sorghum, sausages and maple syrup. That background gives Greg a different insight into a changing, popular food culture.
“The things that are trendy now are the things we grew up with already,” he said.
Greg went to high school with a famous Wisconsin cheesemaker, Myron Olson of Chalet Cheese Cooperative, who for years made the only authentic Limburger cheese in the United States. He describes Olson as a “self-made man” who came from a rough childhood to become a very successful cheesemaker.
During his high school years, a trip to visit the UW-Madison campus was cancelled due to the bombing of the Sterling Hall math facility. Greg graduated high school and says he would have majored in music had he continued his studies.
“I was smart enough to realize that God doesn’t pay too well…so to get a degree in church music wasn’t as smart as restaurant work,” he said.
He did pursue music however. He served as the organist at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Madison for 40 years, from which he recently retired.
After the supper club, Greg served as the “too young” chef for the country club in Monroe, and then moved to Madison in 1977 when Ovens of Brittany opened its restaurant on Monroe Street. He was 24.
The Food (And Other) Business
Greg worked in other local food establishments, some of them rather notable. He sourced his supplies frequently from vendors at the Dane County Farmers Market.
Then, before coming to Fromagination, Greg, his partner Stephen and two others owned Fleurishes, a floral shop. It closed after struggling to gain a foothold.
“Things changed after 9/11 and the retail business just wasn’t what it had been,” Greg said.
Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone says he benefited from Greg’s transition at that time.
“Greg has been with Fromagination since day one. He does things with such refinement, which is a huge assist in specialty retailing,” Monteleone said. “His calming demeanor has benefited Fromagination over the years, and his story-telling about his culinary adventures keeps the team interested in learning about local food. We often refer to Greg as the James Beard of Madison.”
To prove his point, Monteleone mentioned the Cheese-Stuffed Pumpkin recipe that Upward contributed to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin’s “Grate. Pair. Share.” series for Thanksgiving in 2014. Using a medium-sized heirloom pumpkin, the promotional description was:
“Filled with crusty bread, mushrooms, cream and a combination of Wisconsin alpine-style cheeses, this stunning dish is a show stopper from Greg Upward of Fromagination in Madison, Wisconsin.”
“It’s wonderful!” Monteleone said.
The food scene in Madison has changed a lot since Greg came to Madison. The flourishing downtown Madison economic engine that has taken hold as the center of the fastest-growing urban area in Wisconsin was nowhere to be seen 45 years ago.
As an example, he said, Madison’s King Street, now a destination for tourists and local partiers, was then a spot to hire prostitutes, and parts of State Street were “semi-boarded up.”
For restaurant fare, the normal citizen had limited choices. “It was all steak houses, spaghetti places and supper clubs,” he said. But when he went to work at Ovens of Brittany, Greg was catching a wave, rubbing elbows with people went on to leave their marks on the city’s food scene, such as food writer Therese Allen (who wrote the Ovens of Brittany Cookbook), and bar and restaurant owner Jane Caputo.
“We were all teaching ourselves, you know…flying by the seats of our pants and learning to do it as you were doing it,” he said. “It was much different than it is now.”
“It all really started like 45 years ago and it’s kind of weird right now, because all of our favorite farmers market vendors are retiring,” he said. “It’s a new generation of people.”
As if to illustrate his own point, Upward has worked recently with another Fromagination employee – a recent UW-Madison graduate who worked with UW Slow Food and has started his own condiment business – to create catering events that included some exciting, seasonal dishes.
At home with his partner, Stephen, Upward says he favors classical French cuisine for special meals, but “we still eat pretty seasonally at home.” A favorite dish of his is an old-fashioned braised beef pot roast.
For cheese, despite a palate that sometimes favors France, Upwards seems pretty proud of the locally made cheese that he can access easily in southern Wisconsin. He still loves “a good Wisconsin Swiss cheese” first, and misses another, no-longer-available local creation.
“I’d give anything to have one last Moreso from Fantome Farms,” he said. That wood ash-covered fresh chevre (goat milk cheese) was sold for many years at the Dane County Farmers Market on the Capitol Square by Anne Topham and Judy Borree. Upward said it went into omelets at his house frequently for 25 years.
“I’m thrilled to see that Wisconsin is now [producing] fresh cheeses and bloomy rind cheeses,” Upward said. As though to prove his loyalty to the state that has now pushed the artisan cheese movement forward with its high-quality cheese creations, he then referenced another local favorite.
Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville makes only two cheeses, one of which is seasonal, available only in late autumn. Andy Hatch is the main Uplands cheesemaker.
“Andy’s Rush Creek Reserve can hold its own against Mont d’Or,” said Upward. He compared the local with the famous French, unpasteurized, wash-rind, table cheese that is aged while wrapped in a band of spruce bark…and spoke like a true Wisconsin cheese partisan!