Anne Saxelby, Dairy Queen: Bringing American Cheese to America

The biggest thing in American cheese since sliced bread.

Mark Isreal, the famously cranky baker behind the Doughnut Plant, was standing on the Grand Street sidewalk with Anne Saxelby, waxing poetic about her and the tiny, eponymous cheese stall tucked in behind Batista Grocery Store in the ancient Essex Street Market.

“She’s the best of the new entrepreneurs coming in,” he raved. “She appreciates the history of this place. And people—neighborhood people—appreciate her no matter who they are.” Isreal beams and throws an arm around Saxelby’s slender frame, squeezing her close. It’s not just hard-to-please pastry chefs who have a crush on the 30-year-old cheesemonger. So do chefs across the city, farmers across the region and curd nerds everywhere, not to mention 70-year-old, cart-pushing yentas, elected officials and—in full disclosure—me.

With a bobby pin in place to hold her not-quite- shoulder-length hair, it’s easy to fall for this trailblazing tomboy turophile. Her shoebox-size cheese stand is an edible gallery, stocked with just a few of her favorite selections, all made in our half of America. Offerings included ash-streaked logs of Sofia, a fresh goat’s milk wonder from Indiana; creamy, mold veined wedges of Bayley Hazen Blue from Vermont; stinky, sticky squares of washed-rind Grayson from Meadow Creek in Virginia; plus tubs of farmstead yogurt and butter, handmade ricotta and mozzarella and a few bottles of olive oil and loaves of bread bound for simple cheese sandwiches assembled to order.

For five years, Saxelby has acted as a talent agent for the best local cheesemakers, winning many of them places in bigger shops, on restaurant menus and in our mouths and minds. “Anne is the most sophisticated boutique fromagère—or cheesemonger— in the U.S.,” says Daniel Boulud, one of the country’s most respected chefs, and a proud cheese-loving Frenchman to boot.

Indeed Saxelby has helped redefine what the very words American cheese even mean. It wasn’t long ago that the phrase conjured up images not of rolling green hills where second-career foodies were tending their happy cows, but of Day-Glo orange, plastic wrapped squares labeled ‘”cheese food.” (The rubbery, near flavorless supermarket blocks of cheddar, Swiss and Monterey Jack were only marginally better.)

But Saxelby, whom we suspect could churn butter with her mental energy and upbeat outlook alone, wasn’t raised on Humboldt Fog. “Fancy,” she laughs, “was when we got sliced white American at the deli!”

Saxelby grew up in a Chicago suburb and retains an earnestness you see in other Midwest transplants like Mike Anthony, the chef at Gramercy Tavern, or his boss, Danny Meyer, both of whom she counts as customers. She arrived in New York in 1999 to attend NYU, majoring in painting and drawing, but soon the study soured somewhat. “The more immersed I was in the art world, the more I began to reject it. It felt pretentious and insincere.” Soon she was soon thinking about her palate more than her palette. Then, on a trip to Florence to visit a friend studying abroad, the young artist had what she calls an awakening.

Saxelby had never been to Europe before and says her life was changed by nibbling Pecorinos, sampling charcuterie, wandering the city’s central market and, one night, feasting on a pouch of pasta filled with Gorgonzola. “It was one of the most delicious things I’d ever put in my mouth. But mostly,” she recalls, “we just ate cheese and bread and sausage. Technically the same stuff you can get in the States but like five bazillion times better. And I was, like, ‘Hey, wait a second, why don’t I get this stuff at the grocery store?’”

Back in New York, a friend suggested she check out Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker Street. “Murray’s,” says Saxelby, “became my cheese gateway.” She was soon a regular, asking a million questions, taking notes. (Looking back Saxelby realizes she was “a total nightmare customer, taking 30 minutes to order a quarter pound each of eight different cheeses.”) Over the years she applied for a Murray’s counter job five times, pestering and cajoling with such bright-eyed eagerness that eventually one of the managers came out from behind the counter, folded her arms and started asking questions. Did she know what wine to pair with a Piave? The new college grad blurted “Sauvignon blanc!”—a pretty abrasive choice for the salty, stinging northern Italian hard cheese, but the manager liked Saxelby’s enthusiasm and in June 2003, she took her on.

