The Five Questions: Tia Keenan, Fromager
December 22, 2010
Tia Keenan is more than just a cook, she is a creative force behind cheese driven flavors that most people have never even thought of. Not that what she does is way out- what it is brings familiarity into an entirely new focus.
Tia drills down into the why of cheese, not just the way ( the Tao) of cheese. Tia works with familiar ingredients but she coaxes out an entirely new dialogue and language.
This new conversation utilizes scent, color, texture and memories. Why memories? Through her passion for good food, she has unlocked the words “discovery” and “knowledge” to her vision of cheese as more than just a metaphor for eating.
In Tia’s words, “The best cheesemakers are translators of milk.”
Thank you Tia for teaching me about your craft.
1. Who taught you about cheese? Do you make your own cheese?
Sometimes I make my own cheese. I’ve made simple “farmer’s cheese” in my work as a chef Fromager, and I teach people how to make some simple cheeses in classrooms. I do this more as a public service, as part of translating the life of cheese to the public, not because I’m so great at it.
Cheesemaking is a vocation, a lifetime craft. The best cheesemakers are translators of milk. But I translate cheese! I extend it through my cooking and presentation and then I feed it to someone. In that work I try to honor the vision of the cheese maker. I try not to impose too much of myself on the product but at the same time keep it compelling and true to my own vision. It’s a delicate balance and something I think about constantly.
I learned about cheese mostly through working with it. I wish I could say someone mentored me but most of my learning happened through obsession — tasting, reading, thinking, about cheese. When I was a kid I could spend 10 hours working on one drawing. My mom used to worry about me – that I was too fond of immersing myself in my own world. That’s what I did with cheese. My pencil became cheese, my paper became a plate.
2. If you could be anywhere in the world right now where would that be? What would you eat/drink once you got there?
Can I time travel? Because I’m not sure I could answer that question without wanting to change my answer ten times. Restaurants – I love them, they’re how I make a living, I’ve eaten at some great ones. I’ve been very lucky in my life to enjoy many restaurants that most people will only read about. But I’d love to be in my mother’s vegetable garden on the south shore of Long Island, maybe August 1995, when she was still healthy (she passed away in 2009). It would have to be August because I want the garden to be an explosion of color and flavor. I’d make a tomato salad using little orange heirloom Blondkopfchen tomatoes she grew next to the garage. She’d have made pesto that day – basil and anchovy. We’d grill squash after brushing it with the pesto and throw an Italian ring sausage from the local “pork store” on the fire and just enjoy the verdant bounty my mom put so much passion into producing. For dessert we’d have a flan because that was her favorite. It would be my best batch to date, with local raw milk and cream. The caramel would be extra dark, just the way she liked it. We’d drink a simple red wine and talk about the future and growing old. I still have some of her jarred pesto, which I am parsing out. One day I won’t have any left, and I’ll never be able to taste my mother’s cooking again. The thought of that is just…it takes my breath away. If I can’t time travel I’ll take a meal in any country, in any town, where someone’s grandma or aunt or mom is cooking. Every family has at least one woman whom they crown as “the best” cook. I want to eat at her table. Noma, Alinea, et al. are amazing, but they don’t feed my soul the way a recipe cooked with love hundreds of times, over decades, by a home cook, does. prefer the emotional/spiritual/mystical in cooking over the technical. The fact is, if someone makes something with love they will make it with the best available ingredients and as much technical skill as they possess, because they are expressing something authentic and meaningful to them.
3. Do you have a favorite cheese? What is it? Where does it come from (who makes it) and what milk does it come from?
I don’t have a favorite cheese! I love them all, especially when they are expressing their very best. The “best” cheese happens in a specific moment that’s made up of hundreds of subtle relationships, the most obvious being what the animal ate, the care and skill of the cheesemaker, the season in which the cheese was produced. I can tell you ONE of the best cheese “moments” I’ve had: Eating Bergkäse in June in the Bavarian Alps, with the clanking of the cow bells in the background, and the cheesemaker watching me with anticipation and then joy, as he realizes how much pleasure his work is giving me. How can buying a cheese, even a fantastic cheese, ever compete with that? Flavor is not only in the food in your mouth at any given moment. Human beings are too complex to experience flavor as only one or two senses. Flavor is memory and desire, that’s what I’m most interested in. Every person experiences that differently. With cheese, I get to “cheat” because (mother’s) milk is our first food and therefore carries so much emotional memory.
But I’ll also give you my short interview answer: Stylistically, I love stinky cheese! The funkier the better! Find me the James Brown of cheeses and I will show you how to make something disappear. In terms of milks I especially enjoy sheep and buffalo milk, with their crazy high fat content — they’re natures custard! But I also want people to eat more goat milk cheese, because goats are more adaptable than say, cows. Often goats were kept by women or children because of their size and temperament. We need to start thinking beyond the cow… not that I don’t love cows too.
