Dillons cheese steward embarks on journey to earn national certification

“Everyone has a friend who has that thing,” says Sara Knickerbocker.

Many of us, the bubbly blonde explains, have a pal who knows everything there is to know about cars, or baseball or 18th century British literature.

To her friends, family and customers, Knickerbocker's thing is clear: She's the “cheese person.” And she’s totally cool with that.

Knickerbocker, 24, is the resident “cheese steward” at the Dillons grocery store at 1740 Massachusetts St. She can recognize Norwegian cheeses from a mile away (they’re usually rind-less) and, on a recent Monday morning at the so-called “Dapper Dillons,” she excitedly rattled off the origins of the semi-soft Port Salut cheese, which she says was originally developed by French monks in the 19th century.

Sara Knickerbocker, cheese steward at Dillons grocery store, 1740 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Knickerbocker has hopes of earning her certified cheese professional status, a rare accreditation.

Sara Knickerbocker, cheese steward at Dillons grocery store, 1740 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Knickerbocker has hopes of earning her certified cheese professional status, a rare accreditation. by Nick Krug

“Someone comes in and they say, ‘I had this cheese this one time three years ago and it looked like this.’ You tell me what the sticker looked like, the color of the cheese and the rind, and I could probably tell you what it is,” says Knickerbocker, who at 21 became Dillons’ youngest-ever cheese steward. “That is why I love selling cheese. There’s honestly nothing I would rather do.”

Her knowledge may seem endless, but Knickerbocker says she still has a lot to learn — about “40 percent,” by her estimate. And she’s determined to get there.

In late July, Knickerbocker — along with 1,000 of her fellow cheese “professionals, purchasers and influencers” from throughout the United States, Canada and Europe — traveled to Providence, R.I. to attend the American Cheese Society’s annual conference and competition.

The event, lovingly called “Cheese Camp” by its hosts and attendees, is also the site of the Certified Cheese Professional Exam. Hailed as the only test of its kind, the rigorous exam designates those who pass as ASC Certified Cheese Professionals.

It’s something Knickerbocker wanted for herself, and for a good six months after getting her application approved by the ASC, she spent the bulk of her time outside of work reviewing flashcards, reading ASC-recommended cheese literature and attending weekly conference calls with ASC Certified Cheese Professionals.

For Knickerbocker, whose parents instilled in her the value of hard work and craftsmanship growing up, the decision was a no-brainer. Why not strive to be the best cheese-monger possible? Anything less, she says, would be a disservice to her customers.

“I’m not going to see a lawyer who doesn’t have a law degree. I’m not going to see a doctor who doesn’t have a medical degree,” Knickerbocker explains. “Why would you want to listen to a cheese expert if they don’t have a national certification that proves they are?”

Funnily enough, the ASC exam actually uses the same software as the bar exam. And it’s just as serious, Knickerbocker says — three hours and 150 questions on everything from cheese-making to distribution and transportation of cheese to federal regulations on cheese.

Knickerbocker, it turns out, didn’t pass. That’s common, she says — the test has an overall pass rate of 30 percent; even lower for first-timers like her — but she’s not shying away from taking the test again.

She’ll reapply and hopefully go through the same process all over again next year in Des Moines, Iowa, the site of 2016’s Cheese Camp. If she passes, she’ll be only the second person in Kansas to do so.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Knickerbocker says. “I have a better understanding of how to teach customers now. I can give them more information, and that’s what I wanted.”

At this point, she’s tapped into a “good 60 percent” of the cheese-knowledge bank. She’d like to know everything, but she’s happy with that number.

For now.

Sara Knickerbocker's Open-Faced Grilled Cheese (adapted from the Gimme Some Oven blog)

Ingredients:

  • Sourdough bread, sliced
  • 1 (10-ounce) jar of sun-dried tomato pesto
  • 1/4 pound of smoked ham (preferred Virginia-smoked)
  • 1/4 sharp provolone, deli-sliced

Directions:

  1. Turn on broiler; line baking pan with parchment paper
  2. Remove slices of bread needed for serving amount. Spread pesto onto bread, fold ham onto bread, and layer with cheese on top.
  3. Put into oven and broil until desired crispness.
  4. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Cut into desired portions and enjoy!

Sara Knickerbocker's Gnocchi Mac N' Cheese

Ingredients:

  • 3 (12-ounce gluten-free) or 2 (1-pound) pre-packaged gnocchi
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup stock (vegetable/chicken)
  • 2 tablespoons of butter/olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup milk, warmed
  • 1 cup Fontina, freshly shredded
  • 1 cup Sartori Black Pepper Bellavitano, freshly shredded
  • 1/2 cup Roth Cellar's Reserve, freshly shredded
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Optional additions: 8 ounces of Humboldt Fog/Purple Haze or 8 ounces of Pt. Reyes Original Blue

Directions:

  1. Cook the gnocchi in large stockpot of boiling water to package directions.
  2. While waiting for water to boil, shred the cheeses together. Set aside. Whisk together cornstarch and stock until cornstarch is dissolved. Set aside.
  3. Heat butter/oil in separate saucepan, add garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes over medium heat until aromatic. Stir in cornstarch mixture, whisk until combined. Continue cooking, add milk, whisking constantly until mixture low boil. Remove from heat, stir in cheeses until melted and smooth.
  4. Season with salt/pepper to taste.
  5. Combine gnocchi and cheese sauce in stockpot, stir together until gnocchi is coated. Serve Immediately!

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.