Dairy to Dream
Editor’s Note: We loved providing Cheesy Conversations from our friend Keighty Alvarez, but Keighty has moved forward to pursue her academic desires, leaving it to someone else to lead the conversations. We cast our net for a leading caseophile and could not have done better than find Pat McCroy. Who does not love cheese? But Pat really loves cheese. His hobby is to “monger” for Prairie Fruit Farms at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market. His main job is hawking cheese for Pastoral. We think that in a not too soon time, Pat will have you as ga-ga for cheese as he is. Meet Pat now.
Hello, my name is Pat, and I have a problem. I love cheese. Some of my closest personal relationships are with cheeses. Seriously, I think it understands me better than people do. I give it nicknames, sing songs to it, and worry about its well being more than my own. At least one night a week I actually dream about cheese. I eat cheese every single day, and probably will until the day I die. Actually, that one’s not a problem at all, cheese is insanely good for you. But I digress…
Why do I tell you all this about myself? I figure if I’m going preach to you about the importance of local cheese you should understand how invested in it I am. I love everything about cheese, and I especially love cheese when it comes from someone who lives and works close to my home. When I stand at the cheese case and sell, I almost always reach for American cheese first, almost to a fault.
I meet cheesemakers like Andy Hatch from Uplands Cheese (Dodgeville, WI) or Leslie Cooperband at Prairie Fruits Farm (Champaign, IL) and I get stupid like a teenage girl in the presence of the Beebs. Moral of the story, I love this stuff.
My greatest love in life is food, more specifically, good food. Early on in life, that love for food manifested itself in a chubby kid with a fondness for twinkies. I only started to realize what good food really meant in college, while working at a school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. The abuelas would bring us homemade tamales, and the guy on the corner of 49th and Damen would serve grilled corn with butter, chilies, and a crumbly Mexican cheese called cojita. Every Sunday I would grab an ear before sitting down to watch the Bears and grade tests. It occurred to me at this point that simple food is good food. I started cooking, and after suffering through months of really, REALLY bad food, the good stuff started to sneak in once in a while. At Christmas that year I went home and said to my dad, “I want to go to culinary school.” The response I got involved some long-winded dad story about the value of a liberal arts degree, or something like that. I kinda zoned out so I’m not entirely sure. I’d stopped listening, but I never stopped wanting to cook.
The best thing that ever happened to me was failing out of college. I got sick in the fall of my sophomore year, and never made up the work. It was probably better that way, since I didn’t care at all about what I was studying. Opportunity wasn’t necessarily, but the local community college’s culinary program was cheap, and easy to get into as well.
The college’s program was great, but it couldn’t contain me. I wanted to learn everything and I wanted to learn it from the best, so the only option was going to the best culinary school. I didn’t want to leave Chicago, so Kendall was the obvious choice. I worked in an amateur cooking school for discounts on knives, took every elective that was open, soaked up as much as possible, and for the first time in a long time actually did really well in school.
I refused to work somewhere that didn’t stimulate me, but with almost no experience cooking on the line there was no way the great and powerful Paul Virant would ever let me in his kitchen at Vie. He was a god among men, and I was but a worm at that point. The day I staged there, I was scared sh*tless. I dropped a pan of corn on the floor and stumbled around the place like I’d never seen a kitchen in my life. Apparently Paul wasn’t paying close enough attention, because he asked me to come intern with him at the end of service that day. I kid about how scary Paul is; he’s actually one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He gives without end, shares every single bit of his vast knowledge, and inspires people around him to do better than their best every day. Working with him will always be the most formidable period of my professional career. He is the reason I do what I do these days. Paul taught me a respect and love for the ingredient, and made me understand that good food starts at the beginning. He also introduced me to all of his friends, and they were cool friends to have.
Farmers, cheesemakers, artisans of all sorts, Paul surrounds himself with people who were the best at what they do. And the part that amazed me was how many people live so close to me who make such amazing food. I started fantasizing about leaving the city for a better life on a small farm, raising goats and tending fields. But I love my cell phone reception too much.
After bouncing around a few restaurants, I graduated culinary school and struggled to find work. Then one day I hungrily wandered into a cheese shop in the loop and everything changed. I immediately felt at home. I interviewed, staged, and shortly began my new career as a cheesemonger. It was amazing. I didn’t realize how cool cheese was until I started my journey through the vast selection. I’d been exposed to a couple local cheeses during my time at Vie, but the caliber of cheese being made in the States blew my mind. I knew my calling, and it was American cheese. I wanted immerse myself in it, spend my life surrounded by it. I’ve been working in the cheese world for two years now and I don’t ever want to do anything else.
So Pat, what can I expect to read about when I frequent the Local Beet? Well, I’ll be introducing you to all the cheesy wonder that the Upper Midwest has to offer, and to everyone who’s worth knowing about when it comes to fromage. We’ll stay as close to home as possible, but because of the scarcity in true artisan cheesemakers we’ll have to reach a state or two away. But I promise I won’t stray much farther than that. I’ll share awesome cheese plates, pairings, and other tasty treats that I come across, and if you ask nicely I might even share some recipes that incorporate my favorite cheeses. I might even have a friend chime in from time to time. I’m not the only monger in town, after all. Read, comment, and enjoy. Oh yeah, don’t forget to buy local cheese, its good for you and me.