Tia Keenan is a Chef Fromager and food consultant based in New York City. In 2007, with a decade of NYC restaurant experience behind her, Keenan opened Casellula Cheese and Wine Café, a pioneering cheese bar, featuring a rotating selection of 40 international artisan cheeses paired with more than 60 unique wines and inventive condiments. Her work earned Casellula an Honorable Mention in the 2009 Michelin Guide. Previously, Keenan helmed the cheese program at Michelin-starred restaurant The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art. With her unorthodox approach to the cheese plate, Keenan creates a new flavor “language” for cheese and contributes her distinctive vision to the burgeoning American artisan cheese revolution.
Raymond Hook: How did you get to know so much about cheese? What’s your food history?
Tia Keenan: I grew up in a typical American working-class food environment. The cheese was Kraft, the bread was from the supermarket and wine was something we had at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I went to an exclusive private school, where I was the “poor kid” on partial scholarship. On a trip to East Hampton with a classmate’s family, I went to my first gourmet store. They bought French butter, crusty baguettes, cured olives. I remember thinking that my mother had been lying to me! She served me something called “butter”, but in East Hampton I was tasting what surely must be REAL butter. I was a picky eater until my early twenties when I started cooking out of my own kitchen. Then, when I started working as a waiter in Manhattan in my early twenties, I quickly realized that “I don’t eat that” was an unacceptable, even unprofessional, position. I forced myself to eat foods I didn’t like. I willed my palate to understand my evolving life. Now, there is nothing I won’t eat AND enjoy.
I learned about cheese by working with it intimately and up close. My food paradigm grew concurrently with artisanal cheese culture in the U.S. I opened my first wholesale cheese account working at a now defunct Michelin-starred Breton restaurant in Manhattan. I was a couple of years into my food and restaurant obsession by then. Have you ever had Breton Dairy? It’s some of the world’s best. From there I developed and ran the cheese program at The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art. That was my first really expressive cheese program. When I “found” cheese I knew I’d found my medium. It was like finding a long-lost sister. Cheese was kindred. It spoke to me. When I am intrigued by something I can become obsessive. I read, taste, play with cheese. I will spend my life getting to know it better.
RH: You make incredible accompaniments to cheese, what are a couple of your favorites?
Tia Keenan: It’s hard to pick a favorite, because I’m always creating something new, which in turn becomes my favorite. As a framework, I enjoy taking uniquely American recipes (like fudge, for instance) tweaking the flavor and then serving it with cheese. So I’ll serve a lemon grass fudge with a really creamy goat cheese. This way the composition is both familiar and unfamiliar. Food should be like a dream: something that you know but don’t know at the same time. It should be like “I had a dream I was sitting in my house. I knew it was my house, but it felt different, looked different.”
RH: Local, artisan, organic, what is important to you?
Tia Keenan: All of those things are important to me, but choosing good food is about assessing a thousand different things at once and making an informed decision. People ask me all the time “How do I know if a cheese is good?” I tell them it’s like when you look at a baby. How do you know it’s healthy? The color of its cheeks, how chubby it is, how it moves. The problem with our food culture is that we are so disconnected from even knowing what REAL food is, let alone good food. When I look at a Kraft Single, the first thing I think now is “that’s not food.” I think food comes from plants and animals, has nutritional value, makes you feel good, and heals you. By that definition, 90% of what is available in a supermarket is not food. A Kraft Single tastes like nothing else. It tastes only like a Kraft Single. It’s chemistry that’s been manufactured to mimic food. But we’ve accepted it as food. Eating a Kraft Single asks nothing of the eater. I guess that can be comforting, but eating is an act within a relationship: to yourself, the planet, the community. If you only eat food that asks nothing of you, you get nothing back. It’s a shallow and ultimately unfulfilling relationship.
RH: You know a lot about wine as well, what is an elegant cheese and wine pairing and a fun wine and cheese pairing?
