Monday, 18 April 2016

Meet Tia Keenan, the cheese queen of Queens

Tia Keenan, fromager, author, New York

I first met Tia Keenan on my last trip to New York in 2011. We met in the lobby at the Ace Hotel and immediately hit it off. Her particular speciality is cheese - she was the fromager for high end restaurants in New York and created Casellula, a ground-breaking cheese and wine restaurant. Tia pairs cheese with unusual flavours, and creates things like cheese sushi.

In the five years since we met, her life has changed drastically: she now lives in a light and airy house in Queens with her husband Hristo Zisovski, the chef sommelier and wine buyer for a host of top Manhattan restaurants, and they have a beautiful son, Sterio.  
Tia wrote to me to describe her forthcoming first book 'The Art of the Cheese Plate' (Rizzoli, September 2016):
I wanted this book to reflect the spirit that I have always brought to cheese: playful, sexy, whimsical, a little irreverent, but backed up by solid knowledge. 
She added that she wanted the book:
To look really different from many other cheese books, which I think of as kind of visually lazy, you know, relying on the aesthetic cliché of county life: the distressed wood, the casually strewn antique knives, the rose-coloured romance of some Provencal farmhouse or something. 
I arranged the entries by season and by "weight", so we start out with lighter themes and visuals and end with darker, heavier, more aggressive themes and visuals as we progress through the flights in the book.  I don't state this anywhere in the book but that's what I did.  Again, I hope the reader gets the "feeling" of that.  I don't want or need to spell it out. 

I wanted to make something that only I could've made but that is ultimately totally user-friendly and relatable. I want this to be a joyful object for whoever owns it. 

We sat down on a Sunday afternoon at her beautiful house in Queens with a couple of good bottles of wine and a few cheeses and discussed motherhood, pregnancy, taste, politics, Western medicine, the restaurant industry, sexism, well just about everything. 
Talking the difficulties of describing flavour, Tia is inspired by a book The Elements of Taste, which makes a concerted effort to define taste, depicting 'push' and 'pull' elements, along with 'punctuating' flavours and a series of 'platform' tastes such as oceanic, garden, meaty, starchy. Eventually this is the route that Tia would like to go down:
But a book like that would take ten years and it'd kill me.
How do you develop a palate?
Exercise it! By tasting, by tasting, by tasting. By consciously tasting. People aren't mindful. What does this feel like, what does it smell like?
Like a taste gym?  
Now I'm not working in the restaurant, my palate isn't getting as much practice. Also getting older affects it.
Our palates aren't the same during or after pregnancy.   
I had gestational diabetes during my pregnancy. I couldn't eat sugar or carbs. I could only eat protein, cauliflower and brassicas. 
As a result her son loves brassicas, pleading for kale and brussel sprouts in the same way that other kids want spaghetti hoops or sweets. (Bee Wilson goes into this subject in her latest book 'First Bite, how we learn to eat'.)

Tia brings three cheeses to the table, a loaf of dark bread. Any particular cheese we should start with here?
I like washed rind, pungent cheeses. These are three of the same style. This is an American cheese, Grayson.  My friend in upstate New York makes this one, Juvindale. And lastly we have a Portuguese sheep cheese that I have leftover from a photo shoot. So we have cow, cow, sheep.
You started as a waitperson. You saw different aspects of the restaurant industry?
I worked at Tribeca Grill. Because I'd been working in publishing, I showed up to this interview in a suit, a nice suit, Dolce & Gabbana. So they hired me, because they were like, “who shows up to a waiter interview in a D&G suit?”. At that time in restaurants nobody wanted to do the cheese cart. The chef ordered the cheeses but didn't have time to do much else, the pastry chef didn't want to do it. The waiters would serve it but that's all. Nobody wanted to take ownership of it. It was a mess. So I said, 'I'll do it'.
So every restaurant I worked at, they'd say, “does anyone know anything about cheese?” and I'd say yeah I know something about cheese.
Then I heard Danny Meyer was opening a restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. I was a manager at that point in my career, so I went to an interview for MOMA and the guy interviewing me said, 'We don't have any female captains in the formal dining room. We know you are over-qualified but we'd really like to have a woman on the team. We are trying to be inclusive...' (Tia rolls her eyes, we laugh.) 'This is our type of feminism... we are demoting you! I turned that cart into one of the most respected fine dining cheese programs in the city. That opportunity – to work for Danny, at MOMA, to build and shape an amazing cheese program, it was really great timing and such a gift. It coincided with this amazing time in American cheese. This is the conversation I used to have when I talked about the cheese cart:

