Anne Saxelby, Dairy Queen

The biggest thing in American cheese since sliced bread.

“I’ve got the memory retention of a goldfish right about now,” Anne Saxelby quipped one recent morning. She had just made her daily bike ride over the East River from Carroll Gardens to her tiny, eponymous cheese stall in the Essex Street Market. Opening up her Lower East Side shop, she was already juggling phone messages from chefs who needed cheese, farmers who needed orders, and her business partner, who was stocking their new 1,000-square-foot storage space a block from the waterfront in Red Hook.

Still, she managed to keep the details straight on making a damn good sandwich, perhaps because, like her business, it’s as focused as can be: “The Grayson is back in season,” she told a customer who opted for that washed-rind stinker from Virginia’s Meadow Creek, before spelling out the sandwich’s three ingredients: “Bread, olive oil and, of course,” she says, “cheese.” Saxelby’s shoebox-size cheese stand—in our opinion, more new Brooklyn than Big Apple, despite its Manhattan address—is stocked with just a few selections, all made in our half of America. Offerings included ash-streaked logs of Sofia, a fresh goat’s milk wonder from Indiana; creamy, mold-veined wedges of Bayley Hazen Blue from Vermont; stinky, sticky squares of that washed-rind Grayson from Virginia; plus tubs of farmstead yogurt and butter, handmade ricotta and mozzarella and a few bottles of olive oil and loaves of bread bound for simple sandwiches assembled to order. For five years, Saxelby has acted as a talent agent for the best local cheesemakers, winning them places in bigger shops, on restaurant menus and in many mouths and minds.

“Anne is the most sophisticated boutique fromagère in the U.S.,” says Daniel Boulud, one of the country’s most respected chefs and a proud cheese-loving Frenchman to boot.

It’s not just hard-to-please chefs who have a crush on the 30-year-old cheesemonger. So do farmers across the region, curd nerds everywhere and—in full disclosure—me. Indeed Saxelby has helped redefine what the very words “American cheese” even mean. Not long ago that phrase conjured up images not of rolling green hills where second-career foodies tend happy cows, but of Day-Glo orange plastic-wrapped squares. But Saxelby, whom we suspect could churn butter with her upbeat outlook alone, wasn’t raised on Humboldt Fog. “Fancy,” she laughs, “was when we got sliced white American at the deli!”

Saxelby grew up in a Chicago suburb and retains that Midwest earnestness. She arrived in New York in 1999 to study art at NYU, but soon soured somewhat. “The more immersed I was in the art world, the more I began to reject it. It felt pretentious and insincere.”

Then, visiting a friend studying in Florence, the young artist had an awakening. Saxelby says her life was changed by nibbling Pecorinos, sampling charcuterie, wandering the city’s central market and, one night, feasting on a pouch of pasta filled with Gorgonzola. “But mostly,” she recalls, “we just ate cheese and bread and sausage. Technically the same stuff you can get in the States but, like, five bazillion times better. And I was, like, ‘Hey, wait a second, why don’t I get this stuff at the grocery store?’”

Back in New York, a friend suggested she check out Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street, and she soon became a regular. (Looking back Saxelby realizes she was “a total nightmare customer, taking 30 minutes to order a quarter pound each of eight different cheeses.”)

Over the years she applied for a Murray’s counter job five times; eventually one of the managers folded her arms and started asking questions. Did she know what wine to pair with a Piave? The new college grad blurted “Sauvignon blanc!”—a pretty abrasive choice for the salty, stinging Northern Italian hard cheese, but the manager liked Saxelby’s enthusiasm and, in June 2003, took her on.

She worked at Murray’s for two years, filling her mouth with flavors and her mind with information behind the counter with Tom Mylan, now of the Meat Hook. She kept Steven Jenkins’s Cheese Primer next to her bed, but most of her learning came through tasting: how to differentiate each buttery button of fresh chèvre, or how Stilton’s blue veins compare to those running through Roquefort or the Gorgonzola in that Florentine pasta pocket.

Saxelby dreamed of making a living from what she was learning. Maybe she could run a gallery that showed paintings during the day and served cheese at night! But as the months went by, she realized she wanted to focus on cheese, singly and simply.

