Name: Zach Berg
City: San Francisco
J.: You’re the resident cheesemonger at Bi-Rite Market on Divisadero Street, and you came in second place at this year’s Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco. You’re a culinary school grad, but how did your life in cheese begin?
Zach Berg: I started in the restaurant business at a very young age. At Zingerman’s [a famous deli in Ann Arbor, Mich.] they had a very well-rounded cheese program, and I wanted to learn about a specialty market and not so much about cooking. I was 24 or 25 at that point and knew nothing about cheese. I bugged [Zingerman’s] cheese buyer with a million questions, and at a certain point he handed me a book and told me to look them up myself as opposed to giving me the answers, and I got really into it.
J.: What are your favorite kinds of cheese?
ZB: I really like funky cheeses. I enjoy mountain cheeses that have a dense, brothy nectar that are really filling. Washed-rind cheeses — which are stinkier cheeses — are some of my favorites. Specifically, I’d say sheep’s milk cheeses from the [French] Pyrénées.
J.: What makes cheese so interesting to you?
ZB: My job is being part storyteller. Cheese is a really great cross-section of history and geography, in a really unique way. I feel like it’s my job to tell someone who walks through our doors the story behind the 140 different cheeses at the store. I want to tell you the history and origin of each cheese.
J.: With your knowledge and expertise, it seems like it could be easy to be a cheese snob.
ZB: I try really hard not to be a cheese snob. I will go out to a meal and get a slice of American cheese, or sliced cheddar on a burger happily. I don’t buy that cheese for my house, though. If I purchase cheese, it’s definitely going to be hoity-toity cheese.
J.: You started at Bi-Rite as a cheese and wine specialist. Are there similarities between the two fields?
ZB: Like wine, cheese is an inherently intimidating category. Unfortunately, there are as many good cheesemongers out there as there are bad ones who perpetuate that intimidation. I really think it’s important to demystify cheese. I don’t expect any guest to come in to my station and know all 140 cheeses. That’s my job. It’s my job to give you a sample and find out what you want.
J.: What was your Jewish upbringing in Michigan?
ZB: I grew up in a Conservative house that kept kosher. My mother was the educational director of a couple of synagogues in the area during my youth. My dad was the president of a synagogue. I always joke that there are circus families and we were a synagogue family. When it came to the High Holidays, we were all running a different room in the synagogue. My brother was running the fourth-grade room, my sister was running the toddler room and I was going class to class blowing the shofar.
J.: Do you still keep kosher?
ZB: At a very young age, we were told by our mother that we could make our own decisions about kashrut outside of the house. From as young as I can remember, I never kept kosher outside of the house. But it was strict in the house.
J.: Ashkenazi Jews are known to have high rates of lactose intolerance. Have you noticed that yourself?
ZB: I don’t do very well with liquid milk, which is definitely ironic. Yes, I am a lactose intolerant cheesemonger. I never put cream in my coffee. It would ruin my day (laughs). I don’t have a problem with cheese, though.
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