'You have American cheese?
'Yes, there are some really fine American cheeses.'
'I would never eat American cheese, it's garbage, the best cheeses are from France.'
That was where we were at. Americans didn't even know we made cheese in this country. So I did that for a couple of years. Then I had the opportunity to open a small cheese and wine bar.  So I quit my fancy job and went for it.  Looking back I had some pretty grandiose plans.  I wanted to reinvent the cheese course – what it looked like, where it was served, who was serving it, who was eating it.  Everything, really.
What kind of things did you introduce into your cheese programme?
I was completely obsessive and particular. I was really hardcore about it. I was training the staff. None of this was happening at that time. I was caring for the cart, like I was taking it really seriously and there was no one doing that. It was intense. But I was rolling that cart around every day and talking to hundreds of people. I knew what I could do. I knew what people would be interested in. I knew how far I could push the eating public. I felt the culture around me changing. At the Modern, the cheese course was on the 150 dollar tasting menu, the chef just trusted me, let me do my thing. He never asked to approve anything. It was really clear to me what I wanted to do. I had a vision. I was so focused about what I wanted to execute. Everyone around me was like “No! That's not gonna work.” (Smiles) But once I put my work in a casual setting, it was immediately successful. It was packed from the very first day.
What sort of things did you innovate?
We did the cheese super casual. We created the cheese boards in front of people, like an open kitchen. Each cheese got its own condiment. The condiments were from Asia, the deep south, from Spain, from every cuisine, from the ethnic markets where I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. The way I talked about it, the language I used. People challenged me: “But what are people going to eat for dinner?” And I was like, they’re going to have cheese plates!”  This was pretty unheard of.
There are still no restaurants like that in London, except La Fromagerie.
What do you think is happening with American cheese right now?
You can have no discussion about American cheese without understanding the absolute mess that the American food system is. Federal policy subsidises and favours industrial agriculture. There is little support for medium and small scale production farming. Almost none. The entire infrastructure of American food does not help small and even medium scale farming. So you've got a federal government that pays for corn, soy, all that. You've got an infrastructure to move that type of product through the chain and you've got small and medium scale farmers just trying to survive. The family farmer is gone, the Norman Rockwell farmer. The loss of the small & mid-scale farmer is where the American artisanal cheese movement started. It used to be that you could have 150 dairy cows, you could milk those cows, you could sell that milk on the commodity markets and make a living. Then the commodity market bottomed out. The costs of production units sky-rocketed. The amount it costs to feed, water, house your cows is more than you can earn for the milk. You have thousands of farms going under. You have farmers ageing out of that system. Their children don't take over, because they don't want to live in poverty. You have farmers that haven't aged out, but who are forced to sell and who have to enter the workplace. So you get the 50 year old guy, working at Walmart, who was brought up in a farm and farmed for most of his children's lives. He sold the land and ekes out a living at Walmart.  That’s the reality of rural America.  It’s been left to languish in poverty.  
And then you get the people who say lets make a value added product such as cheese. But that's not an easy road. A small segment of the farming population hooked up with people who were inspired on a culinary level. The story of American artisanal cheese was the culinary seduction of young American women. The story of young American women who went to France and ate amazing cheese and came back to America in the 70’s and 80’s and said why can't I get nice cheese here? I'm gonna get five goats and make cheese in my kitchen. It started with goats because they are easy to care for. They are small. Goats have always been women's animals.* One cow, you got enough milk for your family. The wife, the mother, took care of the family cow. Herds of cows- that wasn't women's work. Women kept goats. They were small and ate everything. So they were easier to feed. Goats don't need the massive amount of land that a cow needs. All over the world, in traditional agricultural societies, goats are still women's animals. You don't have to graze them the way you do sheep and cows. So you had these middle-class women, who didn't grow up on farms, who were exposed to the culinary wonder of cheese, and who came into cheese that way.  
And you had the small percentage of farmers who were so stubborn and didn't want to give up their farms, saying: What can I make? Milk isn't enough anymore - I have to make something else. And then that's also connected to the movement and growth of farmers' markets. Realising that the farmer now is really a speciality farmer. Much of the commodity stuff are made in giant agri-business 'farms'. They don't look like farms. They don't resemble the farms of our grandparents. 
This is the 80’s and 90’s. While Willie Nelson is doing FarmAid, they are singing sad songs, nobly so, about the loss of the American farmer. You have these small pockets of people making cheese. That's when we started to lay the foundations for American cheese renaissance. 
