Cheese Wiz

Raymond Hook champions the art of artisan cheese

“Hey, it’s the Cheese Guy!”

Raymond Hook looks up from behind the bar and, grinning, ambles over to hug a bespectacled woman and shake her husband’s hand. It’s the first full week of business at Woodfire Grill, the season’s most hotly anticipated restaurant. Atlanta’s inquisitive foodies have been streaming through the door all night, and Hook seems to know at least half of them.

Hook, 38, has been hired by chef/owner Michael Tuohy to establish the restaurant’s cheese service. He guides the giddy newcomers to the gleaming Euro-Cave, a high-tech, temperature-controlled cooler displaying shelves stocked with odd-shaped, cream-colored examples of what the French call “milk’s leap toward immortality” resting on handmade straw mats. The foodies lean in, oohing and ahhing. Their appetites properly whetted, the couple prepares to be escorted to their table.

“Order the grilled peach with your cheese course,” Hook calls over his shoulder before disappearing into the kitchen. “It’s great with the pecan-crusted chevre!”

If you see a cheese course on a restaurant menu in Atlanta, odds are mighty good that Hook has had a hand in it. Formerly the general manager and cheesemonger for Star Provisions, the gourmet market that shares space and ownership with Bacchanalia restaurant, Hook is now a full-time cheese consultant to local restaurants and markets. His arrival in Atlanta in 1999 coincided with a growing national interest in artisan cheese, a unique, handcrafted dairy product made in small batches. As any good foodie will tell you, cheese plates have become one of the hottest new trends at upscale restaurants and cheese tastings are fast becoming the fashionable alternative to wine tastings. There’s even an entire restaurant devoted to cheese, called Artisanal, that opened last year in New York City. It is a very good time to be a cheese expert.

Hook’s exalted place among the city’s foodies is a far cry from his initial foray into the life of a cheese purveyor. His first cheese case was a modest endeavor. In 1984, when Hook was 19 years old, his father bought him a restaurant in tiny Norman, Okla., and it came with a small deli case visible to the customers. He stocked it with green-and-white boxes of Boursin and canned goat cheese simply to keep it filled with a low-maintenance product. His focus was on the restaurant’s food, says Hook, who began working in the food industry as a line cook when he was 16. The restaurant, called Boomerang, served mostly Italian and Mexican dishes, and Hook prided himself on using only fresh ingredients to make the restaurant’s sauces.

The restaurant’s name took an ironic twist less than two years later when Hook discovered his father had bought it using funds acquired in shady real estate deals and it had to be sold.

Wanting to extricate himself from his life in Oklahoma, Hook enrolled at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and took a series of jobs cooking in enormous hotel restaurants to pay for his education. He earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management but had no clear vision of his future, so he worked odd jobs in and out of the restaurant industry for several years. He eventually landed in San Francisco at the end of a gig as a marketing consultant for cable companies.

In 1996, he answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a food sales position that led to an interview at Ulysses Foods, a gourmet and specialty foods retailer. Up until that point, cheese was never something about which he was particularly passionate.

“We interviewed 25 people for the job, and we knew he was the right one immediately,” recalls Kate Collier, whom Hook considers his mentor in the rarified field of cheese. “He was the only one who actually touched the products when he saw them. He picked the cheeses up and sniffed them — that was a good sign.”

Collier found a willing student in Hook. The two of them would spend hours in Ulysses’ large walk-in cooler, combing the shelves to find the day’s perfectly ripe specimens. “She taught me that the handcrafted cheeses — and food in general — is about more than the food itself,” Hook says. “It’s also about the social and historical significance, the stories behind it, where it comes from, who makes it and why they choose to make it that way, how much care goes into creating these products.”

Hook spent time visiting the budding Northern California cheesemakers on their farms and recounted entertaining tales of his trips to his customers. Restaurants on both coasts were beginning to respond to diners who had traveled to France and wanted to repeat the experience of an ambrosial cheese course before dessert. Raymond began selling cheese to passionate Bay Area chefs who were anxious to get their share of the pie (or wheel, as the case may be). Since artisan cheese was largely ignored in the country before the end of the millennium, knowledge was scarce and the chefs looked to Hook for education and guidance. The more he knew, the more cheese he sold.

