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halloween candy and cheese pairings laid out on plates
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The Cheesemonger Invitational – a.k.a. the “Cheese Olympics”

CMI NYC 2023 Champion Sarah Semiele

CMI NYC 2023 Champion Sarah Semiele

by Katie Glaudell feat. Molly Hess

What is the Cheesemonger Invitational?

Molly’s “Crudité Rootité” Perfect Plate entry for CMI NYC 2023

Called CMI for short, the Cheesemonger Invitational is a U.S.-based multi-day conference and competition hosted twice a year–usually in New York and San Francisco–by artisan importer Maker to Monger. Founded in 2010 and sponsored by a variety of organizations, from European dairies like Isigny Ste-Mère to domestic interest groups like Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, CMI calls together talented cheesemongers from around the country for a “unique competition that showcases their technical skills, encyclopedic knowledge, and passionate salesmanship.”

CMI: The Competition

Although it sounds like the competition portion of CMI is pulled straight from scenes of spoofy films like Napoleon Dynamite and Beerfest, the challenges that the mongers go through at this invitational are no joke. A few of the 10 tests of the preliminary round include:

  • Taste Test: 20 minutes to identify the Name, Country of Origin, Milk Treatment, and Milk Type of 5 different cheeses
  • Cut Test: 45 seconds to weigh a cheese wedge once, before producing two .25lb cuts within .01lbs of accuracy
  • Salesmanship: 3 minutes to engage in selling from a mock shop to a judge, scored on their ability to discuss, sample, sell, and answer cheese questions

In addition to timed tests, this round includes offerings that the mongers have planned ahead–a Perfect Bite, a Perfect Plate, and a Perfect Beverage pairing based on cheeses that they’ve been assigned in advance, weeks before the invitational. After the preliminary round is scored, six mongers continue on to the finals, which are held on-stage and open to the public, with challenges like trivia, cheese-wrapping, and on-the-spot pairing suggestions. A winner is crowned, a classic two-handled giant cold trophy cup is presented, and the partying commences.

CMI NYC 2023 with Molly Hess

Marché’s very own monger and Certified Cheese Professional (think a sommelier for cheese) Molly Hess, has competed at CMI three times since 2019–and placed 4th out of dozens the first time competing I might add! I asked Molly a few questions to get a first-hand perspective on what the “cheese Olympics” was really like, held this June in New York City at the Brooklyn Steel 1800-capacity music venue:

How did this year’s CMI compare to last year?

Each CMI has been its own unique creature: be it the venue, educational hosts, or cheese assignment. It was my first time inside this venue, Brooklyn Steel: hustling up stairs and across winding mezzanines with plates of cheese & beverages in my arms, for each judging session….it was a bit mind-boggling. But also an exciting change of pace, in its own way!

Did you have a favorite event or favorite moment?

I personally looked forward to education days with great excitement: for two-and-a-half days, we settled into the education space of Larkin Cold Storage (The Barnyard Collective) and met with industry experts from all walks. From cheesemakers, to affineurs/agers and marketers. We tasted through an amazing array of cheeses; more cheeses than most people can fathom (over 40 different cheeses, I believe, was the count after our first full day), and got the opportunity to ask them any questions that popped into our heads. It’s an incredibly enriching experience; we’re able to glean the most fascinating facts and stories, and build our brains towards being the best mongers we can be!

What’s something new you learned about cheese?

Too many things to list off the top of my head! I filled so many pages of a brand new composition notebook with tasting notes, as well as historical and scientific pearls! We listened to presentations on everything from sustainable and regenerative farming practices, to how to optimally milk Mediterranean water buffaloes!

What’s something new you learned about yourself?

I personally struggle with apprehension and self-doubt every day. But somehow I was able to steel through it all to complete almost a full week of industry development and professional assessment. I helped trial-and-error a lemon-lavender hard candy creation. I navigated cross-country travel with cookware. With collaborative effort, I sourced the elusive (yet highly necessary for my cheese pairing) kohlrabi vegetable. I managed, somehow, to dampen my strong impulse to panic and freeze: to bring it all together for a full day of cheesemonger feats of strength. The more times I do this, the more I learn what I’m capable of. It’s kind of unreal to look back on everything after CMI and tally up all the things I accomplish and learn each time!

What was the atmosphere like in the competition rooms?

Filled with an indescribable sense of camaraderie and support, even in the face of fumbling. As everyone’s name was called out for our judging order, everyone cheered each other on and clapped. And as I faced my proctor in my salesmanship round, I felt gentle encouragement. It leaves me in awe, honestly, to enter into what can feel like the most daunting exam – and even without making it to the finals- feel like I’ve achieved something absolutely remarkable. 

Did you make any new connections or reconnect with mongers you’ve met from past industry events?

I am a textbook nervous introvert, so it’s definitely a struggle to leave my bubble & strike up conversations! I still find myself enjoying the energy and soaking it up, though! One of the amazing aspects of events such as CMI is that you’ll often find other mongers approach each other and fall into fast friendships. It’s such an uplifting professional community to exist in and I consider myself so lucky to experience that, despite my instinct to melt into the corner like a wallflower!

What was it like to be completely immersed in the world of artisan cheese and among fellow cheese lovers who spoke the cheese language?

Affirming in the most powerful sense. I discovered cheese late in life and almost by accident. But the emotional impact it’s left on me and quality of life it’s given me fills me with the utmost gratitude every day. And to be surrounded by members of a tribe that feel this too, can feel akin to spiritual. We’re all stewards, storytellers, and fanatics for this miraculous thing called cheese!

We look forward to hearing more from Molly about the next industry event–the scholarship-sponsored American Cheese Society annual conference from July 18th-21st in Des Moines, Iowa!