WASHINGTON — In the last five years, D.C. has lost several specialty cheese shops, including Cowgirl Creamery, Sona Creamery and Righteous Cheese. Now, a local cheesemonger is betting area residents are ready to spend their hard-earned dough to buck that trend.
This winter, Alice Bergen Phillips will bring her Alexandria-based cheese business, Cheesemonster, to D.C.’s Brightwood neighborhood with a brick-and-mortar “cheese studio.” Unlike traditional shops, Phillips won’t stock the cases with hundreds of soft and hard varieties. Instead, her plan is to have “a much more curated experience.”
For starters, the Kennedy Street storefront will serve as headquarters for Phillips’ catering business. (She constructs elaborate and artistic cheese boards for private events and functions.) Customers will also be able to order and pickup smaller boards for more casual gatherings, plus peruse monthly cheese collections.
Once the liquor license is secured, Cheesemonster Studio will host beer- and wine-pairings, led by Hilarey Leonard, co-owner of Lost & Found and Free State. Visitors will also have the opportunity to build Instagram-worthy boards in classes taught by Phillips.
“It’s not going to be a shop where you walk in and there are a million different options. It’s more going to be a space for us to kind of put together a curated cheese and beer/wine experience for our customers,” said Phillips, who started Cheesemonster in 2016.
Like many in D.C.’s culinary community, Phillips’ foray into food wasn’t planned. She moved to D.C. as a political science major and landed a nine-to-five at a global health nonprofit. To make ends meet, she picked up a few shifts at a local coffee shop, and over time, grew to like her side job more than her day job.
When her husband moved the couple to California for an assignment in the Marine Corps, Phillips didn’t bother looking for office work. Instead, she found employment at a specialty foods store, where she quickly became the resident cheese whiz and served as the shop’s cheesemonger.
“I had this sort of lightbulb-over-the-head moment — like, ‘Oh, food can be a legitimate career. It doesn’t have to be a side job,’” Phillips said.
Eventually, the two moved back to D.C., and Phillips stayed in food, working behind the cheese counter at Via Umbria before leaving to start her own business.
Phillips understands the challenges that come with opening a storefront specific to one product in an era of online shopping, but hopes the variety of catering options and classes at Cheesemonster Studio will keep the business healthy.
Plus, with D.C.’s newly acquired reputation as a food town, one could say now is as Gouda time as ever.
“It’s a really sophisticated city; it’s a city where a lot of people have traveled, a lot of people are very into food,” Phillips said.
“It seems like a city that’s ripe for a cheese shop.”
Just in time for fall gatherings and holiday get-togethers, cheesemonger Alice Bergen Philips is sharing some of her best tips for putting together your own cheese board:
‘Variety is the name of the game’
Since cheese platters are typically made for a group of people, all of whom have varying tastes, Phillips said variety is key. She looks for cheeses that vary in texture (soft and creamy, hard and grainy), milk (cow, sheep, goat, etc.) and region (there are great U.S. and international options).
It’s not just about the cheese
If your board includes charcuterie, select at least two different types of meats — maybe one spicy and one mild. Then, fill out the rest of your board with a variety of snacks. Phillips likes to include something fresh (fruits or vegetables), something dried (figs and apricots are a nice touch), something crunchy (nuts or crackers) and something cured (pickles or olives).
If a few people in your party are gluten free, slice radishes and cucumbers to replace crackers.
Get creative with presentation
While all the domes, slabs and knives featured in home stores look professional, Phillips said you don’t need any of them to build a top-notch cheese board. Get creative with what you already have, and don’t be afraid to mix shapes and colors. Phillips often uses cake stands to give the food some height and opts for Mason jars to hold snacks such as pickled green beans.