Expert Tip: How do you spot a great cheese-counter?

The first thing I look for in a cheese shop is their cheese selection.  This means that as soon as I enter the building, I look to see if there is a big display of cheese that draws me in.  One good sign in any store is to see staff members buzzing about, attending to the cheese or other customers -- working, always working. Along the walls there may also be jams, honeys, crackers, or other items that go along with the cheeses they have on hand, and perhaps also some wine and beer or charcuterie and olives.

In addition to wonderful cheeses, the staff is really what makes a cheese shop a great cheese shop. They should be knowledgeable and engaging.  They don't need to know everything, but should be able to direct you towards what you want to know (or at least know how to look it up). Nowadays, you don't necessarily need to go to a dedicated cheese shop to get your cheese fix. Many grocery stores are now bringing in artisan cheeses as part of their offerings. So while the cheese counter may not be what you encounter first in that scenario, look for a prominent display or area dedicated to those goods. If they're really on their game, they will have a dedicated cheesemonger available who can guide you through the experience.

What really makes for a great cheese buying experience is the relationship that you form with your local cheesemonger. I've built a lot of relationships and many people have ultimately put their cheese lives in my hands without a second thought. This rapport rarely comes easily, but like all relationships, it requires nurturing, trust, and communication to keep it strong.

Ask for a taste of a cheese that interests you.  When you do, communicate with your cheesemonger and tell him or her what you loved about it-- or what you didn't like. This is where the rapport begins to form. Typically, when a customer starts giving me feedback I'll have about 3 cheeses for them to try, based on what they've told me. My job is to get my customer to experience the cheese he or she has envisioned in their mental palate. I'm not trying to make the biggest sale of my career from this interaction, but rather, I'm trying to have them come back again and again. If I can provide them with something that they may not have been thinking of then that's even more gratifying.

Thomas Perry is currently the Head of Cheese & Specialty at Potash Markets in Chicago, IL. He was the 2015 recipient of the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award.