Which meant learning to make it. So she began haranguing Cato Corner, a Connecticut cow’s cheese producer beloved at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. As it was, their summer intern was leaving in the fall, and Saxelby jumped at the chance to sabbatical from selling and decamp to the farm. “I made my fair share of mistakes!” laughs Saxelby of flipping, turning and washing the slippery wheels. “It was really physical labor that went about 10 to 12 hours a day, but I was 100 percent fascinated.”

To Saxelby, making cheese felt a lot like making art—just without the stuff she hated about the art world. “When you spend all day in a little room making milk into curds and whey and then into a wheel—that process was exactly the same as when I was in my studio painting,” she says. But unlike art, in her point of view, cheese is for everyone. “Anyone with taste buds can say, ‘This is good!’ or ‘This is bad!’ ”

The experience also got Saxelby thinking about things like farmworker rights, international trade and the farm bill. She had been focused on product not policy, but says, “I realized the two were intertwined.”

Back at Murray’s, Saxelby learned more advanced aspects of the biz, like developing wholesale relationships with chefs, as well as affinage—the art of aging cheeses.

And she had the good fortune to meet Hervé Mons. The famous French affineur buys cheese from small producers, ages them in a cave near Lyon and sells them all over the world. Saxelby told him about her efforts to re-bloom French goat cheese (by fashioning a rudimentary cheese cave out of a catering rack and a zippered plastic case) and made such an impression that Mons arranged for her to spend three months learning the craft in the Loire Valley, followed by a five-day stint working his table at the Slow Food convention in Italy.

Just as pivotal as what she learned in Europe about making cheese was what she learned about marketing it. After meeting many mongers specializing in the cheese of one region, she found her calling—to do just that in New York. While several Gotham retailers imported European cheese, her idea was to import that European approach to cheese. To stock a tiny case with just a few selections that wouldn’t just be all American—that alone was unheard of in 2005—but all from the Northeast. Which meant no Camembert, no Gruyère, no Pecorino, no Stilton—but also no Humboldt Fog from California, no Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon. Just a few little-known cheeses from regional producers, many of them made on the very farms the herds called home.

Back from Europe in January 2006, Saxelby wrote a business plan and started looking for space in Manhattan within easy commute of her Brooklyn home (this was still three years before the Times chronicled “Brooklyn’s new culinary movement”), but was daunted by what she called the “bonkers” real estate. Considering a space next to a Tribeca wine shop that cost $10,000 a month, Saxelby reached out to Robert LaValva, whom she’d met at a Slow Food cheese tasting, in search of advice.

LaValva, who would go on to found New Amsterdam Market under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, had just submitted a proposal to the city to revive two empty buildings at the Essex Street Market, the indoor markets built in 1939 on Delancey. LaValva suggested Saxelby consider a stall, the rent for which was but a tiny fraction of the Chambers Street space.

It’s likely it didn’t look like much of a bargain. The city has since invested several million dollars in the low-slung orange brick building, and the opening of new stalls—including an outpost of a Brooklyn taqueria and the first brick-and-mortar butcher counter for Heritage Foods USA, the sustainable meat-distribution company headquartered by Saxelby’s new husband, Patrick Martins, in Williamsburg—has garnered plenty of press. But when LaValva suggested Saxelby set up shop there, the Essex Street Market was a dimly lit, decades-old ragtag collection of grocers catering to what was left of the neighborhood’s Latin population.

So it was a serious gamble to set up an all-American artisan cheese counter in a bargain-basement public market—near a fish guy hawking salt cod, a butcher vending cheap cuts like oxtail, a stall stocked with papaya and canned condensed milk—that no one considered cool, and few could even find on a map. But for Saxelby—who might crisscross Brooklyn on her bike hunting down yogurts from various cultures on a rare day off—Essex Street Market just felt absolutely right.

“I’m a leaper,” she says. “I see something that might work, and I just do it.” By May 2006, she was up and running.

Sort of.

“In the beginning, I felt like I was having a garage sale every day,” recalls Saxelby. “I’d open up, and, ‘Doo-dee-doooo! Who’s gonna come?’ It would be just me sitting at the stall six days a week with nobody here but the folks from the methadone clinic next door!”

