Cheese Talk

Whole Foods expert Cathy Strange on designing the cheese program at Jeffrey's restaurant

Cathy Strange on designing the cheese program at Jeffrey's restaurant

After a long-awaited renovation, the new-and-improved Jeffrey's opened in late April. The McGuire Moorman Hospitality group spent months poring over every detail of the historic restaurant, from the fixtures to the furniture and, naturally, the food. 

In the process of recruiting chefs and cooks, Larry McGuire also reached out to Whole Foods Market global cheese buyer Cathy Strange to help the restaurant put together a diverse, well-rounded cheese program. Alongside the Jeffrey's team, Strange works to craft a unique cheese cart program that features a variety of milks, textures and flavors. 

We recently sat down with Strange to talk about the process of crafting a cheese plate and her role at Jeffrey's. 

CultureMap: Tell us about your role at Jeffrey's and how you came to help the restaurant with its cheese program. 

Cathy Strange: I'm the president of a group called Les Dames d'Escoffier, and we have a chapter in Austin. It's a women's professional food group that has 28 chapters and includes writers, food producers, restaurateurs — really any aspect of food professions. Alex Manley, who is the head of pastry for the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group, is in Les Dames d'Escoffier, and I've known Larry for years, so it was really something that happened naturally.

Larry had been talking about wanting to take the restaurant to the next level since he inherited a reputation with the restaurant. He wanted to reestablish it as being a premier world-class restaurant in Austin. He and Alex were talking about how to be associated with individuals who have a solid food knowledge, and his goal was to bring back the cheese plate and create a solid cheese program in the restaurant.

Alex reached out to me to see if I would be interested in working with them in developing a really high-level cheese plate for the menu. It's not something I'd normally do, but I really respect the group, and I felt like this would be an opportunity to showcase the amazing cheeses Whole Foods Market provides.

I thought this would allow me to partner with a local restaurateur to show the refined offerings we have that other cheese establishments can't get because of our unique partnerships. We've been working to establish products that you can't get anywhere else in the United States other than Whole Foods Market and Jeffrey's.

Right now we're in the process of catching up, refining, and doing some more education around the product as we start to get out of the summer and into the busy season again. 

CM: Describe the process of designing a cheese program for a restaurant like Jeffrey's. 

CS: Well, Jeffrey's has a dynamic group of employees and some amazing chefs. Part of it was talking with the chefs, because they use some of the cheeses in their dishes. I asked them what they were planning to prepare, what types of cheeses they like to eat and what ideas they had.

Their wine list is developed and evolved, so the goal is to pair the cheeses with their already well-established wine list. I wanted to be able to offer something for people that don't normally consider ordering cheese in an everyday restaurant environment. For instance, not everyone is into sweets, so instead of offering a dessert, they can opt for the cheese plate instead.  

CM: How often will the cheese plate change?

CS: It evolves not only through seasons, but also the way the restaurant develops on its own. Cheese is a living organism, and we ship it in from France, so we have to work with the restaurant in determining what will be on the menu ahead of time.

We also try and offer a balance of milk selections and styles, so you'll always have a blue on the plate, different textures and, likely, a sheep's milk and a goat's milk. You want to offer enough familiarity on the plate so people are comfortable trying something they may not be as familiar with. 

CM: Old Jeffrey's was an institution many locals really loved. Were you a fan of the old restaurant, and if so, how would you compare its cheese program to the new Jeffrey's?

CS: Yes, I was a fan of old Jeffrey's. As a matter of fact, chef Alma [Alcocer-Thomas] of El Alma was a chef there years ago; so was Kristine Kittrell at Mulberry and David Garrido. There are a lot of institutional chefs that have passed through those doors and done some really exciting things.

What was unique about Jeffrey's then was it was featuring a dynamic amount of American cheeses when the American artisanal cheese movement was blossoming and taking off. I've always known them to offer cheese, but the goal with my partnership with Larry is to take it to the next level. 

CM: What are some upcoming seasonal cheeses that you think would be great to feature on the Jeffrey's menu?

CS: Because it's so hot in Austin, we like to offer alternative milk cheeses that aren't always cow's milk. We like to experiment with goat's milk products because they're a little lighter and refreshing, and a lot of people are going toward lighter, refreshing wines this time of year.

Jeffrey's has a really phenomenal beer selection as well, so we like to pair the cheeses with their amazing beers. In the summer, it's great to look for cheese made with sheep's milk, goat's milk and even buffalo's milk.

CM: The second cheesemonger exam is coming up. Do you mind telling us a bit about the prestige behind passing that certification?

CS: I'm the former president of the American Cheese Society, and during my tenure we had talked about doing that exam. It's basically a recognition for individuals who operate in a cheese environment every day. It requires 4,000 hours, so it entails a lot of work and experience.

It's not quite to the level of a Master Sommelier, but it acknowledges people who have developed the necessary skill set to work in the business and can go anywhere in the world and have that title recognized. In the first test, which featured more than 150 people, Whole Foods Market had 70 certified cheesemongers.

Wednesday is the second test, and we will be seating 98 people for that exam. Someone from the Austin store will be sitting for that exam, actually, so we're really excited. 

CM: Are there any new cheeses coming to the store?

CS: We worked with a few Wisconsin producers to make a cheese for us that will be available in our stores in August. One that I will mention is a partnership with Sartori Cheese. It's called Rum Runner.

It's an aged Jarlsberg cheese that's soaked in a local rum called Heath Rum. It has toffee flavors like a Heath candy bar. It has a rich, aromatic quality that has a great sweetness and caramelized flavors. Those will be in the stores through August, because we're celebrating American cheese that month.

Whole Foods Market cheese
Through a partnership with Whole Foods, Jeffrey's will offer cheese only available at the grocery retailer and the restaurant. Photo courtesy of Whole Foods Market
Austin Photo Set: Tastemaker Judge 2013_Cathy Strange
Whole Foods global cheese buyer Cathy Strange partnered with Jeffrey's restaurant on its cheese program.
Dining room of Jeffrey's restaurant in Austin
The new-and-improved Jeffrey's opened in late April. Photo by Casey Dunn