“Does buffalo mozzarella actually have anything to do with buffalo?” tentatively asked a woman in a back room at the sprawling Greenwich Village location of Murray’s Cheese. “See, I’m from Oklahoma,” she continued by way of explanation.
The question was the first of the evening, the start of a course on the fundamentals of cheese (called “Cheese 101“). While shoppers casually inspected stacked wheels of Parmesan and refrigerated displays overflowing with molded-over delights in the shop downstairs, one flight up, the mood was considerably more studious. Thirty-some people were quietly seated in neat rows of narrow tables, all eyes to the front of the room with the eagerness of a newly minted freshman class. Before every student: Two polished wine glasses and a slate board conveying aromatic slices of cheese, each with a different texture and flavor. Their teacher, American Cheese Society-certified Emily Schwed, held court.
“Yes, water buffalo!” Emily said animatedly. The cheese’s namesake animals are usually from Italy, she continued, but this buffalo mozzarella — cheese made with the milk of a water buffalo — was actually made in New Jersey. A crescendo of excited oohs and ahhs ping-ponged around the room, and the students sniffed and then tasted the pillowy cheese. It was luscious and rich, with a slight bouncy chew. “I want to emphasize that there are no wrong answers,” Emily said before moving onto a buttery triple cream with a bloomy rind. “Everyone’s palate is different.” Emboldened, more hands shot up with questions.
Cheese 101 was Murray’s first offering when it began holding classes about 15 years ago, the start of a vast educational program that would become part of the legendary cheese shop’s foundation. Today, Murray’s hosts around nine public classes Monday through Sunday. During the holiday season, the shop’s busiest time, as many as 220 people pass through its classrooms a week to learn about cheese from a curated roster of experts. Keeping track of it all is Cara Siegel, Senior Events and Education Manager at Murray’s.
“The thing about cheese is that whatever someone is uniquely interested in, they can find that in cheese,” Cara said. And she means that literally. “You have food history. The flavor. The actual cheesemaking side, which is farming. Cultural geography, which is why certain people eat certain things. You look at cheese — we have all these styles and milk types, and it all traces back to where things were grown and what was available to people at that time.”
Though it’s a classic, Cheese 101 is far from the only class Murray’s offers. There’s a class for those who want to learn how to pull their own mozzarella (“it’s more hands-on” according to Cara), a class for Harry Potter fans eager to pair cheeses with liquor-spiked brews that magically change hue (“you drop something in and it changes color, it tells you what ‘house’ you’re in, and you pair it with a cheese”), a class for Game of Thrones obsessives (pairings are “based on whatever is going on in the show” at a given time), and too many more to name. There’s a little something for everyone, Cara said, whether that person is someone interested with the nuances of cheesemaking or someone just looking for a fun night out.
Cara was born and raised in Woodstock, New York, a leafy enclave in the Hudson Valley that for decades has lured musicians and farmers alike. Her first job, and the one that drew her back to the region each summer through college, was a local fruit and vegetable shop with its own seasonal restaurant. Watching it come alive each year sparked a passion in Cara. “Being on the management side of that business was something I was kind of obsessed with,” she said. “I loved service. I loved hospitality. Food is the basis for it, but I think the hospitality and service industry, the way you can connect with people, I’m in love with it.”
Cheese entered Cara’s orbit upon her college graduation in 2012. Finding herself in New York City and in need of cash, she nabbed a job as a server at Murray’s Cheese Bar, which had just opened in July of that year. Before long, she’d fallen not only for the intoxicating and complexly flavored cheeses on order — selections like smoky chèvre, crumbly MitiBleu, Gruyère-like Etivaz — but also each one’s colorful backstory, which took her in spirit from coastal Oregon to the mountains of Spain’s La Mancha region. She was hooked.
Then, in 2014, a fan of the cheese bar asked to buy out the space for a night to celebrate his 50th birthday. It marked a first for Murray’s, and Cara took the lead in arranging the festivities. “We had a cheese and crudites display manicured to be gorgeous and over-the-top, running the entire length of the marble bar,” she recalled. The event was a smashing success, and Cara saw the potential to carve out a grander role for herself building out the company’s events offerings, including private classes. Before long she’d assumed control of Murray’s events and education department. These days, much of her time is spent devising the most fascinating curriculum for Murray’s students, which means sussing out the best teachers and classroom topics.
“I coordinate a really amazing team of educators,” Cara said. To name a few, there’s Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery, who helped drive the popularity of goat cheese across America in the 1980s (“she’s kind of a cheese rock star”), the brand ambassadors from the Macallan whiskey distillery (“they come in and do a cheese and Macallan pairing”), and, of course, the wealth of Murray’s cheesemongers who step out from behind their cheese cases to teach a wide range of classes.
But it’s the repeat students that especially impress Cara. “We have a national presence at this point, so there are definitely people who I would say are superfans,” she said. None are perhaps more devoted than Murray’s squad of volunteers, who before each class help set up tables, arrange the place settings, portion out slices of cheese, and fill glasses of Champagne. In return for their services, they get to attend the class for free — and take home anything that remains uneaten at the conclusion. The volunteer spots are coveted, and those who snag them are often familiar faces in the Murray’s Cheese classrooms.
At this particular Cheese 101 event, there were several volunteers spread across two classrooms. In one, Elissa Lynch, a nursing student at Columbia University, said she’d always had a thing for cheese, but fell in love with Murray’s in particular after attending a cheese-and-beer pairing class in February. Since then, she’s volunteered several times. “This is just what I love to do,” she said, adding that the last time, as an added bonus, she’d hauled home a large chunk of Roquefort. She hoped she’d be so lucky that day. “You usually go home with a lot of cheese,” Lynch said, eyes alight.
Married couple Kim Nguyen-Ta and Casey Ta were also assisting in the set-up and break-down (and getting educated in the process); she’s getting an MD-PhD at Columbia, he’s a postdoc in the school’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. Nguyen-Ta is the cheese aficionado in the relationship, but she’d successfully roped in her husband. They’d heard about the volunteer program from friends, who in turn learned about it in the New York-iest of ways: from strangers on the subway. The key to nabbing a highly-prized volunteer spot, Nguyen-Ta explained, was to land your name on a secret Google Doc that Cara maintains. (Pro tip: shoot an e-mail to email@example.com and ask to be added.) “You have to put your name in quickly, or they get snapped up,” Nguyen-Ta said. “It’s definitely a quirky little community.”
“It gets pretty aggressive sometimes,” Cara said of the whole process, laughing. “A lot of people at Murray’s who’ve made a career of cheese have even started as volunteers,” she continued. That’s the thing about cheese — it can really get under your skin. It’s clearly true for Cara herself.
“They completely fall in love with cheese and the industry,” she said. “It completely changes their lives.”
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