You know what they say about the things that come from the mouths of babes. It wasn’t just the instant success of their tiny Smith Street storefront that let the owners of Stinky Cheese know the dairy scales have finally tipped for the better.
It wasn’t the collaborative projects with artisan cheesemakers and chefs and distillers, or the adoring press and committed customers. No, it was the words uttered by Dahlia, three-and-a-half-year-old-daughter of shop owners Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda. At a recent preschooler party, Dahlia, an unprecocious straight shooter if there ever were one, was handed a piece of plastic-wrapped processed “cheese.” You know, the kind many of us grew up on, but the kind that you will never find in the clean, dazzling 12-foot-long cheese case at 215 Smith Street. Little Dahlia held the plastic-textured, jiggly sheet in her small hands. She took a bite, tilted her chin up toward her mother, and uttered the following request as matter-of-factly as if asking for a glass of water: “I want better cheese, Mommy.”
And better cheese they have. Better lots of things, really. The bright, cheery shop, which opened in 2006, established BoCoCa as a food-forward nabe. Inside Stinky—a name that neutralizes any would-be whiff of fancy-cheese pretention—even the most jaded foodster feels like a kid in a candy shop. It’s just that the candy takes the form of 150 different types of carefully curated and cared for hunks and wheels and gooey pots of artisanal cheese. Oh, and a meat bar (meat bar!) where, if you don’t hear angels singing over the rosy-hued, hand-sliced-to-order cured hams—serrano, prosciutto and American country—you might want to check that you still have a pulse. There’s the microbrewed beer, in bottles and growlers; there are the shelves and shelves of cocktail-geek goodness (locally made bitters, Luxardo maraschino cherries, Royal Rose syrups); the cured sausages and other charcuterie; the house-made soups and sauces and sandwiches and maple peanuts with bacon and brown-butter-sea-salt Rice Krispie treats. The fresh roasted coffee from spots like Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Brooklyn Roasting and New Kitten. The pastas. The handcrafted chocolate. The . . . well, you get the idea.
There’s a lot more to Stinky than meets the nostrils. “We definitely recognized it when we moved into the neighborhood—that there were people like us who wanted that stuff,” says Pravda, who, like her now-husband and co-owner, was an aspiring actor and singer in the early aughts, when Watson first settled just off Smith Street in 1996. Back then the stretch was better known for bodegas than boutiques and it was hard to find truly sharp cheddar, let alone cult curds like Midnight Moon or Humboldt Fog. The neighborhood was changing—nevertheless, for Pravda to say it was filling up with “people like us” is a little generous. She and Watson have the kind of zillion-watt energy and unstoppable enthusiasm that got them through a decade and a half of the hard-knocks acting life, and later led them to running a successful small business or four. Less than a decade since the couple opened the first installment and they now oversee an enlightened-eating empire. They’ve managed to open another neighborhood necessity every two years: Smith & Vine wine shop was the first in 2004, followed by Stinky across the street in 2006, then a 2008 partnership in a now-beloved bar up the block called Jake Walk (with world-class cheese and meat plates, natch), and then in 2010 their Court Street bottle shop and sometime-school, Brooklyn Wine Exchange.
Back when they met, both were waiting tables—but that means to an artful end started to become more alluring than the glittery lights of the stage and screen. “We got into the restaurant world and fell in love with it,” says Pravda of their years working at spots like Bar 89, Elray, Blue Hill and Lupa, where the couple met. While Watson curated wine lists, Pravda learned the lingo of food—including cheese. “My love for cheese was huge,” says Pravda. “We’d do these amazing cheese plates at Blue Hill and I really started learning about the farmers. When you understand food in that way—where it comes from, how it’s made—it just makes perfect sense. And that’s where Smith & Vine was born out of. We really wanted to do our own thing and bring what we learned to Brooklyn—to our own neighborhood.”