She worked at Murray’s for two years, filling her mouth with flavors and her mind with information. She kept Steven Jenkins’s Cheese Primer next to her bed, committing to memory a cheese a day, but as for many mongers, most of her learning came through tasting: How a bloomy rind differs from a rind washed with salt water or wine. How to differentiate each buttery button of fresh goat cheese, or know the nutty nuances of Manchego and the caramel crunch of aged Gouda. How the blue veins of Stilton compare to those running through Roquefort or the Gorgonzola in that formative Florentine pasta pocket.

Saxelby dreamed of making a living from what she was learning. Maybe with her art background, she could run a gallery that showed paintings during the day but became a bar that served cheese at night! But as the months went by, she realized it was cheese that she wanted to focus on, singly and simply. Which meant learning to make it. So she began haranguing Cato Corner, a Connecticut farmstead cow’s cheese producer beloved at the Greenmarket, for an internship. As it was, their summer intern was leaving in the fall, and Saxelby jumped at the chance to sabbatical from selling and decamp to the farm. “I made my fair share of mistakes!” laughs Saxelby of flipping, turning and washing the slippery, hard-to-hold-onto wheels of fresh, young cheese that felt unwieldy in her inexperienced hands.“It was really physical labor that went about 10 to 12 hours a day, but I was 100 percent fascinated.”

Saxelby was surprised to find that making cheese felt a lot like making art—just without the stuff she hated about the art world. “When you spend all day in a little room making milk into curds and whey and then into a wheel—that process was exactly the same as when I was in my studio painting,” she says. “You have to think about materials and how they’re transformed as a final product. It’s the same rigor and attention to detail, same mentality and patience.” But unlike art, in her point of view, cheese is for everyone. “Anyone with taste buds can say, ‘This is good!’ or ‘This is bad!’

The experience also got Saxelby thinking about food beyond flavor—things like farm worker rights, international trade and the Farm Bill. She had been focused on product not policy, but at the farm, she says, “I realized the two were intertwined.”

Back at Murray’s, Saxelby learned more advanced aspects of the cheese biz, like developing wholesale relationships with chefs, as well as affinage—the art of aging or otherwise altering cheeses before selling them. And she had the good fortune to meet Hervé Mons. The famous French affineur buys cheese from small producers, ages them in a cave near Lyon, and sells them all over the world. Saxelby told him about her efforts to rebloom French goat cheese on Bleecker Street (by fashioning a rudimentary cheese cave out of a catering rack and a zippered plastic case) and made such an impression on Mons that he arranged for her to spend three months learning the craft in the Loire Valley, followed by a five-day stint working his cheese table at the Slow Food convention in Italy.

But as just as pivotal as what she learned in Europe about making cheese was what she learned about marketing it. She met many mongers, each specializing in the cheese of one region and she found her calling—to do just that in New York. While several Gotham retailers imported European cheese, her idea was to import that European approach to cheese. To stock a tiny case with just a few selections which wouldn’t just be all American— that alone was unheard of in 2005—but all from the Northeast. Which meant no Camembert, no Gruyère, no Pecorino, no Époisses, no Stilton—but also no Humboldt Fog from California, no Tillamook Cheddar from Oregon, no Maytag Blue from Iowa. Just a few little-known cheeses from regional producers, many of them made on the very farms the herds called home.

It was a radical departure. New York’s top cheese shops were big and getting bigger, including a new build-out at Murray’s, an expansion of the cheese counter at Dean & DeLuca, and ever-larger sections at all the Whole Foods Markets in Manhattan. These places each stock hundreds of cheeses from around the world, a dozen different blues, mountain ranges of Gruyères, Matterhorns of Manchegos. Back from Europe in January 2006, she wrote a business plan and started looking for space, but was daunted by what she calls the “bonkers” real estate. Considering a space next to a wine shop on Chambers that cost $10,000 a month, Saxelby reached out to Robert LaValva, whom she’d met at a Slow Food cheese tasting he’d held at the FCI, in search of advice.