Where was this happening? 
Vermont, California, little random places here and there.
Have any of those small cheese companies become successful now?
Yes. Cypress Grove, Vermont Butter & Cheese, these were started by women cheese makers, and now they’re established American artisan cheese companies. But it’s hard. The regulatory bodies of the government have little understanding or respect for real food or traditional foodways. But they decide what happens with food in this country. They’re equipped to assess large factories and industrially produced goods. They don't know what to think when they walk onto a farmstead cheese production. It's been very hard for American cheese, especially raw milk cheese.
Is it still illegal here? Raw milk?
You can have raw milk cheese if it's aged over 60 days but it’s constantly under threat. The FDA is so much more strict about what is imported to this country. European cheeses that I used to have access to were much better than they are now. But that gives an opportunity to American cheeses. I wish that was something deliberate on the part of our government, in the form of tariffs or trade protection, so that American cheeses can compete with European cheeses.  But really the FDA is just bumbling their handling of importation. It's kind of a backdoor way for American cheeses to have a fighting chance, but that's how it happened. There is no food policy in this country that isn't about favouring big business.
We can't get American cheeses in Europe. We can't get Monterey Jack in the UK.
That's mostly Europe's fault. Europe is protecting their own dairy farmers, which I think is wise.  Why should they have to compete with Kraft?  They can’t.  Governments need to protect their traditional foodways.
I say this bread is wonderful. It's like caramelised. (The bread was made by a baker friend of Tia's, Zachary Golper of Bien Cuit Bakery in Brooklyn, who made all the bread for The Art of the Cheese Plate.)
Last time we met we talked about women in food. It was you that told me that women get a lot less backing than men to start new businesses.
That's the context of when I wrote (chef) Amanda Cohen a fan letter. I felt like she was the only female chef that ever spoke honestly about the climate for women in the food world. I sent her an email saying I really admire and respect you because the discourse on this is pathetic. I know there's been a backlash. I do think she has suffered for being... (the implication was an outspoken woman)
I don't know why she's not much much more famous.
That's why! Everyone wants to say: there aren't women chefs because you can't have kids and be in the kitchen. That's a fair assessment. It's very difficult if you have a kid to also run a kitchen. They say women don't like the culture, that it's sexist. That’s true, but I don't think that's the problem. I think we have a means of production problem. Men are 99% of the investors in restaurants and men do not invest money in women. Not just restaurants. Any business. All those other things, despite how hard it is, despite how shitty it is, how hot and hostile it is, there are women who want to do it. It's shitty, it's hard, it's hot, I don't see my kid, but they would still kill for a restaurant. Men don't invest in women. They don't. They invest in other men. And that's how they keep everything to themselves. It's about owning the means of production. The problem is capital. We would rather talk about how hard it is on women than talk about men doing the right thing.
Tom Kerridge, do you know who he is?
Yeah, he's the guy that said all that stupid shit. It's a British tradition for male chefs to be inflammatory, sort of school-boy. Men here don't talk like that. They hide their privilege. 
Most chefs aren't very well educated. I mean Tom Kerridge, I'm sure he's very clever but... He's now presenting loads of BBC cooking shows.
Why are they giving him work?
He's one of the most popular. He does pub food. He's a lad. He also was hugely fat. I'm not talking a bit round, he was obese. You just felt looking at him that he was literally going to die of a heart attack on screen. It was that bad, he was panting. Me and my girlfriends in food were saying no woman who looked like that would ever get a show.
You have to be FABULOUS looking to get a show, if you are a woman.
I never knew food was like this.
Every industry is like this.
It feels like it's gotten worse.
Because there's a lot of money to be made. It's a major form of entertainment now. Can we talk about the British Baking show?
We talk about Mary Berry and Bake Off. I repeat the joke by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler 'that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60'. There's only broadcasting jobs in food for Mary Berrys over 60. The only people who are allowed to be on TV if they are older and female are thin. Mary Berry is very, very thin.
She's very Julie Andrews.
Plans for the future?
I'd love to make a writing life. I'd like to write more books. Now I have my son, he's my number one. He's my first consideration. I've been pleasantly surprised by being able to do that. I do have a journalism degree but it took me 20 years in the restaurant business to become a writer.
I feel like food is the new rock n roll but actually I feel like the energy has moved past that.
I think food has jumped the shark.
Totally.  It’s very mainstream now, and less interesting in some ways.
Tia Keenan, fromager, author, New York