But over weeks and months, that changed. The Omnivore’s Dilemma had just hit shelves, turning good readers into better eaters. Shoppers sought her out, and the press began to take notice. Like American beer—and American wine a decade before—American cheese was just beginning to come into its own. In the 1990s, buoyed by new interest in health, taste and community self-reliance, farmstead cheesemakers had emerged across America—creating the kinds of small-batch, distinctive-tasting cheese that were more often imported from Europe, which was where most of those early cheesemakers had trained, anyway. The shift was also prompted by the economic reality that you could make far more money selling milk by the wedge than by the gallon. And Saxelby wanted to help these young artisans get better, and to build their market share.

Her hero in this role is Neal’s Yard Dairy, the London company that helped revive the British cheese industry in the 1970s and 1980s by forging relationships with small cheesemakers, coaxing them to improve their practices, bringing the cheese to market and educating the public palate so that the farms would thrive. But in contrast to England, where Neal’s Yard helped rescue traditions and century-old dairies, Saxelby set out to champion a new field: Only half the cheesemakers she buys from even existed a decade ago. Which she sees can be freeing.

“Since everyone is just learning from scratch they can be more creative or innovative than European counterparts,” she explains. “Here we’re still forming our traditions.” Sure, some American cheesemakers aim to re-create the greatest hits of European traditions, but many others improvise. Consider Timberdoodle, a Vermont-made washed-rind cheese made with both cow’s and sheep’s milk—or sometimes just one or the other. “In Europe,” says Saxelby, “you could never do that. Here it’s kind of like ‘Screw the rules. I’m going to have a farm and play around with it.’”

“Anne wanted to start small,” says Amy Thompson, a fellow Brooklynite who worked at Saxelby before helping open the also-small, also-Northeast-focused cheese shop in Chelsea Market called Lucy’s Whey. “She wanted to be able to connect people with their cheesemakers,” says Thompson, “which many cheesemakers have limited time and resources to do.” What she means is that Jay Calkins might not be able to talk about his Havarti to each and every buyer, but Saxelby can—either behind the counter or on the farm trips, called Day A-Whey, she organizes so customers can meet the makers.

Saxelby herself has gone on dozens of farm stays to visit people like Calkins, an ongoing education she sees as essential to her job. “You get a story in a way you can’t from sitting behind a cheese counter,” says Saxelby, whose strength as a marketer stems from her sincere love for the process. “I want to know about it,” she says, “starting from what the cows eat.”

As a result her little display is like a debutante ball: It’s often just a matter of time between a cheese’s coming out there and its appearance all over town.

Nine months after opening, Saxelby was enthused but exhausted. She staffed the stand almost entirely alone, while juggling a growing number of cheesemaker and restaurant contacts, and doing all the deliveries by bike, using a big backpack reinforced with straps. (“If I packed really well,” she says, “I could fit in 25 pounds of cheese.”) Saxelby’s logo still bears the image of a svelte biker behind the monger moniker, though she eventually found a delivery person on Craigslist. It was around this time that Saxelby met Benoit Breal, a native Parisian who was then a luxury goods consultant for such tony brands as Hermès and Ligne Rosset, and was looking for a change. Like LaValva, they met at a Slow Food cheese tasting.

“I tasted the cheeses Anne had brought,” says Breal. “and I thought they were French. I couldn’t believe cheesemakers in America were making these sorts of products.” Breal’s expertise was in product development, marketing and distribution, primarily for high-end textiles and furniture—and he saw similar potential in these American cheeses. He sent Saxelby a long e-mail and then followed up in person. Saxelby saw opportunity in Breal’s ideas, but was wary of the fact that he had no retail experience. She invited him to come back and work the counter. There, shoulder to shoulder, they found they worked together well, and he bought in to the business. With Breal on board as co-owner, Saxelby Cheese quickly expanded from the diminutive counter at Essex Street Market to a growing roster of restaurant clients. (And it gave Saxelby time to manage her first-and-only retail counter in Brooklyn, the sadly short-lived grilled cheese and spicy pickle sandwich stall she manned during the sophomore year of the Fort Greene Brooklyn Flea.) Among her first wholesale customers was Colin Alevras, chef of the now-shuttered Tasting Room. “She was the first to have local, real butter and liquid dairy,” says Alevras, now service director at the Dutch. “Anne was the first monger I encountered who was bringing customers on farm trips—connecting eaters to milkers, as it were.”

