She's the Big "Cheese Maestro"

Choosing the perfect cheese plate is a labor of love for Sophie Slesinger 09C.

By Michelle Valigursky

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It may be a pun, but Sophie Slesinger 09C really is “the big cheese.” For this self-taught cheesemonger, the kudos for her refined palate and cheese knowledge have been growing. As Washington D.C.’s Blue Duck Tavern’s resident cheese master, Slesinger loves her work. “I’m very lucky to have a career that inspires me.”

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At Blue Duck Tavern on M and 24th Street NW, where food artisans and local farmers are lauded for the edibles they produce, Slesinger “started almost same day as new executive chef. It feels like a really exciting time to be there,” she says. She is in charge of the restaurant’s cheese. “I decide what we’ll buy, and how it will be plated. I talk to the diners and make recommendations. We make some charcuterie in house and we source domestic charcuterie like La Quercia Prosciutto and Salumeria Biellese.”

Named last year to Zagat’s "30-Under-30: New York City's Food World Up-And-Comers," where she was dubbed the “cheese maestro,” Slesigner’s recognition in the food world continues to grow.

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The Journey to Mastering Cheese

While a student at Emory College, Slesinger majored in anthropology. She understood the importance of field work. She remembers, “I told myself if I want to work in food, I need to start at the source.”

Her Sicilian roots may be the genesis of her love of slow food, but her work helped her to embrace a culinary lifestyle. As a recent graduate, Slesinger worked on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as an apprentice for an organic farm that adhered to the community supported agriculture (CSA) model. “It was one wonderful, very intense, hot summer.”

Upon graduation in 2009, Slesinger and Emory College Professor of Pedagogy Bobbi Patterson “scraped together funding for a fellowship” with Emory’s Office of Sustainability. “Working under Julie Shaffer and Ciannat Howett was a turning point for me,” she recalls. “I asked myself, why didn’t I know about any of these great programs designed to raise student awareness? I wanted to be more involved in educating people about food.”

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With an initial goal to do urban farming, Slesinger’s journey took her north to New York City where she would work in the food world and nurture her talent for dance. “Julie put me in touch with Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods.” She got her start working in organic coffee, and met the people who would change the course of her career. In short order, Slesinger met her mentor, Anne Saxelby.

As an employee of Saxelby’s Cheesemongers, Slesinger learned great lessons from Saxelby. “The shop is known for featuring exclusively American, farmstead, and northeastern cheeses,” Slesinger says.

Branching into production of Anne’s radio show “Cutting the Curd” for Heritage Radio Network, Slesinger’s expertise in cheese was growing. She became known by many of New York’s finest chefs, which ultimately led to her nomination to Zagat’s prestigious list. “The honor was very unexpected and I was thrilled.”

Since Slesinger had been working with 100 chefs and restaurants, she wanted to refine her cooking skills and recipe development. While apprenticing at a family-owned Berkshire restaurant, Slesinger honed her cheese skills at the famed Rubiner’s Cheesemongers and Grocers.

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In the fall of 2013, Slesigner consulted with entrepreneurs opening a grilled cheese restaurant in Washington D.C. “D.C. has very big interest in quick serve restaurants, and GCDC served about 300 people for lunch in just two hours,” she says. She consulted for the group for eight months, "I’d never worked in that way before, but it was a nice exchange of teaching and learning for both of us."

Now at Blue Duck Tavern, Slesinger is happily the master of her own cheese domain.

Your Perfect Holiday Cheese Plate

EmoryWire asked Slesinger to make recommendations for the perfect holiday cheese plate. Here’s what she likes, with serving suggestions:

1. Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy, GA. I had to throw a Georgia cheese on the list! This is a beautiful camembert style. I'm stuffing them with a concoction of truffle, chestnut, and mascarpone for the holidays. I believe strictly in edible centerpieces, so this fills that role quite well.

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2. Raw Milk Harbison, Jasper Hill Farm, VT. One of the best American cheeses on the market today, period. Spruce-wrapped, spoonable, and they've made a limited run of raw milk wheels this year which are very special (the pasteurized version is also fantastic). Score the top all the way around, peel off, stick a fancy wooden spoon in it and your cheese course is taken care of.

3. Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra Aged, Uplands Farm, WI. Andy Hatch is one of the most dedicated cheesemakers we have here in the states. Pleasant Ridge is ideal for taking anywhere. Complex, delightful, transportable. You can take this on your flight home and it will be perfect upon arrival. Also great for wintery walks through snow.

4. Ewe's Blue, Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., NY. I had a moment the first time I tried this cheese. It's a real haters blue, meaning that even the best blue hater will enjoy it. Salty/Sweet/Smooth. I like to slather it on buttered bread as an ode to my mentor Anne and to just feel a little more French. Also ideal for eating by a fire with some port or brandy.  

Editor's Note: Curious about what’s new in campus dining? Explore Food EU, Emory’s New Center of Healthy Eating. As their website describes, “Emory’s new Food EU is an innovative one-stop shop for students, faculty and staff who want to eat more sustainably and nutritiously, from facilitating the creation of fabulous meals with local foods in the residence hall kitchen to growing your own vegetables.

“Launched in August 2011 during student orientation, this interactive learning center occupies part of the former Emory bookstore space on the main floor of Dobbs University Center.”

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Michelle Valigursky