What’s next for the man whose cheese career began at Charlottesville’s Whole Foods? The Big Cheese is moving to The Big Apple. (Mmm, cheese and apple.) There, Chouaf will join the sales team of importer Columbia Cheese, both selling cheese and helping to develop a monger education series called The Barnyard.
“I really just want to thank everyone for having had the opportunity to share my love of cheese over the past four years with Charlottesville,” says Chouaf. “I have always wanted to focus on selling my favorite cheeses and with Columbia I get that opportunity. I will miss Charlottesville, but couldn’t pass up an opportunity at this time in my life.”
But, Chouaf’s greatest value was providing us access to a world class cheesemonger whenever we wanted it. My favorite time to drop in on Chouaf was weekdays after work. “I need just one cheese to have for dinner tonight,” I’d tell him. Add a baguette and – voila! – a world class dinner every time.
Chouaf’s pairing expertise was also invaluable. While wine and beer are the most common accompaniments, one of my favorite Flora memories is when Chouaf suggested something even better. The cheese was Wrangeback, a hard, washed-rind cheese from Sweden, dating back to the 1800s. What should I drink with it? Bourbon, Chouaf said. You got it!
And so, while Charlottesville wishes Chouaf well in the big city, let’s hope he comes back one day. World class cheesemongers who recommend bourbon with your cheese don’t grow on trees.
Looking back at 2016, what stands out as the best thing you ate all year? Top area chefs provide their answer. (Here are last year’s picks.) A tribute to Charlottesville’s bounty:
Mitchell Beerens (Lampo)
Agedashi Tofu at Now & Zen. “The silken tofu is made crispy by dusting it in potato starch and frying it. Then, it’s set in a spa of tentsuyu broth made smoky from the katsuobushi and a little sweet from mirin. Perfect balance of big flavors.”
Craig Hartman (BBQ Exchange)
Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana at Parallel 38. “When restaurants around the world jumped to support the town of Amatrice in Italy after it was devastated by an earthquake, we were fortunate enough to experience a version of Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana at Parallel 38. Their version was almost exactly the same as what we experienced in Italy. It was also so delicious that we went back the next night to have it again.”
Brian Jones (The Alley Light)
Brebirousse from Flora Artisanal Cheese in Timbercreek Market with Seeded Roll from Albemarle Baking Company. “The seeded roll is a beautiful roll, made from baguette dough, crusted in fennel seeds, poppy seeds and white sesame seeds. What a yummy combination of flavors. Brebirousse is a soft, smooth, creamy, buttery sheep’s milk cheese from the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Not to take anything away from these two ingredients, but food memories often have more to do with the eater’s condition at the time of the meal than the actual meal itself. Food always tastes better when you are hungry! I have eaten at some amazing restaurants in my life but I the best meal I ever had in my life was on a backpacking trip when our rations were low and our calorie output far exceeded our calorie intake. We savored every last morsel, scraped our cooking vessel clean, so clean that there was nothing left to wash. Possibly food is at its best when the aromas or tastes remind you of a forgotten memory lost somewhere in the back of your mind. Think Ratatouille the movie when the food critic Anton Ego bites into Chef Remy’s ratatouille.”
Christian Kelly (Maya)
Duck Liver Terrine at The Ivy Inn. “This pâté en terrine is a slice of art. The perfect suspension of fat in meat wrapped in what appeared to be paper-thin cured duck breast slices and served with traditional pommery mustard and pickled vegetables. Angelo’s food is truly inspiring. The work of his kitchen is a delight to the taste buds. Well done.”
Tommy Lasley (Fry’s Spring Station, Ivy Provisions)
Live Scallop with Uni Broth at Mican (now closed). “The best thing I ate this past year was way too much amazing sashimi at Mican Japanese Restaurant, which unfortunately is no longer open! Everything I had was the best example I have tried in years, Charlottesville or otherwise. If I had to pick one bite it was the live scallop with uni broth.” [Note: Mican’s owners are now serving sushi at Lemongrass.]
Thomas Leroy (Kardinal Hall)
Pork Belly at BBQ Exchange. “I went there and ordered the meat combo plate of course. The ribs were outstanding, but that pork belly with a fried crispy finish to balance the smoking flavor was amazing. I topped it with their bacon bbq sauce of course. Next time I go, that’s all I’m ordering.”
