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How Do You Become The Best Cheesemonger In The World?

Ten international cheesemongers competed to be named the best cheesemonger in the world at Mondial du Fromage. Nathalie Vanhaver, from Belgium, in center, took gold. Christophe Gonzalez, from France, on the left, won silver; and for the first time ever, an American, Nadjeeb Chouaf, took home the bronze.

When you walk into a cheese shop to buy a wedge for your next party, your go-to person behind the counter is the cheesemonger. In France, where cheese is king, this role is crystal clear. In the U.S., it's a bit hazy.

In case you are wondering, a monger is a bit of a cheese therapist. It's someone who helps you navigate your tastes and desires. Don't want anything too barny? A good cheesemonger will steer you clear of washed-rind cheeses.

New York-based cheese importer Adam Moskowitz is trying to elevate and celebrate both the mongers and the products they pitch. Acting as unofficial cheese coach and mentor, Moskowitz last Sunday accompanied three other Americans to the ultimate cheesemonger competition in Tours, France — Mondial du Fromage — to compete for a medal. One of the three, Nadjeeb Chouaf, 30, won third place. It was the first American win on European terroir ever.

"The goal was ... to show that the U.S. had arrived," said Chouaf. Of course, he wanted to win, but it was still pretty awesome. "The most excitement and energy in the cheesemonger world is in the States," he said. This confident cheesemonger cut his teeth working at Whole Foods for several years before opening his own specialty cheese shop in Charlottesville, Va.

Worldwide cheese competition

Mondial du Fromage began in 2013 and is held biennially in France. Distributors, vendors, cheesemakers and mongers come from as far away as Japan, Brazil and Israel. The competition is the brainchild of Rodolphe Le Meunier, who has achieved the worlds-best title in France and beyond. If you saw him pacing the stage in his white chef's jacket with a blue, white and red neckband, you might have known that Le Meunier is also a MOF (rhymes with moth), which means he's won Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a craftsman competition held every four years.

Le Meunier is renowned in his country, but even he felt it was time for a U.S. win. "It would be a revolution to have an American cheesemonger win," Le Meunier said.

The revolution didn't happen, but this was still a big deal.

Mondial is a day of extremes. Borrowing a bit from the set of Iron Chef, there's a giant clock hanging at the back, rock-show lighting and even a DJ. Contestants have two wide stainless steel tables, a small refrigerator and a hundred blocks of cheese from all over Europe. Cameras capture every grimace, drop of sweat and puzzled look of the contestants. Crowds wave flags from home countries, air horns blare and face-painted children holler loudly in support: "Allez Papa!"

The contestants, from Japan, France, Holland, Belgium and the U.S., are the best in their home countries and have won a prior competition there. The American cheesemongers earned their place at Mondial by winning the Cheesemongers Invitational (CMI), a local contest that Moskowitz hosts twice a year in New York and San Francisco. It's not well-known outside of the tight-knit cheese community, but soon that may change.

Rigorous tests and challenges

The 10 contestants began their grueling day at Mondial with a 20-question written exam. Know what a Sveciaost PDO from Sweden is? Neither did the Americans. Next, the contestants received a plate of cheese for a blind taste test. Mongers had to correctly know the name of the cheese, how it was made, the region it was from, the type of milk used and how long it was aged. This was a doozy.

"It was very difficult. I've never had such a difficult one," said Nathalie Vanhaver. Despite the challenge, Vanhaver, a Dutch cheesemonger, took home the gold. In case you're not sure: It is extremely hard to win. This was her third attempt to capture the top medal. Luc Callebaut, Vanhaver's husband, was swaddled in the Belgian flag and surrounded by friends and family making a great deal of noise. He knows exactly how hard his wife has worked — he's also won awards. "It's the little details that make the difference," said Callebaut. "Competition is one thing, but it's the friendships you have with people from around the world," he said.

Next, the contestants were challenged to cut four identical, .25-gram pieces of cheese. Perry Soulos, 31, from Arlington, Va., said he was a finger guy. He held up two fingers side by side to show the width of a wedge. Lilith Spencer, 28, from Santa Fe, N.M., was confident, "All I need is the weight and I can cut it."

In the end, fingers and eyeballing didn't work. Most got close, but nobody nailed all four pieces. Up next was a five-minute oral presentation in which each cheesemonger shared a favorite cheese with the eight international judges.

As one might expect, preparation for Mondial began long before the actual contest. For the Americans it began last October, when Moskowitz sent an email asking previous CMI winners if they wanted to enter the French contest.

Spencer wrote back immediately. But she still needed to assure him of her diligence. She recalled the back-and-forth: "He said, 'I need to remind you: this is really serious. We want one of you to win.' " The three Americans and Moskowitz held weekly check-ins to review their progress. Hours were spent discussing all things cheese.

Even the French helped the Americans. Fabien Degoulet, 2015's winner, gave them crucial instructions: "You will be working for seven hours, so get a good night sleep and eat a big breakfast." They only sort-of listened to his advice: No one ate a big breakfast, but at least they refrained from champagne.

'Four hardest hours of cheese'

With the morning tests wrapped, there was still a half-day left of the competition. "The second half of the competition is where everyone hits their stride," said Vanhaver. For Soulos, who also competed in Mondial in 2015, it was a different story: "It's the four hardest hours of cheese you can imagine."

The mongers were required to make a cheese plate, a carving using cheese, a large board with their take on the year's theme — The Alchemy of a Cheesemonger — and several edible bites for the judges using various cheeses (yes, Brie was one of them). The plate also included ingredients purchased the day prior at nearby Halles de Tours: brightly-hued grapes, cherry tomatoes, porcini mushrooms or whatever caught their eye. Shoppers at the local market tracked the Americans and cheered them on.

Back home, it's a different story. "People are like, 'Cheesemonger, what the hell do you do?' " said Soulos, who has worked in cheese since he was 16. Third place winner Chouaf echoed that, but also pointed to a relatively unknown pressure: "We're the last thing a customer will remember before they take a cheese home and serve it to their friends," he said.

Before Mondial, Chouaf had heard it would be cutthroat, which is the opposite of CMI. "When people are done with their bites [for the judges], people walk around and help," he explained. Despite the rumors, Chouaf felt a great level of camaraderie among the international contestants. Christophe Gonzalez, the Frenchman who took the silver medal, said he'd like to enter CMI one day. "I like the American approach to cheese. It's very friendly," he said.

When Vanhaver won the top slot after six long years of work, everyone cheered, including the Americans and a little girl in French-flag bunny ears. Even third was enough for Moskowitz. "I'm really impressed," he said, excited that the Americans won a medal of any color. "The experience here has really energized the mongers back home."

Larissa Zimberoff is a food writer whose work has been published in the New York Times, Bloomberg, Wired, Fast Company and more. You can find her on Twitter @ibikeforfood and read a collection of her writing here.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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