Ulysses Foods closed suddenly when the owner became embroiled in a scandal involving a separate business venture. Hook, tired of the intense competition in the San Francisco food world, put his feelers out for a chance to be the big cheese in a smaller pasture. He was introduced to Anne Quatrano, co-owner of Atlanta’s Bacchanalia and the soon-to-be-opened Star Provisions, through a mutual friend. When Quatrano offered Hook the opportunity to manage his own cheese shop, custom-built to his specifications, he packed up and headed south.

I first encountered Hook two months before Star Provisions opened. On my way to meet him at the now-defunct Cosi in Decatur, I tried to imagine what a cheese guru would look like. I surmised two likely possibilities: a solemn, wrinkle-browed Frenchman with slicked-back hair and a thin moustache, or a sunny Robert Redford look-alike who grew up frolicking among the vineyards of Northern California.

Hook was neither. Tall and stout, with cocoa-colored skin (his mother is Native American) and wispy, jet-black hair, he shook my hand amiably and seemed rather shy. He was quiet through most of our meal. A vegetarian, he ordered a beet and goat cheese salad and frowned after the first bite. “This cheese is not right,” he said, shaking his head. “They haven’t stored it well. It tastes sour. This is why people think they don’t like goat cheese.” It was clear that what Atlanta needed was a Cheese Guy.

The next time I saw Hook was at Star Provisions cheese shop, located in the back corner of the 4,000-square-foot market. “Hello, William!” said Hook brightly. “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Cheese!” With a white apron tied around his waist and an orange Star Provisions baseball cap fit snuggly on his head, he looked like the happy friar of fromage.

The front case was overflowing with 40 different kinds of artisan cheese, each one a miniature work of art small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. There was pyramid-shaped goat cheese from the Loire Valley; round, wrinkly-skinned Camembert from Sonoma; and soft, creamy, sheep’s milk cheese from Burgundy. Next to the counter, three refrigerator-sized cases displayed larger wheels of cheese from every region of the world.

Each delicacy had a sign describing its qualities — herbaceous, gentle, smoky, challenging — and listed quirky, often unpronounceable names: Humboldt Fog, Wabash Cannonball, Afuega’l Pitu, Ticklemore, Garrotxa, Llangloffan, Idiazabal, Roaring 40s.

I watched Hook rope his customers in with charming stories. “Oh, that’s a beautiful cheese,” I heard him intone reverentially to one woman. “It’s made by a woman in Virginia who tends a herd of 18 sheep.” He took wheels from the case and cut thin slices for customers to taste: “These folks specialize in sheep, but they have one cow named Zoena, and this is cheese from her milk.” He had an infectious goofiness that dispelled any notions of snobbery. “Oh yeah, the Pierre Robert is one of my favorite triple cremes — mild and buttery. Let it sit out for an hour and then spread it on fruit and nut bread. You’ll love it. Hey, Linsey! Wrap up a P-Bob for William here ... ”

I had intended to spend $10, maybe $15 at the most, on cheese that day. I spent almost $50. And when my friends and I swayed and moaned in ecstasy that night as we sampled each cheese in the order Raymond had suggested, I was convinced it was worth it.

After several months of overspending and absorbing countless stories from the Cheese Guy, I began to wonder if perhaps Hook wasn’t just a good retailer who could bluff his way through a sales pitch. So I bought a thick book on cheese and decided to test Raymond’s knowledge. After a Saturday afternoon trip to Star Provisions, I rushed home to verify his stories about the cheeses I’d bought. Was Ardrahan really made in County Cork? Was Cindy Callahan really a lawyer who gave up her job to make cheese? Is Abbaye de Belloc really made by a recipe that is more than 3,000 years old?

Yes, yes and yes. “Damn,” I thought. “This guy really knows his stuff.”

Cheesemaking is a pretty basic process: A starter is added to pasteurized or raw milk to sour it, then rennet goes in to coagulate it, separating the curds (solid) from the whey (liquid). Then the curds are cut to expel more whey, the whey is drained and the curds are slowly heated. Then they are cut again, salted and pressed or shaped. The fundamental method varies according to the type of cheese being produced. It is an arduous, time-consuming process that seems to also require a great deal of trial-and-error, experience, a little luck and magic.