The timing was uncanny. LaValva, who would go on to found New Amsterdam Market, had just submitted a proposal to the city to revive two empty buildings at the tumbledown Essex Street Market, the indoor markets built in 1939 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on Delancey. LaValva suggested Saxelby consider a stall, the rent for which was but a tiny fraction of the Chambers Street space. It’s likely it didn’t look like much of a bargain. The city has since invested several million dollars in the low-slung orange brick building, and the opening of new shops—including an outpost of a Brooklyn taqueria, the indie-chic Roni-Sue’s chocolate shop, a Pain D’Avignon bakery—has garnered plenty of press. But back when LaValva suggested Saxelby set up shop there, the Essex Street Market was a dimly lit, decades old, windowless ragtag collection of single-focus grocers catering to what was left of the neighborhood’s Latin population, or at least those who didn’t do all their shopping at supermarkets like everyone else.

One of the last public markets in the city, the place was originally part of the famous mayor’s food reforms, in his effort to get pushcart vendors off the streets. The market’s first shoppers were Jewish and Italian; the neighborhood’s Puerto Ricans buoyed it into the 1950s and 1960s. All traffic plummeted in the 1970s with the rise of the supermarket, and by the 1980s so many vendors had left that the city sold the place in 1992 to a private developer whose failed revitalization plan forced the city to buy it back, spearheading a $1.5 million renovation that consolidated the vendors into one building on the northern side of Delancey.

So it was a serious gamble to set up an all-American artisan cheese counter in a bargain-basement public market—near a fish guy hawking salt cod, a butcher vending cheap cuts like oxtail, a Latin grocery stall stocked with papaya and canned condensed milk—that no one considered cool and few could even find on a map.

But for Saxelby, Essex Street Market just felt absolutely right. “I’m a leaper,” she says. “I see something that might work, and I just do it.” By May 2006, she was up and running. Sort of. “In the beginning, I felt like I was having a garage sale every day,” recalls Saxelby. “I’d open up, and, ‘Doo-dee-doooo! Who’s gonna come?’ It would be just me sitting at the stall six days a week with nobody here but the folks from the methadone clinic next door!”

But over weeks and months, that changed. The Omnivore’s Dilemma had just hit shelves, turning good readers into better eaters. Shoppers sought her out, and the press began to take notice. “Then Daily Candy wrote us up, and all these fancy people started coming. One day, two teenage girls from uptown wearing really nice clothes showed up to buy cheese for a little picnic. They bought all this fancy cheese and ate it at the communal table next to the methadonians.”

Like American beer—and American wine a decade before— American cheese was just beginning to come into its own. In the 1990s, buoyed by new interest in health, taste and community self reliance, farmstead cheesemakers had emerged across America—creating the kinds of small-batch, distinctive-tasting cheese that was more often imported from Europe, which was where most of those early cheesemakers had trained, anyway. The shift was also prompted by the economic reality that you could make far more money selling your milk by the wedge than by the gallon. And Saxelby wanted to help these young artisans get better, and to build their market share.

Her hero in this role is Neal’s Yard Dairy, the London company that helped revive the British cheese industry in the 1970s and 1980s by forging relationships with small cheesemakers, coaxing them to improve their practices, bringing the cheese to market and educating the public palate so that the farms would thrive. But in contrast to England, where Neal’s Yard helped rescue traditions and century-old dairies, Saxelby set out to champion a new field: Only half the cheesemakers she buys from even existed a decade ago. Which she sees as freeing. “Since everyone is just learning from scratch they can be more creative or innovative than European counterparts,” she explains. “Here we’re still forming our traditions.”

