“Cheese has been a maturing process, wine is a relatively new passion.” Chung Park shares his story as he carefully pours a taste of syrupy dessert wine, golden and glorious from the Finger Lakes, to sip with a chunk of pungent blue cheese from Oregon. The combination is surprisingly nutty and soft. Palatable revelations are his speciality; as owner of Pair Wine & Cheese restaurant and cheesemonger in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, he’s selling surprise in spades.
The fledgling restaurant, which opened in early 2015, rests quietly on Atlantic Avenue’s busy southern strip. Close to where the bustle of the Avenue meets the hustle of the BQE, its facade is deceptive: it reveals little of treasures within. But swapping the frenetic energy of the street for the restaurant’s quiet interior reveals a light at the end of the tunnel; in this case that light is a Parisian-inspired balcony overlooking lush green gardens. Calm gray walls offset deep greens, warm wooden palettes and the flash of a fresh rosé.
Half produce purveyor and half gastronome, owner Chung Park greets customers at the bar, which straddles the length of the restaurant and provides ample room to display a large array of fresh cheeses. Some of them have been ripened in-house, lending Brooklyn “affinage” – a flavor imparted by the local surroundings – to the dairy delights.
Tradition, “terroir” and a celebration of craftsmanship are central to Chung’s mission for the restaurant. Pair Wine & Cheese does “New World presentations of an Old World mentality”. In this instance not only are most of the ingredients sourced from local Greenmarkets and Long Island’s Green Thumb Farm CSA, but each dish frames the story of the cheese or beverage with playful, creative platings. The menu and “Flight School”, classes offered by Chung at the restaurant on topics such as “Great American Cheeses” or “Italian Cheeses and Wines”, are not so much meals as transcendental meditations on the nature of taste. There is no right or wrong in Chung’s world of pairings, the customer is merely provided with the tools (in this case cheese and wine) to form their own opinions about body and spirit. The rest is down to whatever the customer, cheese-related hang-ups or no, brings to the table.
A cheesemonger and ex-producer by trade, Chung fell in love with the craft by accident. Hailing from a family of deli owners from Long Island, Chung’s introduction to cheese came with a six-month cheese apprenticeship at a gourmet food shop in Manhattan’s East Village. Fascinated by this new world, he focused his attentions on studying cheese production and varieties. Witnessing what he describes as the “birth of American craft cheese” in the early 90s, the apprentice discovered his career path. Graduating from the gourmet food shop with a full-fledged passion, Chung put the theory into practice by working alongside a cheesemaker in upstate New York.
Later returning to the city to manage famous counters including Murray’s, he spent time working with international exporters and producers. Emerging as a renowned figure in the cheese industry, Chung proved as much master businessman as master monger with his own cheese and wine shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. Despite facing unforeseen challenges including Hurricane Sandy and complex and expensive licensing laws, Chung continued to thrive.
Though Chung owes his journey across the world of cheese to a random ad placement, his introduction to wine was a conscious decision. Thanks to some advice from fellow specialist Carol Gripshover, who provided input for Cheese and Wine in Hoboken, Chung experimented with different vintages only to begin pairing lucky suitors with his first love. Finding the world of wine “engrossing”, he embarked on a course of study with the Sommelier Society of America. No longer content with just selling wine and cheese, the cheesemonger used his new-found appreciation of pairings to inspire both the curious and the connoisseur. The concept for Pair Wine & Cheese restaurant was born.
With his savvy business sense and food expertise, Chung settled on Brooklyn’s food-centric and well-heeled Cobble Hill neighborhood to launch the new venture. Renovating an empty space to open a clean and modern restaurant/cheesemonger, Pair Wine & Cheese opened its doors in the Winter of 2015. The space serves as a restaurant, “pairing” school and cheese+charcuterie shop under one roof. Pair Wine & Cheese’s menu features a selection from around the world, with a strong emphasis on American-made, plus a selection of craft beer and ciders.
While a busy Spring proved challenging for the first-time restaurateur, Chung now has his sights firmly set on growing the craft cheese movement from the Cobbles. With one eye on exciting new ventures and another on ensuring Pair Wine & Cheese is recognized as a “center for pairing” in NYC, his calm composure belies energetic ambitions. His next challenge lies closer to home—having helped this young project on its feet, Chung’s immediate goal is to “spend more time with my family and go fishing”. A worthwhile pairing indeed.
Photos courtesy of Pair Wine & Cheese.