Stuart Mammel was a “foodie” before the term became popular, paying close attention to cooking during his childhood and specialty food stores during his days as a young adult. Now he works at Fromagination, where he helps satisfy the needs of “foodies” in search of artisan cheese.
Stuart arrived in Madison long before Fromagination did. He originally attended NYU for undergraduate studies. Then in 1984 he applied to UW-Madison. He stayed in Madison after school, and worked in well-known food-related businesses across the city as a baker, a deli manager, a chocolatier, a head waiter and a grocery department manager.
In 2018, Stuart joined Fromagination, where he provides visitors with attention, advice and the perspective of a food pilgrim who can find his way easily around a loaded cheese case.
“I’ve been passionate about food since I was a boy,” he says.
A woman named Agnes set Stuart on his pilgrimage. She was the housekeeper for Stuart’s grandparents, who lived nearby in Stuart’s hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. Agnes was also a Mennonite – an Anabaptist religious tradition known for strict pacifism – who have a rich culinary tradition. When he was young, Stuart was told to put on an apron if he was going to hang out in the kitchen with Agnes.
“She had me making rolls and cookies with her,” he said.
Agnes held a special place in Stuart’s heart and, in later years, often sent him boxes of the handmade sugar cookies he had once learned to help her make. Before Agnes’ death in a nursing care facility, Stuart fondly remembers returning the favor by bringing her a package of the same cookies.
Developing a Strong Interest in Cheese
Bringing people joy through food is a theme that Stuart continues. At Fromagination, he is a comforting presence for “artisan cheese virgins” who may feel challenged by the shop’s large cheese selection. He started the journey into cheese at a different Madison institution.
For 10 years, Stuart managed the cheese department at Willy Street Co-op, a Madison grocery store of some legend. At the beginning of that job, a frequent female customer asked Stuart, “Why don’t you sell more Wisconsin cheese?”
“I looked in the case and said, ‘Why don’t we?'” he said.
Willy Street eventually brought in around 170 different cheeses, established strong relationships with lots of cheesemakers in Wisconsin, and reached five percent of overall sales in cheese at one point, Stuart said. Store managers began to realize what an asset cheese was to the store and community at that point, he added. When they encouraged him to apply for department manager positions (and out of the cheese section), Stuart declined.
“I said, ‘I’m not done here.’ I was really proud of what we accomplished,” he said.
Eventually, Stuart did move on, deciding to take some time off from work to pursue a potential career in writing.
He rejoined the professional food world in October, and has been a good fit at the Fromagination shop.
“Stuart realizes every customer is unique and would love to be treated as such,” said Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone. “His service, skills and passion for cheese ensure that each customer can leave our shop with cheeses or other foods hand-selected especially for them.”
Stuart’s experiences have made him appreciate local artisan cheesemakers in Wisconsin.
“They artists. They love the thing that they do,” he said. “People come from different walks of life (but) they (all) love the alchemy that crafts something unique.”
But while June is Dairy Month in Wisconsin, and summer a time when many tourists walk into Fromagination, that doesn’t always mean the fans can be connected with the rock stars of cheese.
“One of the problems with small cheesemakers is that (often) when you want to go visit them, they’re the busiest,” Stuart said.
How to Create a “Cheese Convert”
Connecting customers with the fruit of a cheesemaker’s labor, however, does not need to be difficult, Stuart says.
“You don’t need to say more than a few words usually. You just put a little bit (of cheese) in front of them and have them taste it,” he said. “Most people are just used to young, commodity cheeses that don’t have a lot of flavor. It’s a transformational experience for the customer.”
The cheese usually does all the convincing, Stuart said.
“You put a piece of cheese on their tongue and suddenly it’s an experience they’ve never had before.”
For himself, Stuart likes the basics. He likes eating cheese with fresh baked bread, and sometimes pairs his cheese with, for example, quince paste. Even more basically, he likes to eat an apple with a piece of hard cheddar.
When cooking dinner, Stuart favors a simple, cheese-related recipe: Hot pasta, butter, grated parmesan cheese, and freshly ground pepper.
“It’s all you need,” he says. “It’s my adult version of macaroni and cheese.”
Before he discovered that simple delight, Stuart did some food-learning. Growing up in Iowa, “we were pretty much a meat and potatoes family,” he said. But when he went to college in New York in 1981, he began to learn about the wide varieties of food an international city could provide. He says he arrived in the Big Apple with a relatively “boring Midwestern upbringing” regarding food.
Then he found Zabar’s on Broadway in Manhattan, a specialty food shop that made quite an impression.
“It was just heavenly to me,” Stuart said. He was “discovering real pickles, real cheese…wonderful things!” He also went to Balducci’s, which describes itself as a “food lover’s market” in New York (which now has several locations on the East Coast).
A short time later, his girlfriend at the time worked in Chestnut Hill, just north of Philadelphia, where he found the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop. It had “just piles and piles of cheese everywhere!” He fondly remembers exploring that shop, and it changed his shopping habits for life.
Now, Stuart says, “I go on food pilgrimages to Chicago, and I look for places like this.”
His hot tip from the Windy City: Visit Middle East Bakery and Grocery on Foster Avenue in north Chicago for interesting, tasty foods.
Those suggestions start to make sense when you learn that Stuart earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin. He’s definitely interested in what humans eat, and what cheeses they make, and jokingly says now his studies could have lead to a work titled “The Rites and Rituals of Cheesemaking.”
Stuart’s “Preferred” List
Since joining the staff at Fromagination, Stuart has revised his list of favorite cheeses. Previously, he thought the Italian import Parmigiano Reggiano was the best. But since then, he has tasted Grana from nearby Bleu Mont Dairy. “That Grana, to me, is the best cheese in the world.”
He also favors gouda cheeses from Marieke Gouda in Thorp, more specifically the foenegreek gouda. He has seen Marieke Penterman receive awards at American Cheese Society events. “I love all of her cheeses,” he said.
Special moments of food discovery influenced Stuart’s attitude towards his work. One thing that makes him an attentive cheesemonger is his attitude towards people who may not have as much to spend as an affluent, worldly traveler.
A piece of extraordinary cheese is “a little luxury,” Stuart said. (But) “it’s a small piece of delicious food that almost anybody can taste.”
Accessibility to good food does not need to be an exclusive experience, according to Stuart. He adopted this perspective while waiting tables in a restaurant. Stuart realized his job was to be a “manufacturer of magical experiences” for customers who may not have had a lot of disposable income. When those people scraped enough money together to afford a night out, Stuart realized the server should make the evening out a special one.
And that attitude translates to his favorite work experience at Fromagination, which is “that magic moment when somebody comes in that knows very little about cheese and I can open their eyes to something special,” he said.