Sure, some American cheesemakers aim to recreate the greatest hits of European traditions, but many others improvise. Consider Timberdoodle, a Vermont- made washed-rind cheese made with both cows’ and sheep’s milk—or sometimes just one or the other. “In Europe,” says Saxelby, “you could never do that. Here it’s kind of like ‘Screw the rules. I’m going to have a farm and play around with it.’”

“Anne wanted to start small,” says Amy Thompson, who worked at Saxelby and now runs an also-small, also-Northeast-focused cheese shop in Chelsea Market called Lucy’s Whey. “She wanted to be able to really connect to people and connect people with their cheesemakers,” says Thompson, “which many cheesemakers have limited time and resources to do.” What she means is that Jay Calkins might not be able to talk about Calkins Creamery 1841 Havarti to each and every buyer (the name is the year his farm was established in Wayne County, Pennsylvania), but Saxelby can—either behind the counter or even on the farm trips, called Day A-Whey, she organizes so customers can meet the makers. Saxelby herself has gone on dozens of farm stays to visit people like Calkins, an ongoing education she sees as essential to her job. “You get a story in a way you can’t from sitting behind a cheese counter,” says Saxelby, whose strength as a marketer stems from her sincere love for the process. “I want to know about it,” she says, “starting from what the cows eat.”

“We believe Anne adds definition to the word ‘purveyor,’” says Calkins, “for not only is she a purveyor of foods, but she knows the farms, the cheesemakers, the terroir and packages it all beautifully.” As a result her little display is like a debutante ball: It’s often just a matter of time between a cheese’s coming out at Essex, and its appearance all over town.

“She certainly has introduced my cheese to the New York City market,” says Art Ludlow of Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton, who has hosted three Day A-Whey trips. In fact he says many Long Island customers at his South Fork farmers market first tried his cheese at Saxelby Cheesemongers in Manhattan.

Nine months after opening, Saxelby was enthused but exhausted. She staffed the stand almost entirely alone, smiling and slicing all day, while juggling a growing number of cheesemaker and restaurant contacts, and doing all the deliveries on bike, using a big hiking backpack, reinforced with straps. (“If I packed really well,” she says, “I could fit in 25 pounds of cheese.”) Saxelby’s logo still bears the image of a svelte biker behind the monger moniker, though she eventually found a delivery person on Craigslist. It was around this time that Saxelby met Benoit Breal, a native Parisian who was then a luxury goods consultant for such tony brands as Hermès and Ligne Rosset, who was looking for a career change. Like LaValva, they’d met at a Slow Food cheese tasting, this one at Moore Brothers wine shop on East 20th Street. “I tasted the cheeses Anne had brought, and they were absolutely delicious,” says Breal. “I thought they were French. I couldn’t believe cheesemakers in America were making these sorts of products.”

Breal’s expertise was in product development, marketing and distribution—primarily for high-end textiles and furniture—and he saw similar potential in these American cheeses. His wife encouraged him to get in touch with Saxelby, so he sent her a long e-mail and then followed up in person. Saxelby saw opportunity in Breal’s ideas, but was wary of the fact that he had no retail experience. She invited him to come back and work the counter. There, shoulder to shoulder, they found they worked together well, and he bought into the business.

With Breal on board as co-owner, Saxelby Cheese quickly expanded from the diminutive counter at Essex Street Market to a growing roster of restaurant clients. Among her first wholesale customers was Colin Alevras, chef-owner of the now-shuttered Tasting Room. “She was the first to have local, real butter and liquid dairy available,” says Alevras, who now works as the service director at the Dutch. “Anne was the first monger I encountered who was bringing customers on farm trips—connecting eaters to milkers, as it were.”

Some took a while to comprehend the concept. Alevras recalls that American farmstead cheese was “met with the same skepticism that our all-American wine list was,” and that the idea of a cheesemonger selling only domestic cheeses was outside the imagination of most people, cheese lovers included. What would they sell? How many could there be? Alevras immediately shifted all his cheese buying to this kindred start-up.

