On March 8th, at 3 p.m. EST, each of the 373 Whole Foods stores in the nation simultaneously cracked into an 85-lb. wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, breaking their own world record for the most wheels of Parmesan cracked at the same time (426 wheels in 2013). They are so far uncontested in their title, but have continued to hold their “Crack Heard Around the World” event annually since 2008.
At 2:45 p.m., Whole Foods employees were bustling in front of the cheese counter at the Whole Foods in Gowanus, which opened in December. They hefted not one, but eight of the massive wheels of cheese out to a string of folding tables and wheeled butcher blocks. Three wheels — 255 pounds of Parmesan — threatened to break the legs of one folding table as employees spaced them out. They didn’t want to crowd the three Parmesan experts who would be cracking at this table: Aldemiro Bertolini, president of the Modena division of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium; Giuseppe Alai, president of the Consortium; and Massimo Bottura, three-starred Michelin chef of Osteria Francescana who had flown in the day prior to cook Parmesan-inspired dishes (including a risotto made exclusively with Parmesan broth, inspired by cacio e pepe) for a room full of press and chip generous hunks of Parmesan to drizzle with his own balsamic vinegar.
And that was just one table. Also cracking a wheel each were Dana Passaro, Brooklyn Whole Foods’ certified cheese professional; Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli of Frankies Spuntino; and Cathy Strange, the global cheese buyer for Whole Foods.
As the clock approached 3 p.m., Strange welcomed the crowd that had gathered, drawn by the cheese samples and the energy in the room, a buzz brought on from the convergence of people so excited about and inspired by what they do. It was Bertolini, the Modena Division president, who first brought his teardrop-shaped Parmesan knife down through his wheel’s thick rind, the product of 24 months aging in a barrel; and ultimately it was he who first cracked his wheel in half, inspiring an eruption of cheering and applause with a fervor usually reserved for sporting events. But it was Strange who, after cracking her wheel, took half of it in her hands and lifted the 50-odd pounds of Parmesan carefully but triumphantly over her head like a trophy.
It was over as quickly as it had started. The seven threw their arms around each other, giddy as the crowd moved in with camera phones for a photo-op. “Say cheese!” someone said — and they did.