I first met Sarah Simiele at the entrance of the Cheesemonger Invitational in Brooklyn back in June. Her mom and husband in enthusiastic tow, she was tagged a cheesemonger by her CMI race bib, strategically pinned to her brown and white cow-print jumpsuit. It (the jumpsuit) and the monger came to win. Turns out, after several grueling rounds of competition, Sarah did win. She cut, wrapped, curated, and orated her way to the tippy top of the cheesemonger pyramid.
The night was hers, and the energy inside Brooklyn Steel was electric when the announcement came down. I high fived her mom, who was jumping up and down screaming, “That’s my daughter!” and that night, we were all Sarah’s mom – just jazzed beyond measure, proud of her, and inspired by her passion for cheese.
Sarah stopped by the Vermont Creamery Fancy Food Show booth the next day, where she was taking a much-deserved victory lap through the makers’ booths who have supported her along the way. We caught up with her after, to get a recap of her experience, and to ask her five questions. She’s officially on our “Cheesemongers to watch” list. Congratulations to Sarah!
First, define cheesemonger (wrong & right answers welcome)
Wrong Answer: Cheesemongers are the wizards of the cheese world. We know all the spells, potions, ingredients & tools, and how to use them.
More of a Right Answer: If the cheese industry is like a house: farmers are the foundation, cheesemakers are the bones of the house (the beams & floors), affineurs are the walls & the roof, and cheesemongers are the interior & exterior decorators. If you're following my analogy, we're the part of the house that people see, that they ask questions about, that they interact with daily. We aren't useful without all the other parts, but we're the ones who tell the story for the other parts. Cheesemongers are the bridge between the cheese & the people & it's our responsibility to tell the story of the house as best we can.
Tell us about what drew you to this cheesy life?
I've always been a cheese lover, but this was certainly not my original goal. I was in college studying biology on a pre-med track when a group of students were trying to start a Cheese Club. I immediately reached out and offered to help get the club started, thinking cheese would be a good break from biology (boy was I wrong ha!). Through starting up the cheese club & taking the plunge into learning about cheese, I knew it was what I was meant to do. From there, I started applying for careers behind the counter. Growing up in New York City, I was pretty sure farming wasn't for me, and I was pretty burnt out from lab work so cheesemaking wasn't quite my calling. So I started working behind a counter & haven't looked back! I think a lot of us in cheese have a winding road to cheese and that's part of what makes the community so unique and wonderful.
You recently won CMI – walk us through that experience.
Winning The Cheesemonger Invitational has been the coolest thing I have ever done. Leading up to CMI & even morning of, I had 3 goals, none of which were to win. My goals were to: make new friends in the cheese world, meet & talk to some makers to help solve some of my distribution troubles, and to do good enough that at the end of the day I was proud of my work. I'd say I accomplished those goals.
I have dreamed about competing in CMI for years, but never felt quite ready, so to have finally found the confidence to compete & then to have won has been so overwhelming, in a good way. CMI is less of a competition and more of a collaboration. We're all working together & supporting each other in our cheese journeys. I had more support from every other monger than I did from anyone else. That was the best part, for me.
Overall, my CMI experience was amazing, and I would encourage anyone working behind a counter to compete, not to go into it trying to win, but go into it to make friends; because I'll be honest, winning is so cool, but making so many new industry friends has been way better.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a cheesemonger or cheese professional?
Ooh this is tough because I feel like I've received so much good advice over the years. I feel like some of the best advice, for me personally, was to trust myself and never stop learning. It really put in perspective that there is ALWAYS going to be more to learn & that I know more than I think I do. I feel like a lot of us struggle with thinking everyone knows more or is doing better, and the truth is if you're doing it, you're probably doing great.
I also was once told not to "yuck anyone else's yum" and I think that's super valuable advice that I live by everyday. Just because something in the food world isn't for you, doesn't make it bad. It just means you need to learn to appreciate it in other ways. Some of the foods that I don't love, I've spent extra time learning about so that I can appreciate them even if they're not my favorite thing to eat.
You own Curd Nerd in Syracuse, what advice do you have for other mongers looking to open their own shop?
My advice is to do it! Open a shop! I will say some good advice that we followed when opening was that you can always upgrade later. We opened The Curd Nerd on a TIGHT budget, so I didn't get my dream case or the most ideal slicer, but I can always upgrade those things. It was more important to get open & start getting people cheese than it was to wait until the "perfect moment" which doesn't likely exist. If you want to do it, take the leap. And anyone thinking of opening a shop, call other shop owners & ask them about their experiences, it's a great way to really put everything in perspective.
Follow Sarah and the Curd Nerd on Instagram, @thecurdnerdsyr