So they opened Smith & Vine near the corner of Degraw Street to serve all those sophisticated palates snapping up the brownstones in their up-and-coming ’hood and eating in new restaurants like Chestnut and the Grocery and Saul. It became the little wine shop that could and did, getting many a Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill dweller drinking well. But as soon as their doors were open in 2004, people—including Pravda and Watson—wanted something better to pair with those bottles. Beyond the beautiful, handmade, fresh mozzarellas from Caputo’s, the neighborhood offered only the well-lit cheese cases of a Key Food and a C-Town. “We felt the lack of it,” says Pravda. “Smith & Vine was encompassing our whole life and we really missed the food aspect we used to have [working in restaurants]. And people would ask: ‘What about a cheese shop? We need that!’” So one night over a bottle of wine, the couple sat down and formed a plan. “We both loved cheese—and I’m a huge fan of stinky cheese! Always have been. And I said, ‘OK, you know what, Pat? The only way we’re going to do this is if we call it Stinky!’ And he said ‘Done!’ And I realized, oh, I just dug my grave,” laughs Pravda. “That’s how it all came to pass.”
Adding a second business was ambitious, but their faith in the neighborhood kept them from feeling like they’d bitten off more brie than they could chew. “We weren’t worried about it failing. We were like, ‘It’s gonna be great!’ We were so naive!” Well, maybe not. They found a tiny spot almost catty-corner to their wine shop and filled it with preserves, pickles, pastas, confections and all manner of artisanal excellence—but most of all, with a killer cheese selection. Cheese from cow’s milk, and sheep, and goat, cheese from upstate or the Old World, fresh cheese, aged cheese, cheese with blue veins running through, and cheese with washed rinds that were sticky, and yes, wonderfully stinky. The sweet little space quickly became not just a neighborhood amenity but a borough destination. From its inception, Stinky has been a retailer to be reckoned with, but also, as its name winkily hints, one where you get to have a lot of fun. When you lay eyes on the impossibly cheerful neon tangerine walls painted with cartoonish-graffiti signs demarking the myriad sections of sundries, it’s pretty clear that one isn’t expected to have dwelled in the Loire Valley to be worthy of a good chèvre, or have earned a degree in fermentation science to walk out with a delicious bit of clothbound cheddar. Over the years, as inventory and clientele both bloomed like a Camembert rind, the cute quarters came to feel cramped. So last spring they decamped to a bigger space less than two blocks away, still on Smith Street, adding bells and whistles like that beer bar, serious in-house sweets and even more prepared food. And while the sundries are spectacular, the focus remains on the fromage. There’s even an in-house cheese-whisperer, cave manager and all around passionate cheese expert Kris Garrand, who coaxes cultures to their most delicious zenith of flavor and texture. “Ninety-nine percent of cheese leaves the dairy unripe,” says Garrand, who when not handing out samples and kindly explaining the difference between a branin and brebis, spends his time in Stinky’s two cheese caves devoted to bloomy and washed rinds, respectively. “And cheese is a living organism. When you get fresh cheese and wrap it in plastic, it puts it in a stasis. I take it out of the package so the cultures can continue to grow. This way, we not only continue [a cheese’s] evolution, we can make sure the care is precise.”
This has been an important part of the cheese program here—recognizing and respecting the work from the dairy and knowing that it doesn’t end there. To that effect, Garrand has been working with creating his own washed rinds using beer from, among others, Brooklyn Brewery, and spent botanicals from New York Distilling’s Dorothy Parker and Perry’s Tot gins, both made in Williamsburg. The inventory isn’t the only thing that’s encouraged to grow. “Everyone who works here all have their own awesome, individual personalities—like cheese!” laughs Pravda. “We never wanted our places to be cookie cutter, and we don’t want our staff to be, either. And we’ve been so, so lucky. When we first opened, I did all the buying. We wanted something a little different and well-rounded, and we kept a close eye on cost, not wanting anyone to feel like they can’t afford to shop here. Now, our staff have become the buyers, which is really cool. They’re invested and love what they’re doing—you can’t micromanage or you have a very narrow-minded shop.”
The un-micromanaged staff includes a chef who makes all the soups, treats and Stinky-labeled concoctions; a charcuterie buyer; and a beer maven who curates the bottles and pours. Each is given creative reign and responsibility—and health insurance, too. “When you’re surrounded by so many great people, you create your own expectations,” says Watson. “You take it to a higher level. Otherwise, you may as well just go hire some cashiers and call it a day.” The shop has always championed delectable edibles made in the BK. They were the first in the neighborhood to sell the outstanding, in-demand artisan ricotta from Salvatore Bklyn, still a favorite, alongside Brooklyn Brine, Liddabit Sweets, Royal Rose syrups, and the brand new Sunset Park–based baker Butter + Love whose offerings include gingerbread cookies shaped like mustaches.
