New York's prince of cheese
Before Adam Moskowitz became one of the biggest cheese importers in the United States, he had already made a million dollars as a salesman at Yahoo!, lost most of it when the dot-com bubble burst, and reinvented himself as an explicit hip-hop emcee called The Beat Poet.
In his 20s, Moskowitz, the son of the man who introduced cave-aged Gruyère to the United States, rejected the family cheese-importing business, which he considered a "cutthroat" trade run by "dirty old men" who would "do anything for an edge." He claims he even hated the taste of cheese.
But today, Moskowitz, 37, is not afraid to tell you that cheese saved his life. To show his appreciation, this Saturday he will host the third annual Cheesemonger Invitational—a high-profile cheese competition (and all-you-can-eat party; last year's spread pictured below) at Larkin Cold Storage, his family’s 40,000-square-foot warehouse and logistics hub in Long Island City, Queens.
Originally conceived as an excuse to throw a rave, the Cheesemonger Invitational has evolved into a grassroots crusade for cheesemongers (i.e., people who sell cheese) from across the country and the world. Last year’s winner, Steve Jones, owner of the Cheese Bar in Portland, Oregon, was interviewed on NPR and heralded in his local food scene. Tia Keenan, a renowned fromager and director of food service at Murray's Cheese Shop, has called the event the "WrestleMania of Cheese."
Meanwhile, Moskowitz has emerged as a kind of underground cheese luminary. Since joining Larkin and the importing company Columbia Cheese six years ago, he has expanded both businesses from strictly European imports to America’s exploding farmstead-cheese industry. In a slant on the farm-to-table trend, he has striven to connect "maker-to-monger."
"Adam represents the crucial link," said Anne Saxelby, the owner of Saxelby Cheese, which New York magazine voted the best cheese shop in the city in 2007. "He’s the behind-the-scenes guy that no one hears about but that makes the entire supply chain work."
And yet Moskowitz is equally comfortable in front of the scenes. A born showman, he keeps a microphone and a set of Technics turntables in his faux-wood-paneled office, where he delivers ad hoc hip-hop performances to guests and warehouse employees. Moments after I first met him, he cued up one of his unreleased tracks, "Life Laureate," and started freestyling about cheese. ("I got the cheese/ It’s like the weed/ But I sell that shit/ ‘cause it’s not a dirty deed.")
At the time, Moskowitz, a short but powerfully built guy with a tattoo of the entire cheese-making process on his left arm, was wearing a black T-shirt that read "Raw Milk Rockstar." The phrase embodies his attempt to raise the profile of underappreciated cheese professionals.
"When I started the Cheesemonger Invitational, no event in the U.S. honored or celebrated the cheesemonger’s contribution," he said. "Nobody was giving the monger the mic!"
Last year, more than 700 people showed up to watch 40 cheesemongers cut, weigh, taste, and serve cheese in a bizarrely riveting competition. But Moskowitz said the turning point came in 2010.
"I was onstage deejaying, and I said: ‘If you love cheese, let me hear you say ‘Moo!’ And a crowd of 400 people shouted it back."
"That was when I realized: ‘We did it. This works.’"
MOSKOWITZ GREW UP IN SOUTH CENTRAL NEW JERSEY, but some of his earliest memories are of walking through the Larkin facility with his father, Joe, who bought the building in 1978. At twelve he was unloading crates of Rocca Reggiano and pouring coffee for the forklift operators.
He later enrolled at George Washington University, which he describes as "four years of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll," though he did manage to stop partying long enough to start a valet company his junior year. ("We were working the hottest restaurants in D.C.," he said.) After graduation, thinking that joining the family business "meant failure in the real world," he turned down his father’s offer to join Larkin and Columbia and went to work for Yahoo!
"I believed in the Internet as a medium of all media," Moskowitz said as we drove in his Lexus S.U.V. from Larkin to his Williamsburg apartment. He quickly became one of the company’s top salesmen. By age 23, he said, his net worth exceeded $1 million. But while his co-workers bought Porsches and began scanning Hamptons real-estate listings, he bought turntables, went to Burning Man, and started hanging out at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, indulging his passion for rhyming.
"I was usually the only white guy there," he said.
Then Yahoo! imploded. Stock worth $118 in January 2000 dropped to $4.05 in September 2001. Moskowitz says he lost around $750,000 in the crash.
"Making and losing that kind of money does things to a man," he said. He spent the next nine months, he said, doing drugs and throwing parties in his East Village loft, exploring the seedy side of Manhattan nightlife.
In the mid-2000s he rattled around various media companies and prescient-but-flawed web start-ups like Clipmarks, a kind of precursor to Pinterest. At age 30, fed up with the Web, he cashed in his remaining Yahoo! stock and recorded an intimate if profanity-laced album titled "IAM," short for "I Adam Moskowitz." He also took up acting, studying the Meisner Technique at the William Esper Studio on West 37th Street.
"I was tired of people telling me I should be on TV," he said frankly.
The plan was to move to L.A. and use the album as a calling card at auditions. But as he started performing his material at small clubs around New York City—Pianos, Mo Pitkin’s, CB’s Gallery—he kept noticing a familiar face in the crowd: Joe Moskowitz.
As a European cheese importer, Larkin’s strength was based on its personal relationships with predominantly French cheese exporters, which also tend to be family-run. For Moskowitz, who is an only child, to reject his father’s company came as a personal affront. The two hadn’t spoken in years.
