“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.”Continue reading →
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Andres started out not knowing much about Wisconsin cheese culture, but now he is a seven-month cheesemonger at Fromagination.
“Well, I didn’t know a whole a lot about cheese,” he said. “I felt like this was a good way really to acquaint myself with the world of cheese.”
Andres had already decided why Fromagination was his first pick for employment.
“I always enjoyed coming into the shop. I feel like the environment and the atmosphere Ken [Monteleone, Fromagination’s founder] is trying to convey here in the shop is just the kind of place I wanted to be apart of.”
A cheesemonger’s first day on the job is always a chance to learn. Andres arrived at the shop in early March.
“It was a learning experience,” Andres said. “There were so many kinds of cheese towards winter. It was a relaxed day and I got time and attention to my training.”
According to some customers, Andres has already become an expert!
“I made a cheese plate for some people…actually I made a few cheese plates and they loved them. They were calling me ‘the cheesemaster’ and they were just overjoyed,” he said. “It felt good to be able to make people feel like that.”
But Andres hasn’t always been in the Wisconsin cheese community.
“In South Dakota, [I] worked with kids, [and] graduated school for art…I’m a painter. Met my wife here, and now I work at a cheese shop.”
As with most cheesemongers, Andres has his favorite cheesemakers, one of whom lives here in Dane County and founded Bleu Mont Dairy.
“Willi Lehner, he’s my favorite cheesemaker. I’m sure there are a lot of really cool, awesome people making cheese, but Willi really appeals to my…I guess, independent spirit, and [it] doesn’t hurt that all of the cheeses he makes are basically like my favorite cheese.”
Andres thinks that cheese is a universally popular food.
“Cheese is one of those things where you know even if you don’t have much experience with it… [I] mean it’s delicious,” he said. “And it’s not really an acquired taste…it is an acquired taste, but I would say a lot of cheese isn’t. It’s the kind of thing anybody can pick up and recognize, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ you know?”
And what is Andres’ favorite part of the cheesemonger job, you may ask?
“Being able to help people find what they love and the joy on their faces,” he said.