“We always loved these cheeses,” says Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony of Saxelby-sourced goodies like Feta from Lively Run in the Finger Lakes, “but we weren’t sure how to get them. Anne has secured supplies of cheeses we would not have been able to use regularly.” Others soon followed. Saxelby sells Minetta Tavern cheese curds that they use in their pommes aligot, a sort of mashed potatoes meets fondue; Casellula, the cheese-centric café, has built whole lists around her selections. And while seeing Saxelby Cheesemongers on farm-to-table menus alongside the names of small lettuce and lamb growers may seem logical, Saxelby has also moved less locavore restaurateurs in a domestic direction. Places that served only French fromage even a few years ago are now commissioning Saxelby to find them American offerings that pair well with their Alsatian fare or Burgundian wine lists. Alain Ducasse’s Benoit in Midtown now orders an American selection from Saxelby and highlights a weekly cheese-wine pairing, like a Monterey County Pinot Noir with Ascutney Mountain, an earthy, Alpine-style cheese from Vermont.

“One of my greatest joys,” says Breal, “was when the French Consulate chef said he just wants to purchase American cheeses. He was so impressed with the quality, he said ‘Give me whatever you want.’” For cheesemakers, being served at a top restaurant comes with bragging rights—especially when said chef could call up a big distributor, get more cheeses for less money, and never worry it might not be made that month. And chef sales are now so strong that they’ve outpaced orders at Essex. “Today, our main business is wholesale to restaurants,” boasts Breal, and many of those accounts come to them, instead of the other way around. That’s because Saxelby offers access, helping these restaurants manage up to dozens of purveyor relationships. Colin Alevras offers another reason for Saxelby’s success: “The fact that she’s the nicest person you’re ever likely to meet also helps.”

Gramercy Tavern chef Anthony agrees. “She snorts a little when she laughs wholeheartedly and she says ‘Dang’ like she really means it.” (He claims to listen to every single segment of Cutting the Curd, the Internet radio show she hosts on behalf of HeritageRadioNetwork.com.) That’s why last summer Saxelby signed a lease on a 1,200-squarefoot refrigerated storage space in Red Hook. “If you want to help the cheesemakers, you need to be successful, too,” says Breal. With just under 100 restaurant accounts at the time, any unexpected order risked depleting the tiny inventory of the 120-square-foot store (and that’s including the counter and a tiny walk-in fridge). “Basically, our restaurant business was growing so fast the walk-in at Essex Market was full to the gills,” he says. “Every week we’d get a big shipment, wouldn’t think we’d be able to fit it all in there, somehow we’d jam it all in there, then sell it over the next five days and do it all over again.”

“If a restaurant called and wanted 40 pounds of cheese, that was a significant chunk of what we had in our coolers,” says Saxelby. She also wanted to make sure she could take careful care of her cargo: Her Red Hook space has a temperature- and humidity-controlled, 12-by-25-foot walk-in cooler, an office (Saxelby now has three full-time employees, a few part-time employees and an intern who works in the “cave” twice a week) and enough space to take deliveries or cut 35-pound wheels of Rupert from Consider Bardwell in West Pawlet, Vermont.

“We want to be a meaningful partner for cheesemakers,” says Saxelby, “a place farms are proud to sell cheese to. We do right by them by storing it well and selling it in good condition.” It’s good for her business, but it’s also good for theirs. “Cheesemakers have grown with her,” says Thompson of Lucy’s Whey, which sells many of the cheeses Saxelby launched in the city. “And every year she has sold more and more cheese, [so] she was able to go back to cheesemakers and encourage them to expand what they make.”

As yet the storage space, where temperatures hover in the high 30s, is not about aging. (For that, you’d want things a good 10 degrees warmer.) But affinage is a long-term goal. In fact, in February Saxelby released four beer-washed cheeses created by bathing wheels in four different beers from Sixpoint Craft Ales, based right in Red Hook. “In the future, we can talk to farmers about doing cheeses that we can age in-house,” she says. (Saxelby already often weighs in on production—suggesting new cheese recipes or tweaks to existing ones.) But for now, Saxelby’s primary goal is growing the business of the cheesemakers she represents.