"I approached him after one of the gigs," the younger Moskowitz explained. "I was like, ‘How are you not embarrassed by me right now?’ I mean, one of my songs is literally called ‘I Do Drugs.’" He cued up the track on his SUV’s stereo and sang along to the chorus: "I do drugs. I do drugs. I do drugs to come down!"
His father surprised him. "He told me, ‘I’ve never been so proud of you in my life. I don’t see a drug-addled freak up there. I see an entrepreneur. You created a product and now you’re on stage supporting it!’"
Shortly after their encounter, Moskowitz’s grandfather died. A legend in his own right, Ben Moskowitz had been the president of Walker Butter and Egg, and one of the first people to import French cheese into this country. In the 1940s and ‘50s, he sold cheese to Louis Zabar, and later to Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca, the men behind the gourmet food emporiums. Joe had taken the reins, and Adam was expected to do the same. (In the photo above, Moskowitz père is shown being inducted into the "Confrérie du Gruyère," an elite Gruyère Association in Switzerland.)
To support his father, Moskowitz put his L.A. ambitions on hold and began helping out around the warehouse. As it happened, his return to the cheese world coincided with the rise of foodie-ism. On business trips with his dad, he encountered scores of passionate food people his own age.
"They were talking about heritage, thousand-year-old traditions, the idea of flavor as sight and sound," he said. "It was trippy, dude."
Inspired, he took a job as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Essex, a cheese stand inside Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. His father disapproved. "He told me, ‘No son of mine is going to work as a goddamn cheesemonger!’" he said. "It’s the lowest rung on the cheese ladder. But I loved it. It was the best job I ever had."
Anne Saxelby, whose cheese stall is near Formaggio, remembers Moskowitz flamboyantly making the rounds of the market, offering everyone samples. He later performed some of his vocal stylings on her Internet radio show, "Cutting the Curd."
Moskowitz also began visiting other local cheese shops.
"He’d pick up the Cheese Primer and show us who his grandfather was," Charlotte Kamin, a co-owner of Bedford Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, said with a laugh. "He clearly took a lot of pride in his lineage."
It was at Formaggio that Moskowitz finally fell in love with cheese.
"I got hooked on a Fourme D’Ambert, and I’ve been a cheese addict ever since," he said.
He added that his cholesterol jumped 100 points during his first three months.
Moskowitz started working at Larkin the following year. He has since tripled the business, expanding it to include both American cheeses and specialty foods like McClure’s Pickles. Until then, Bob McClure had been storing his picklebacks and Bloody Mary Mix at The Bushwick Country Club, a bar in Williamsburg, and paying the owner in product.
Still, Moskowitz considers the Cheesemonger Invitational his greatest achievement. Having worked as a cheesemonger, he understands the crucial role they play in the epic cheese chain.
"For all the effort cheesemakers and importers go through, if the cheesemonger doesn’t care, or doesn’t tell the story, or doesn’t serve it correctly, then it’s all for naught," Moskowitz said, growing heated. "For example: When you buy a piece of cheese and its Saran Wrapped, the monger is supposed to face"—or trim—"the cheese before giving you a sample. Otherwise it’ll taste like plastic. But if a dumbass cheesemonger doesn’t face that fucking expensive piece of cheese and you taste plastic in your mouth, then you’re never going to taste that cheese again!"
As an importer, Moskowitz has a vested interest in improving the cheesemonger’s reputation, in hopes of recruiting more talent to the field. Last year’s Cheesemonger Invitational, which he designed to highlight the essential skills of the trade, drew some of the best in the game.
Anne Saxelby led going into the final round, in which competitors paired cheeses with one food item and one non-food item. But then Poul Price of Consider Bardwell in Vermont—who came dressed as Coop from the film Wet Hot American Summer—snuck ahead by pairing a slice of Comté with an anise-flavored Amaranth leaf and a purple fennel frond. Moments later, Steve Jones floored the judges by combining a Swiss Mountain cheese with bacon-and-caramel-flavored popcorn. Final score: Saxelby 434; Price 437; Jones 439. (Moskowitz is pictured below announcing Jones as the champion.)
"Pairings are not my strong suit," Saxelby admitted. "I’m a purist. I’d rather have a piece of cheese on some nice bread."
But Moskowitz remains impressed by her third place finish. "Anne’s been profiled in The New York Times, she’s got her own radio show, her shop is hailed by food magazines," he said. "But she came out last year and she backed that shit up."
This year’s event will put 46 cheesemongers through nine rounds of competition. These include answering the question "How did you fall in love with cheese?" in 60 seconds and determining a cheese’s milk-type, category, age, and country of origin based on a single bite-sized piece. A panel of 16 expert judges—among them Rodolphe Le Meunier, who has been called the Zinedine Zidane of French fromagers—will oversee the competitors, each of whom is allowed a "corner man." The finals begin at 7 p.m., and Steve Jones plans to create an edible cheese diorama of the Swiss Alps using some 500 pounds of cheese.
When considering his unusual career trajectory, Moskowitz turns philosophical.
"All the partying and drugs, that was part of enlightenment," he said. "You’ve got to be lost in the desert at wit’s end wondering why. You’ve got to feel like the world’s crumbling on you. Because that’s when you learn who you are."
The Cheesemonger Invitational, he added, is a colossal distraction from his work at Larkin and Columbia.
"It’s a full-time job and it costs a ton of money to put together," he said, sighing. "But somebody’s got to do it. I think Spiderman’s uncle put it best: ‘With great power there must also come great responsibility.’ And I fucking believe that."