We poured wine 'cheers', and Tia talked about getting ill while working in restaurants. Five years ago when we met you were trying to set up another restaurant. You'd been sick, you'd walked away from your restaurant, but you still thought you could do it again?
Yeah. I was doing consulting work for a big corporate client, and really enjoying it. I thought to myself, “Why am I trying to do the same fucked up thing again?”. I started looking at patterns in my life and realized I didn’t want to open another restaurant for myself. I was exhausted all the time, I was freezing cold all the time. I had searing headaches. My body stopped. My hands wouldn't work. I remember getting off the subway once and sitting on the curb, being two blocks from work and I couldn't move. I thought, 'there's something really wrong with me'. But when you're in the restaurant business you are always tired anyway. Hristo was the first one to say there's something wrong (beyond the usual tiredness). 
And you were how old?
30. I went to the doctor and said I need an HIV test. Test me for cancer or AIDS. I got super lucky because my doctor happened to give me the Epstein Barr test. He got the test results back: 'You’re right, you really are sick. Based on the anti-bodies in your blood stream, you've had Epstein Barr for a year and I can't believe it's taken you this long to get to me.' It's a virus - 90% of adults will get Epstein Barr at some point in their lives, but your body fights it and you never get sick. But if your immune system is suppressed, you get it and it can become chronic. It's like an extreme version of mononucleosis.
What's the cure?
The doctor said, 'It’s a virus and there’s no cure.  Try to get more sleep.' And I was like, 'what do you mean try to get more sleep? I can't function. I feel like I'm dying.' But typical of Western medicine, he said, 'There's nothing we can do for you' – he had no idea how to approach a whole body disease. So I went to see an herbalist/acupuncturist, who I still see to this day, who said, 'You give me a year, you do everything I say and you will get better.' At the same time my mum was sick with MS and there is a connection between Epstein Barr and MS. Everyone who has had MS has had Epstein Barr. I went on an extreme holistic cure. I did herbs, acupuncture. I ate no wheat, no dairy, no sugar, no alcohol for a year and a half. I drank half a cup of raw apple cider vinegar every day. At that time I was a compulsive exerciser, one to two hours a day. He said no more exercise. He put me on a sleep diet, you have to sleep the equivalent of 70 hours a week. I said, 'I don't have the time to do that'. That's OK, you do what you can during the week and then on Sunday you stay in bed all day. He put me on sleep exercise. He cured me.
We laugh at the absurdity of a sleep diet. Modern society rewards bipolar 'up' behaviour, I remark. It rewards obsessional drive and extreme hard work.
If you are a sociopath, or a psychopath you get to become president. All of the candidates are sociopaths or psychopaths. Even Hillary. Probably Bernie is the only and even him, I have to question the mental health of anybody who is a lifetime politician. And the restaurant industry rewards that behaviour.Then my mum died.
What of?
How long did she have MS for?
20 years.
Tia pauses and clarifies:
She didn't really have MS. It's a syndrome. There's no blood test.
Isn't there? I'm shocked.
No. She didn't really have MS, she had some sort of auto-immune disease. My mother had cancer three times. She had scarlet fever. She was not a healthy person her whole life. She also had mental illness. On her death certificate, she died of a heart attack. My mother died with no intestine, no breasts, no joints in any of her feet, several joints gone, no gall bladder. My mother was a medical... by the time she died... there was nothing left. She was pickled, stewed, screwed and stitched. Because Western medicine doesn't know how to deal with a whole body disease. They were treating one thing at a time. So what did she die from? I dunno. Drugs, disease, MS. We could name 10 things that killed her. So that was a huge time in my life.
When did you meet Hristo?
My father died in 2004, my first husband died in 2006, I met Hristo in 2007, my mother died in 2009. I opened the restaurant as a way to not fall apart from all of that. My husband died '06, my restaurant opened Spring '07. The restaurant was the way I kept myself alive. I just wanted to disappear. I was so heart broken. Then I met Hristo. I didn't find Hristo attractive at first. I thought he was just another guy, asking for my number. But he had patience, an inner fortitude like, 'Ok I'll wait for you'. He never pushed me. He was courting me and I didn’t even realize it until I’d fallen in love.
That's so sweet. 

After this we had a companionable snooze on respective sofas. It was the perfect Sunday afternoon, even though Tia felt a little guilty - 'normally I'm cleaning the house on Sunday'.

Tia Keenan, fromager, author, New York
*Background reading: Kirstin Jackson talks about small cheese producers, how goats are women's animals, in 'It's not you, it's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese' (Perigee Books 2012).


  1. I just LOVE reading your blog, Kerstin. And I loved learning about the cheese lady. You have such a wonderful variety of things you write about. I'm always excited to see what you've got posted.

  2. Such a good interview! She seems cool, and she's brutally honest, which is always nice :)

    1. Such an interesting woman too. I love honesty. Not enough of it about.

  3. Thank you Kerstin to let us know her, very good interview!


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