Tia Keenan is a cheese aficionado turned author, whose book, The Art of the Cheese Plate adorns the coffee and kitchen tables of curd nerds across the United States. We had the opportunity to chat with Tia about her first foray into cheese, what questions to ask your local cheesemonger and how to open your mind to new adventures in cheese. To check out her beautiful holiday cheeseboard, click here.

This post is part of our Holiday Cheers to Cheesemongers series, for more monger spotlights, click here.  For more holiday recipe and pairings inspiration, thumb through our recipe collection here.

Name: Tia Keenan

Hometown: Queens, New York

Favorite local shops: Astoria Bier & Cheese and Foster Sundry

How long have you been in the cheese biz? 13 years

What brought you to cheese?  I came to cheese via restaurants, which is an unusual path.  I connected to cheese the first time I worked with it – I loved that it was a living, breathing thing, and that there was so much to share about it: its flavors, its history, its emotional power.

What is the most common response you get when you tell people you work in cheese?  When I first started working with cheese and people would ask me what I did for a living, they’d often respond with “Wow! I didn’t know that was a job!”  But now people will say “That’s my dream job!”  Times have changed.

What should a novice cheese buyer look for in a cheese?  You know how when you look at a baby, you can often just tell that it looks happy and healthy – it has fat rolls, rosy cheeks, it’s smiling.  When you look at a cheese, does it look healthy?  Is it’s “skin” (i.e. the rind) in good shape, how’s it’s coloring? I think sometimes people don’t even really look at the cheese they buy.  Your eyes are a really great initial way to begin to asses the health of a cheese.

What do you say to someone who declares that they, “Don’t like goat cheese,” or are put off by an appearance or aroma of a cheese?  I used to carry what I thought of as “secret weapon” goat cheeses for people who’d tell me they “didn’t like goat cheese.” Usually people who think they don’t like goat cheese have been burned by poorly made chevre.  So I’d carry hard, aged goat cheeses or blue cheeses made of goats’ milk.  Most people don’t even know these cheeses exist.  They’d work like a cold-shower – shock the system, open the mind.  Then I’d make them take a picture with a sign I’d keep around for this very situation.  It said “I was wrong, I “DO” like goat cheese!” Then I’d give them some really well-made chevre and blow their minds.

What advice do you have for novice cheese buyers who are building their first cheeseboard? Are there rules?A cheeseboard starts with shopping. It’s super important to buy the best cheese you can find, and the way to do that is to start at a great store or market.  I don’t like telling people there are rules, because the fact is there’s so many exceptions that the rules can seem pointless.  The only rule is to start with fabulous cheese.  You can’t go too wrong if you start there.

What's one thing about cheese, cheese making or the cheese world that would surprise or excite an average cheese buyer? Cheese is seasonal – I think there are still a lot of people who don’t know that.  Like all living things, it changes in subtle and big ways throughout the year.

Describe your board and the inspiration behind it. Explain why your particular pairings work well.  To me pairings should taste good but can also be cultural commentary.  I like turning things upside down and taking things out of context. Often people will remark that my work is funny or whimsical, and that’s intentional.  I want to have fun when I eat!  I want to be incited!  So I’m playing with tradition in these pairings.  Mince meat: who even knows what it is?  Most people are like, “Ew, gross!” just hearing the words.  It makes them think of crusty pies and something vaguely British.  But this recipe is really bright and zippy – it’s dried fruit made sexy! So when someone eats this mincemeat with Bijou, and the citrus flavors just pop, you’ve not only fed someone something really tasty, you’ve taught them something or changed their mind about something. The cranberry jellies – well I just love gelatin.  It’s really fun with fresh cheeses, and the tang of the cranberry is a great foil for chevre. And then finally, a board always needs something crunchy, and Meringues fill that need.  But they’re very sweet, so pink peppercorns – which have a traditional relationship with goat cheese, at least in France – cut through the sweetness and highlight a floral zing in the pairing.