And then there’s the made-in-Brooklyn product Stinky carries despite requests otherwise. “Customers always ask, ‘why don’t you make your own mozzarella?’” says Watson, who instead proudly stocks ethereal orbs by Michael Aiello. “And I’m like, ‘this guy’s been making it up the block for four generations.’” Several selections come not just from the 718 area code, but from just up the block. As Smith Street has become restaurant row, Stinky has worked with neighborhood chefs to sell special one-off products available nowhere else, including eats from the kitchens of Applewood, the Grocery and Chestnut. Saul Bolton makes and delivers weekly stashes of beef jerky and salted caramels to the shop, and Stinky is the only place outside Char No. 4 where you can get the place’s famous bacon.
“Michele and Patrick are a remarkable couple,” says New York Distilling Co. co-owner Allen Katz, whose new Williamsburg bar, the Shanty, features food from Stinky. “Their dedication to a quality small-business ethic has enriched Carroll Gardens and the Brooklyn food scene.”
The shop’s honest-to-goodness modern-day communal feel is as much a part of the success story as what’s sold. “If we’re not part of the community we’re not doing anything different. I heard on this NPR show once on small businesses that if you spend in your community, 67 percent of that will trickle back to you,” says Watson. “To do what we do in the neighborhood we love is just so much icing on the cake,” says Watson.
Five-Cheese Mac And Cheese: Washed-Rind Edition
From Patrick Watson, co-owner of Stinky Bklyn, Smith & Vine, the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, and The JakeWalk
When it comes to cheese and wine, Michele Pravda and Patrick Watson are a force in brownstone Brooklyn, running a cheese shop, two wine shops, and a wine and cocktail bar within a few blocks of one another. Lucky indeed are the friends who might get invited over for this over-the-top, five-cheese mac and cheese made with award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin, aged Gruyère from Switzerland, Italian Taleggio, Meadow Creek Dairy “Grayson” from Virginia, and Red Meck from Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese in upstate New York. Watson cred- its the origins of the dish to Mom, who made a more plebian version (always with five cheeses—“No cheating”) when he was growing up. “We called this beauty the Five-Cheese Pasta,” he says, “and still to this day, it puts a smile from ear to ear on all five of us kids, as it did all throughout our childhood.”
1 stick unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 pounds large macaroni or rigatoni
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds pleasant ridge reserve, rind removed and grated
1 pound gruyère, aged at least 1 year, rind removed and grated
1⁄2 pound taleggio, grated
1⁄2 pound meadow creek dairy grayson, grated, or use fontina or vacherin
1⁄2 pound finger lakes farmstead cheese red meck, grated, or any aged cheddar, preferably grafton 4-year
1 teaspoon cholula hot sauce or tabasco
1⁄2 cup panko bread crumbs 1⁄2 cup regular bread crumbs
1.Grease one large baking pan or two small baking pans, making sure to grease the sides. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente, drain, and toss in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons butter.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter, and when it begins to foam, add the flour and whisk vigorously for 5 minutes. The mix should turn a reddish brown and smell nutty. Cover and keep warm on lowest possible heat, whisking periodically. (It should not get any darker.)
3. In a heavy, medium-size pot (preferably enamel-coated cast iron) over medium-low heat, warm the milk. Once it begins to steam, add the garlic and stir for 1 minute. Lightly season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the flour-butter mixture to the milk and whisk vigorously for 1 minute to completely blend them, and keep warm.
4. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Mix the cheeses, and set aside 2 cups. Add the rest slowly to the milk, stirring until completely melted (some clumps may remain). Add the hot sauce and stir. Pour the cheese sauce over the cooked noodles and toss. Lightly season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the mixture into the baking dish or dishes. Sprinkle the reserved 2 cups of cheese on top.
5. Combine the bread crumbs in a bowl and sprinkle them evenly on top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes, or just long enough for the bread crumbs to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 15 minutes before serving.
By any other name, would it smell as sweet? From its 2006 inception, Stinky has been a retailer to be reckoned with, but also, as its name winkily hints, one where you get to have a lot of fun.
Neighborhood heroes. in addition to Stinky, Michelle Pravda and husband Patrick Watson run Smith & Vine wine shop, beloved bar Jake Walk (with world class cheese plates, natch), and Brooklyn Wine Exchange. Their daughter Dahlia eats better than you.
Photo credit: Max Flatow.