“Trust me,” Tia Keenan said. We were sitting on crates at the construction site on West 52nd Street that would soon be Casellula Cheese & Wine Café. It smelled of wet paint and wood dust. “We’re going to do something really special.”
I trusted Tia, and she was right. I gratefully accepted my job offer. A few weeks later we opened Casellula. It was spring of 2007. The spot was charm-filled and instantly packed, then continuously packed every night. We were up to something not only special but brand new, and Tia was the fearless leader of the cheese revolution. We liberated the cheese plate from the confines of fine dining. Casellula was a casual, laid back place, and lively, and Tia made plates from her selection of 30 or 40 cheeses. She opened my mind. Before working as a server at Casellula, I had been a host at the late, great Picholine. We had a stunner of an old-school cheese cart, and Max McCalman, author of Mastering Cheese, became a wonderful cheese mentor to me. I learned about his armies of Alpine wonders and washed rind beauties oozing with funk. But those cheeses were always plated in an identical way—with a few crusty pieces of raisin walnut bread, some Marcona almonds and perhaps a slice of membrillo (quince paste).
There were no Marcona almonds at Casellula; we did make our own pine nut brittle, which was crunchy and dangerously addictive. Tia served cheese with goat’s milk caramels and pork cracklings and pickled green tomatoes. “I was up against a cheese perception roadblock in the U.S., namely that cheese was perceived as this great, fancy, European thing that Americans were increasingly exposed to and interested in, but were intimidated by,” Tia says. “So I figured if I served cheese was caramel corn, or pickled okra, or fudge — these foods which are so American and belong to us on an emotional/cultural level — that I could draw people to enjoying and understanding cheese with more confidence and less fear, which in many ways was very class-based.”
Cheese is for everyone. Tia freed it from the realm of pretention. “I want everyone to be able to enjoy cheese, and so moving cheese into a casual restaurant environment, and then into their homes — which is what I’m doing with my book, The Art of the Cheese Plate — is how I facilitate that populist approach,” Tia says. Tia believes that cheese is for the people. “I once taught a bunch of third graders about cheese, from milk to the plate—it was a highlight of my career.”
Tia went on to open Murray’s Cheese Bar, and has been a kickass cheese consultant, expert, stylist, and innovator in the years since. Her book, The Art of the Cheese Plate, is just out with Rizzoli and ridiculously gorgeous—everything Tia does is gorgeous. But it’s also inspiring, creative, and full of awesome cheese ideas, like roasting concord grapes with thyme and pairing them with Grevenbroeker, a raw cow’s milk blue cheese from Flanders, Belgium. “Remember the taste of frozen grape juice concentrate?” Tia writes. “You’ll find it in Grevenbroeker, an uber-fruity blue with a peppery finish.”
Thanks to Tia, I serve Bianco Sardo from Sardinia and Grana Padano from Italy’s Po River Valley with my Negronis. I know white chocolate and blue cheese are very good friends. I know it’s okay to play with my food. I just may land on something brilliantly delicious.