While some of us were glued to the TV last Sunday as Costa Rica defeated Greece in a nail-biting penalty shootout, one of Charlottesville’s own was showcasing his skills in a slightly different arena. On Sunday, June 29, Flora Artisanal Cheese owner Nadjeeb Chouaf competed in the fifth annual Cheesemonger Invitational in New York and brought home the silver for the second year in a row.
Chouaf, who hunts down the best cheeses he can find and sells them cut-to-order behind a counter in Milli Joe on Preston Avenue, bounced around between odd jobs—a farm, grocery stores, a bank—before landing in Charlottesville three years ago. He found himself working behind the cheese counter at Whole Foods, and that’s where it all started.
“I noticed this vacuum of knowledge to answer customers’ questions, so that’s when I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about cheese so someone could answer those questions,” Chouaf said. “And the more I learned, the deeper I fell down the rabbit hole.”
And since venturing down that rabbit hole, he’s soaked up enough knowledge to land him second place among the top cheesemongers in the nation two years in a row. Turns out there’s a lot more to cheese than just slicing it off the block and serving it up with some crackers and charcuterie, and Chouaf was one of 50 mongers to compete in seven different contests, including a written exam, a speed and precision wrapping test, and a mock sale. Most challenging by far, he said, was the blind taste test—six bite-sized pieces of cheese, and 20 minutes to name their milk type, pasteurization, and country of origin.
Everyone’s favorite event, Chouaf said, was the “perfect bite.” Each competitor was assigned a different cheese beforehand, and on the day of the invitational, cut and paired 100 bites with accoutrements to dazzle the “curd nerds” in attendance.
Chouaf, who came in just behind New Orleans-based cheesemonger Justin Trosclair, stuffed 100 peppadews with Reading—a semi-soft Raclette-style cheese from Vermont—and Surryano ham. For a final touch, he took a blow-torch to each pepper, which gave the bites a roasted, melty finish.
After competing and successfully defending his title as one of the top mongers in the country, Chouaf said it was almost depressing returning to a town where he’s one of the only ones behind a cheese counter. He traveled to the invitational with Feast! cheesemonger Sara Adduci—who also did Charlottesville proud by coming in fourth place—but Chouaf said he’d love to see the industry pick up and expand in the area. The slicing, pairing, and wrapping experts behind the counter are few and far between in Charlottesville, and there’s nothing quite like spending a weekend in the big city with dozens of people who all love the same thing.
“I met a lot of these same people last year,” Chouaf said. “It’s like seeing your old friends from camp.”
Before Chouaf put Flora on the map, Charlottesville—a city that prides itself as a foodie destination—didn’t have a shop that offered cut-to-order cheeses.
“That’s very important to me, and something I learned is important when selling cheese,” he said, noting that pre-cutting from the wheel and wrapping it in Saran wrap shortens its shelf-life and gives it a plastic-like flavor. “It ensures the highest quality and allows customers to taste everything and get exactly how much they want.”
Not only do cutting the cheeses to order and wrapping them in breathable two-ply cheese paper preserve the integrity and flavor of the product, but it allows him to do his favorite part of the job—interacting face-to-face with his customers, most of whom he said are weekly regulars. As the last step in the producer-to-consumer chain, Chouaf said it’s his responsibility to pass along as much knowledge as he can. He’s dabbled in his own kitchen making mozzarella and ricotta, but cheesemaking is too solitary and impersonal. For him, it’s all about the chance to interact face-to-face and share what he knows and loves with as many customers as possible.
“Each cheese has a story. Here is this person making this cheese this way, here’s why they’re doing it, and the way they’re doing it makes it taste this way,” Chouaf said. “So every time someone comes in, I can tell that story, and give the cheeses an identity that the customer wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Contrary to popular belief, Nadjeeb Chouaf said wine and cheese are not necessarily the ultimate pairing. Sure, he enjoys a glass of a fruity red like a Pinot Noir with a hunk of comté, a French cheese made from unpasteurized milk with flavors reminiscent of cheddar and Parmesan with tyrosine crystals, but that’s not his first choice.
“Beer is actually a much more natural pairing than wine,” Chouaf said. “They’re both essentially the byproduct of grass.”
Every Saturday at 6pm, Chouaf hauls his cheese selections over to Champion Brewing Company, where he offers cheese and beer pairings like his favorite, comté and a glass of Killer Kolsch.