Olive Oil Gelato from Splendora’s. “I don’t know if PK’s running it regularly, but it was truly fantastic. She used our Mosto olive oil from Liguria and we topped it with sea salt and a drizzle of the Galardo olive oil that Hodges and Jill Myers are importing. It was the perfect combination!”
Jenny Peterson (Paradox Pastry)
Roasted Chicken and Street Corn Off the Cob at The Fitzroy. “Holy moly! Food tends to be an ‘in the moment’ experience for me, and that chicken and corn just hit the spot at the right time, and it was so comfy and cozy in there.”
Ian Redshaw (Lampo)
Sunchokes from Wayside Produce. “Any vegetable from Wayside Produce, especially the sunchokes. These are the best vegetables I have been able to find thus far in my career.”
Ivan Rekosh (ZoCaLo)
Flank and Brisket Pho at Thai Cuisine & Noodle House. “This time of year I’m loving the pho from Thai Cuisine. I usually opt for the flank and brisket but sometimes add the tendon. The broth is amazing. I love to stick my whole face in the bowl and breathe in the steam while I’m slurping the noodles. Really warms you up from the inside out on these cold days. Also a great family runs it.”
Wilson Richey (co-owner, The Alley Light, The Bebedero, The Pie Chest, Revolutionary Soup, The Whiskey Jar)
Chicken Liver Mousse Tart at Timbercreek Market. “Just redefined what can be done with chicken liver, so smooth and elegant. I would eat the whole tart if it were not frowned upon to do things like that.”
John Shanesy (Petit Pois)
Black Bean and Corn Relleno at ZoCaLo. “It hits on every texture, and all the flavors are very well pronounced but at the same time all working in unison to be a joy to eat. They’ve been great new neighbors to get to meet and have greeted me so warmly as well.”
Andrew Silver (ZoCaLo)
Polpettine Panuozzo at Lampo. “Meatball parm sub was my go-to late night, altered state, munchie meal. Lampo’s is the refined, grown up version. Plus the fact that the bread is baked ‘a la minute’ seals the deal.”
Angelo Vangelopoulos (The Ivy Inn)
Petit Kouign-aman from MarieBette. “I found this gem at the city market. Will Darsie filled my request for a mixed bag of goodies while I picked up my veggies from Susan and Wally Parks at Broadhead Mountain Farm. It’s an over the top decadent croissant dough masterpiece with apples and a metric ton of butter and sugar. My market visit is no longer complete without one of them.”
Tristan Wraight (Oakhart Social)
170 Dry Aged NY Strip at Lampo. “Ridiculously delicious. Cast iron crispy and served with a head of roasted garlic. Not even fair.”
Tucker Yoder (Timbercreek Market)
I Don’t Even Own a Gun by Twenty Paces. “I Don’t Even Own a Gun and Noah’s Arcade are some of the best cheeses I have ever tasted. Could easily rival European cheeses. Great funky cheeses. All their cheeses have been a revelation this year but the soft gooey ones are a Yoder family favorite.”
After several runner-up finishes in prior years at The Cheesemonger Invitational, Flora Artisanal Cheese’s Chouaf was starting to earn a reputation as the Susan Lucci of cheesemongering. But, yesterday he won. “You are the best cheesemonger in America,” the event’s organizer told Chouaf late last night.
Chouaf defeated top cheesemongers from around the country in a series of tests like blind taste identification, written tests, cutting, speed-wrapping, and a mock sale. But, the test that has become a favorite of cheesemongers and spectators alike is the “perfect bite,” where mongers combine cheese with other ingredients to create an ideal morsel of food. To help plan his perfect bite, Chouaf called on the talent of Ian Redshaw of Lampo, creator of Charlottesville’s 2015 Dish of the Year. Together, Redshaw and Chouaf devised a bite inspired by the snack food Bugles. In this case, the bugles were made of Redshaw’s own dehydrated lamb mortadella, baked and stuffed with Kunik cheese, and topped with a pudding of garlic scapes and spruce tips, and pomegranate aril.
Charlottesville continued its streak of amazing showings at the Cheesemonger Invitational, as Sara Adduci was again a runner-up. With Adduci at Feast! and Chouaf at Timbercreek Market, two of the nation’s top three cheesemongers work less than a mile from one another right here in Charlottesville.
To excel at the competition’s rigorous tests requires a belief in oneself that can come only from years of practice and study. And, Chouaf has just that. Before he left for the Cheesemonger Invitational last week, Chouaf told me that he expected to win. Where were we? Champion, of course.