In early 2000, Hook heard about a woman in South Georgia making goat cheese by hand, and he gave her a call. At the time, Desiree Wehner was just making cheese as a hobby, trying to master the basic process. Encouraged by Hook, who was thrilled that someone in Georgia was attempting artisan cheese, she began to visit him in Atlanta, bringing samples of her cheese. Since then, Wehner and her family, whose company is Sweet Grass Dairy, have become award-winning cheesemakers producing 14 varieties of cow and goat cheese.

On the way down to Thomasville to visit the Wehners’ operation, Hook waxed enthusiastic on the future of cheesemaking in this country. “Americans, when given the correct energy, time and focus, generally do stuff better than other people,” he said. “Twenty years ago a California Cabernet created a big ol’ stir when it was rated better than a French wine. You need great grapes to make great wine. The same goes for cheese: Basically, you take great milk and try not to fuck it up.”

As we walked into the stark-white cheese plant, Wehner’s son-in-law Jeremy Little had just finished salting large, pale rounds of curd for aging into Thomasville Tomme, a semi-firm variety with a mellow buttery taste that, I’m told, makes transcendental macaroni and cheese. Little has been working with Wehner for less than a year, but he has turned out to be an almost preternaturally capable student. Hook later tells me, “When we were at the American Cheese Society Conference last month, two cheeses that Jeremy is largely responsible for making each won first-place ribbons. A veteran cheesemaker walked over to congratulate him. ‘How long have you been making cheese?’ she asked. ‘Seven months, ma’am,’ Jeremy replied. The woman looked at him blankly for a moment and then sighed, ‘I’m quitting.’”

Wehner donned a plastic cap like cafeteria ladies wear, and she and Little started a batch of their newest creation, a rich double creme called Velvet Rose. Hook peered over one of the metal pasteurization vats as it slowly filled with golden milk from the Wehners’ cow farm, which is 30 minutes away. The room suddenly smelled like freshly whipped cream. Hook stared, mesmerized for a few moments by the gushing milk, then looked up. “That’s why their cheese is so great, right there,” he said. “Look how rich that milk is.”

Wehner’s husband, Al, drove us to see the dairy farm where their cows lounged in the sun. The grazing land on the farm is designed in a circular pattern, based on a style of rotational grazing from New Zealand that Al read about in the early ’90s. The cows live outside all year long, and that day were lounging under a long irrigation device that misted them with water.

“Most cows live in cramped pens on concrete floors,” Al told us. “They’re fed growth hormones and made to milk for 15 months straight. We had a farm like that for 12 years, but after a while, it just didn’t feel right. We took a risk setting this system up — no one else in the Southeast that I know of has a similar system — but we’re doing OK.”

“If I were a cow,” said Hook, “this is where I’d like to live.”

The Wehners’ daughter, Jessica Little, recently spent a few weeks tagging along with Hook on his rounds to his regular wholesale customers, comprised largely of chefs and cheesemongers who sell and serve artisan cheeses, so she could improve her sales technique for Sweet Grass Dairy. “When we showed up at restaurants with cheese to sell, the chefs would just stop whatever they were doing to come see what Raymond was bringing them,” said Little. “Most chefs don’t stop for anything! They knew whatever he had, it would be great.”

In addition to helping restaurants and markets select the best cheese for their needs, Hook offers them advice on handling and storage. “Cheese is a living, breathing thing,” he’s fond of saying. “Don’t smother it.” Hook also teaches classes at Cook’s Warehouse (“I want people to understand that cheese is fun, you know?”) and is chairman of the advisory board for Atlanta’s Table, a project of the Atlanta Community Food Bank that delivers excess prepared food from restaurants and hotels to nonprofit hunger relief agencies.

At Woodfire Grill, Hook focuses on training staff before dinner service starts and preparing cheese courses for guests. “First time I met him at Star Provisions, we talked about cheese for over an hour before I even introduced myself,” remembers Chef Michael Tuohy. “The guy is an incredible resource, even beyond cheese. He helped me select olive oil for the restaurant and even knew the number for a courier who would pick up my shipment of Petaluma chickens from the airport!”

At a neighboring table, I can hear Hook enlightening the guests on the origins of the night’s selections: “This one is called Berkshire Blue. It’s made by a retired newspaper publisher in his 60s.” Hook never runs out of stories, it seems. He rushes past me on the way to the kitchen.

“We’ve got 23 orders for cheese plates on deck,” he beams. “That’s a new record, brother!”