Tia Keenan: Well, Champagne or sparkling wine is the ultimate cheese beverage. Also, beer. It’s got bubbles and acid that scrape the fat off of your palate, so that each bite is like the first. But I’ve been really interested lately in cocktails and enjoying them as beverage AND a condiment with cheese. Recently I served a rhubarb, hibiscus & thyme panache with a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese. A panache is traditionally made of beer and lemonade. I made a rhubarb and hibiscus “-ade” and used it in place of the lemonade, then finished it with fresh thyme. I floated bits of rhubarb in it like in a Sangria. It was complex both in flavor and texture, but still light and refreshing. The drink became the condiment.
RH: You have a lot of followers on Twitter; does cheese translate well to social media?
Tia Keenan: I think everything translates well on social media, but especially niche cultures. Twitter is a great place to find people who are interested in exactly what you’re interested in. I’m sure there’s someone who tweets about Smurf collecting in Burma or something, and they have followers who are interested in the same thing. Above all else, I am a creator/communicator. The role of the artist is to communicate new ideas to the world. Social media is a really quick and free way to do that.
RH: What are some of the best cheese websites?
Tia Keenan: Tami Parr’s Pacific Northwest Cheese Project is a pioneering site dedicated to regional cheeses. Her site exemplifies the direction of American cheese culture. I also appreciate Cheese and Champagne, a blog by two women eating their way through the Wine Spectator’s “100 Great Cheeses” list. Their coverage is totally accessible and devoid of pretense.
RH: Why is cheese so popular now — it’s been around a long time?
Tia Keenan: Cheese is made from mother’s milk – our first food. It’s an ancient food. Americans are just now discovering the pleasure of traditional foods. As we become more interested in asking the where, how and what of our food, we are naturally drawn to cheese. Artisan cheese is tradition, nuance, and the antithesis of industrial food. It takes a lot of effort and time to make cheese. It’s made by hand. And of course, it tastes good! What’s not to like about fat and salt?
RH: What is right with cheese in NYC, and what is wrong with cheese in NYC?
Tia Keenan: The invasion of big box “gourmet” grocery stores really bothers me. I want people to buy cheese from cheese shops. Ask a cheese professional where they buy cheese. It’s at a cheese shop, not a store that sells everything from organic soap to birthday cakes to yoga mats. The NYC cheese scene is growing and changing all the time. There are many more independent cheese shops in NYC now than five years ago. What’s important is the momentum. Without growth and change, life is meaningless. We are lucky in NYC to have access to so many different foods. Cheese is part of the food culture here, which is the most amazing food culture in the US and one of the best food cities in the world.
RH: Where do you see cheese in NYC heading, the US?
Tia Keenan: My upcoming project will focus only on American artisanal cheese, so obviously I think that’s the direction. It’s time. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that, because we didn’t have a big enough system in place of production, distribution, etc. We didn’t have the quality of product, but we do now. Americans need to start thinking about cheese the way they think about other foods. I have foodie friends who would never buy a generic tomato from Chile or a strawberry in January, but they don’t think twice about buying Italian butter or a French goat cheese made in winter from frozen milk.
RH: Who inspires you in the cheese industry? Why?
Tia Keenan: I really love all the new kids hitting the cheese scene. People in their early twenties – they’re so into food, and what an amazing time in America to be into food! They’re so curious, so passionate. When I started working in NYC restaurants in the ‘90’s, a waiter was an actor or a writer. Increasingly, people who work with food are into food, that’s what they DO. Who am I inspired by? I am inspired by many people and things, for many different reasons. Do you know that painting, “The Gleaners” by Jean-Francois Millet? Gleaners are people who harvest a field after it’s already been harvested. They pick up the little bits that have been left behind. Only the poorest of the poor gleaned. I saw that painting in a book as a little girl. I remember thinking “that’s me.” The Biblical story of Ruth – she’s a gleaner. That was always one of my favorite stories. I pick the left-behind bits from many different fields. I take what I have and try to feed my “family”. My family are my guests at the restaurant, people in the food community, everyone. Nothing pleases me more than feeding cheese to someone who “hates” cheese. When they like it, I am inspired.