4. Is there anything you prepare that brings a tear to your eye when you make (or eat) it? Why? Do you have a favorite food that reminds you of someone?
Feeding someone who is enjoying my food immensely gives me a feeling that’s like… don’t know, when you kiss someone for the first time, and unbeknownst to you you’ll eventually learn to love that person deeply. You’ve anticipated that pleasure, but it exceeds your expectations and fantasies. The experience becomes singular. The first serious home cooking I did was for my first husband. I met him in Cuba and he moved to the US and we got married. He was totally overwhelmed by American variety and abundance in food. A classic diner menu would leave him totally flummoxed. After about three weeks in the US he turned to me and said “If I don’t eat some Moros y Christianos I’m gonna die. I’ve eaten rice and beans every day of my life for 38 years.” So of course, I became totally obsessed with learning to cook Cuban food. I bought Memories of a Cuban Kitchen by Mary Urrutia Randelman and Joan Schwartz and dove in. Boliche, Ropa Viega, Bacalao, Tostones con Mojo, I cooked Cuban food even my husband had never had! To this day I still make big pots of beans cooked down with my own secret sofrito recipe. I eat them with rice and fried eggs with my fiancée, who is Greek/Macedonian. My first husband died only five years after he came to the United States. He never adjusted to life here. He was like a tropical flower in arctic tundra. Our last years together were not nice. Sometimes I cook beans to remind myself of the good feelings I had for him and to honor his memory through flavor. The flavors of my early 20’s are cumin, tomato, black beans.
When I want to reach back to that time I cook and eat those things.
5. How do you use the Real-Time internet to expand your brand? Do you own a smartphone? Do you live “Tweet” during events?
I’m someone who uses technology to communicate my point of view, usually on dairy, cheese, restaurants, cooking, etc. People assume I’m tech-savvy, because I have a strong online presence. But I don’t really care about the technology! I like it as a communication tool and am less interested in the technical aspect of it. I was thinking about robots today. Why are people so fascinated by robots? Do they really think robots will ultimately “change” society? Robots may be a tool of change but they will not drive it. Branding genius Cindy Gallop says “Social media is simply all the same old basic human truths, dynamics, and instincts, just with a whole new methodology” and she’s right. So…I tweet a lot, sometimes from a smartphone and sometimes from the web. Live-tweeting is hard, I do it sometimes but in general I don’t like doing it or particularly enjoy reading live-event tweets, unless I’m attending the event. My hope is that my Twitter stream is a peek into this weird little cheese-centric life I’ve made for myself. I know I’m doing a good job when I meet someone in person for the first time and they say “Oh! I know you!” Because even they really don’t, my Twitter stream has made them feel that they do. In reality (and by that I mean MY REALITY, because that’s the only reality I know) my Twitter stream covers maybe % 1 of who I am. I’m overwhelmed just thinking about that, by the way.
Tia Keenan is a Chef Fromager and eating design and food consultant based in New York City. In 2007, with a decade of New York City restaurant experience behind her, Keenan opened Casellula Cheese and Wine Café, a pioneering cheese bar featuring a rotating selection of 40 international artisan cheeses paired with more than 60 unique, inventive condiments. Her work earned Casellula an honorable mention in the 2009 Michelin Guide. Previously, Keenan helmed the cheese program at Michelin-starred restaurant The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art. With her unorthodox approach to the cheese plate, Keenan creates a new flavor “language” for cheese and contributes her distinctive vision to the burgeoning American artisan cheese revolution. Keenan’s work has been covered in numerous publications, including New York Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Food and Wine, and The New Yorker, which declared her cheese-centric cuisine a “raison d’etre” and “expertly garnished.”
Link to my twitter: http://www.twitter.com/kasekaiserina
Link to my facebook: http://www.facebook.com/tia.keenan
Link to my LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/tia-keenan/5/75/993
Warren Bobrow is a mixologist, chef, and writer known as the Cocktail Whisperer. In 2010, Bobrow founded “Wild Table” for Wild River Review and serves as the master mixologist for several brands of liquor, including the Busted Barrel rum produced by New Jersey’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition.
Bobrow has published three books on mixology and written articles for Saveur magazine, Voda magazine, Whole Foods-Dark Rye, Distiller, Beverage Media, DrinkupNY and other periodicals. He writes the “On Whiskey” column for Okra Magazine at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and has written restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly.
His first book Apothecary Cocktails, was published in September 2013; and immediately went into a second printing. In 2014, he published Whiskey Cocktails. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ, on a Biodynamic farm.
Warren Bobrow in this Edition
COCKTAIL WHISPERER, Editor
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