When it comes to food, I can pretty much count my weaknesses on one hand. There’s pain au chocolat. As a fan of the croissant already, the gooey chocolate puts me over the edge, and yes, it brings me back to being fed by a handsome Parisian while in my suite at the Sofitel Le Faubourg a few years ago. Then there’s the warm freshly baked apple pie; I’m always a sucker for a fat slice of that. And I’m never in a movie theater seat without popcorn, even if I just indulged in a 5 course meal pre-film. That might even fall into the addicted category. But none of the afore mentioned even come close to the the mac daddy of them all: CHEESE.
Cheese. The milk of cow, of goat, of sheep. Stinky, hard, soft, white, yellow, cream, crumbled, shredded, sliced, wheeled, wedged, cubed, melted. I think of cheese. I dream of cheese. I cannot keep cheese in my refrigerator for more than a day. When at at cocktail party, I beeline directly to the cheese platter and stockpile like a mouse on steroids. I cannot. Get. Enough. Of. Cheese. I seem to not be alone in this love affair. When hypothetically asking my girlfriends, “If you were on island, what would you HAVE to have?” It’s usually “Cheese and wine” among a few other items, but cheese is always up there. It’s not just women who dig the cheese. My friend Philippe went on a blind date years and years ago and when reporting back to me, he said incredulously, “She told me she didn’t like cheese. I mean, WHO doesn’t like cheese?” He and I were dumbfounded. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last long.
Ah, before I get carried away with my homage to fromage, let us share with you how our obsession is actually a profession. Lisa Hviding is the Park Hyatt Washington‘s official Cheese Specialist. That means she gets to be surrounded by and be an expert of cheese, glorious cheese every day and night. When I met with Lisa, she struck me with her quiet, soft spoken demeanor, her confident presentation skills and her authentic passion for her food and her chosen career.
It was a busy weekday evening and Lisa had plenty to keep her occupied as she sliced up cheese, answered patrons’ questions and made recommendations at her station which stands out in the hotel’s Lounge adjacent to the Tea Cellar. She made time to put together a varietal presentation for Renee and me. She told us her interest for food really began when attending the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival over eight years ago. She listened to the legendary Alice Waters, a chef and culinary leader in sourcing sustainable ingredients, promote the slow food movement and talk about the Edible School Yard for kids.
While this inspired her to start her education, Lisa told us that her real curiosity began even as a young girl, when she lived for the taste of port wine cheese spread on a bread stick. ”My grandmother’s mother was a dairy maid, so perhaps this is something carried down the generations!” she laughed. She spent time in California for her education and and in San Francisco, she became aware of this slow food movement. “It’s about food integrity and where it is sourced,” Lisa said.
In 2006, Lisa attended culinary school at the National Gourmet in New York City, where she was drawn to its emphasis on slow food and commitment to healthy eating and cooking. She focused on nutrition and training and her eyes were opened to the world of “raw”, even using raw milk when preparing cheeses. “I’m a supporter of the raw movement,” she said. I looked her up and down. She is tall and very slim. ”How in the world do you stay so thin?” She laughed and said, “Genetics, I have my dad to thank for this!”
Part of what fuels her fire for cheese is that it is a fun niche. ”The American cheese movement is on fire now. There’s more recognition for our profession and the industry with the American Cheese Society and certification programs and credentials one must obtain.” I asked her what her favorite cheeses are, “I have a soft spot for Cowgirl Creamery, love Red Hawk and the decadence of the triple cream luxury.”
Before Lisa landed at her current post in March of 2012, she interned in DC at the former Asia Nora restaurant before being hired full-time at Poste Brasserie as Garde Manger. With an emphasis on learning more about cheese, Lisa left Poste in 2009 and went to work as a prep cook at Cowgirl Creamery (hence the soft spot) in Penn Quarter where she was responsible for preparing salads and sandwiches using their artisanal cheeses. Then in 2011, Lisa was recruited to work at Red, White and Blue, a locally owned wine shop in Falls Church, VA. Here, she was able to continue working with cheese and charcuterie, but also expand her knowledge on wine. Now she gets to overseeing the cheese & charcuterie program at the Lounge and Blue Duck Tavern and converse directly with patrons who share her passion.
“We rotate the selection seasonally, with the holidays, we make it festive, and we even had the presidential vote back before election day. We want to make it fun and interesting for the guests.” The jellies and marmalades are made in house, which you find presented on the cheese board and those too, are changed out.
That night, we tasted Barick Obama (Vermont – Pasteurized Cow’s Milk -Lazy Lady Farm’s playful politically punned washed rind cheese) and Rush Creek Reserve (Wisconsin – Raw Cow’s Milk -Soft and creamy washed-rind cheese wrapped in spruce) and the Red Hawk (California – Pasteurized Cow’s Milk - A robust triple cream, washed rind cheese). Served along with them was the housemade Vidalia Onion Marmalade, Pinot Noir Jelly and Nuts & Apples Marmalade.
Next time you are in the Lounge, make sure you say hello to the tall blonde woman by the marble display and ask her all about cheese … and tell her the Punch sent you.
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a platform for profiling people who "make it happen" in the Capital region, reviews & topical blog posts. She launched Punch Enterprises, a connector consulting business in 2015 and Pacific Punch based in LA, in 2012. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, VA. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.