Some took a while to comprehend the concept. Alevras recalls that the idea of a cheesemonger selling only domestic cheeses was outside the imagination of most people, cheese lovers included. What would they sell? How many could there be? Alevras immediately shifted all his cheese buying to this kindred start-up.

Others soon followed, on both sides of the East River. Here that includes Prime Meats, Brooklyn Fare, al di là, Franny’s, Buttermilk Channel just up the road from her house—“which is a bit of a juggling act; they always have different cheeses,” says Saxelby—and Roberta’s, where Saxelby heads by bike each Monday for Cutting the Curd, the HeritageRadioNetwork.com show she hosts from a converted shipping container in their backyard. (Where does she buy cheese herself? Bklyn Larder: “That place is beautiful,” raves Saxelby, who worked with monger Sergio Hernandez at Murray’s and notes that he’s a perfectionist who gets in “really obscure stuff,” including a couple selections she’s never before seen.)

And while spotting the name Saxelby Cheesemongers on farm-to-table menus alongside the names of small lettuce and lamb growers may seem logical, Saxelby has also moved less-American restaurateurs in a domestic direction. Places that served only French fromage even a few years ago are now commissioning Saxelby to find them American offerings that pair well with their Alsatian fare or Burgundian wine lists. Al di là is a customer, as is chef Cesar Ramirez at the double Michelin-starred Brooklyn Fare.

“One of my greatest joys,” says Breal, “was when the French Consulate chef said he just wants to purchase American cheeses. He was so impressed with the quality, he said ‘Give me whatever you want.’”

For cheesemakers, being served at a top restaurant comes with bragging rights—especially when said chef could call up a big distributor, get more cheeses for less money and never worry it might not be made that month. And chef sales are now so strong that they’ve outpaced retail orders.

“Today, our main business is wholesale to restaurants,” says Breal, and many of those accounts come to them, instead of the other way around. That’s because Saxelby offers access, helping these restaurants manage up to dozens of purveyor relationships.

Colin Alevras offers another reason for Saxelby’s success: “The fact that she’s the nicest person you’re ever likely to meet also helps.”

All this is why last summer Saxelby signed a lease on a 1,200-square-foot refrigerated storage space in Red Hook, which among other benefits, allowed her to become the exclusive distributor of Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta, the hyper-local rich tubs made by her neighbors.

“If you want to help the cheesemakers, you need to be successful, too,” says Breal. With just under 100 restaurant accounts at the time, any unexpected order risked depleting the tiny inventory of the 120-square-foot store. “If a restaurant called and wanted 40 pounds of cheese, that was a significant chunk of what we had in our coolers,” says Saxelby.

She also wanted to make sure she could take careful care of her cargo: Her Red Hook space has a temperature- and humidity-controlled 12-by-25-foot walk-in cooler, an office and enough space to take deliveries or cut 35-pound wheels of Rupert from Consider Bardwell.

As yet the storage space, where temperatures hover in the high 30s, is not about aging. (For that, you’d want things a good 10 degrees warmer.) But affinage is a long-term goal. In fact, in February Saxelby released four beer-washed cheeses created by bathing wheels in four different beers from Sixpoint Craft Ales, based right around the corner from her Red Hook warehouse. “In the future, we can talk to farmers about doing cheeses that we can age in-house,” she says. She already often weighs in on production—suggesting new cheese recipes or tweaks to existing ones.

For now, though, Saxelby’s primary goal is increasing business for the cheesemakers she represents. “We want to be more like partners than just cheerleaders,” says Saxelby. “We want to move more of their cheese, to act more as a distributor than just a retailer. Then the impact is that much greater.”

This mindset doesn’t just apply to cheesemakers. Last July, Mayor Bloomberg himself named Saxelby Cheesemongers “Small Business of the Year,” noting in a press release that the Essex Street Market had been revitalized “largely as a result of Saxelby’s influence.”

Our wish? Saxelby would apply some of that influence right here, maybe opening a Saxelby satellite in a cheese-scarce stretch closer to home. It might not score an official announcement from the city, but at least it would ease that bike-bound commute.


 

 

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.