Thursday, April 10, 2014 | return to: news & features, local


Talking with … A man who finds it easy to be cheesy

by jon roisman, j. staff

Follow j. on   and 


Name: Zach Berg
Age: 29
City: San Francisco
Position: Cheesemonger


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.

Zach Berg
Zach Berg
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.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Comment

In order to post a comment, you must first log in.
Are you looking for user registration? Or have you forgotten your password?

Auto-login on future visits