“We want to be more like partners than just cheerleaders,” says Saxelby. “We want to move more of their cheese, to act more as a distributor than just a retailer: Then the impact is that much greater.” This mindset doesn’t just apply to cheesemakers. Last July, Mayor Bloomberg named Saxelby Cheesemongers “Small Business of the Year,” noting in a press release that the Essex Street Market had been revitalized “largely as a result of Saxelby’s influence.” LaValva, who now runs the same-spirit-different-scope New Amsterdam Market, says Saxelby’s stand “has helped open the eyes of the city on the role that markets can have in city development, for tourism, to make it a destination.” He notes that the perception of Essex Market by staff at the city’s Environmental Development Corporation has radically shifted in the last few years, largely because of Saxelby. And with the recent addition of several new shops, including a sustainable butcher shop launched by Saxelby’s new husband, Heritage Foods USA founder Patrick Martins, Essex Market is emerging as a delicious destination all its own.

Despite early impressions, Saxelby is a natural fit for this place. She speaks Spanish, French and Italian to varying degrees, skills that help her serve neighborhood regulars as well as the growing number of European tourists at the market. (“They get the market so much better than native Manhattanites. Americans walk through searching for the checkout.”) Like the neighborhood, Saxelby’s clientele is mixed. The foodie-forward seek out her gooey, spruce-wrapped wheels of seasonal Rush Creek Reserve. A Dominican woman has a standing order for goat’s milk. Yuppie moms buy Vermont Cheddar. Some customers order a slice so small it only costs a dollar (yes, Saxelby accepts food stamps). And, on more than one occasion, an old bubby has taken her hand and said, “I haven’t been here since I was a little kid. My grandma brought me here. This place used to stink to high hell,” Saxelby says in a Yiddish accent.

“It’s a funny, confusing place,” says Saxelby. “And I’m constantly discovering new stuff, even though I make the rounds, like, four times a day.” While championing her fellow market tenants and celebrating their older, slower way of doing business, Saxelby also pushed them to get up to speed: She lobbied for opening on Sundays—a more popular shopping day for modern professionals than for LaGuardia-era housewives. “Everything she has done has helped open people’s eyes to something in their own backyard,” says LaValva.

Yet even as Essex Street Market enters a new golden era, Saxelby is organizing against a city proposal to demolish the market and replace it with a much larger modern one across the street, as part of a development plan that would add affordable housing and high-end residential development. A new Essex Market would be energy efficient, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and have improved storage, garbage handling and climate control. But critics like Saxelby argue that expansion and such upgrades could happen on-site at a lower cost, pointing out that two unused market spaces on the southern side of Delancey have been vacant since the market consolidated in 1995.

“The Essex Market as it stands is living history,” Saxelby told DNAinfo.com, a New York news blog last fall, as she circulated a petition about the market’s economic and historic importance to market vendors and presented it to Bob Steel, the deputy mayor for Economic Development. (Incidentally, it was Deputy Mayor Steel who, just a few months before, had presented Saxelby with that small business of the year award.)

It makes for busy days. “I’ve got the memory retention of a goldfish right about now,” says Saxelby on a recent wintry day. She has just made her daily bike ride from Brooklyn, and is opening her shop for her first customers, even as she juggles phone messages from chefs who need cheese, farmers who need orders and her business partner, who is stocking the storage space in Red Hook. Still, she manages to keep the details straight on making a damn good sandwich, perhaps because, like her business, it’s as focused as can be: “The Grayson is back in season,” she tells a customer who opted for the washed rind stinker from Virginia’s Meadow Creek, before spelling out its three essential ingredients: “Bread, olive oil and, of course,” she says, “cheese.”

For more on Anne Saxelby, check out:
– a walking tour and map of her favorite places to eat in the Lower East Side
– this NY1 video tour of her Red Hook cheese caves

Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.