Do a quick web search of “New Mexico cheese shops” and you’ll be lucky to find anything more interesting than a Hickory Farms outlet in Albuquerque. True, venues like Kaune’s Neighborhood Market, La Montañita Co-op and the Santa Fe Farmers Market offer a decent variety of cheeses in town, but they certainly don’t specialize in them.
John Gutierrez, however, does. Co-owner and proprietor of Cheesemongers of Santa Fe (130 E Marcy St., 405-642-8782), which is set to open in September in a former downtown office building just a cheddar wedge’s throw from the SFR mother ship, Gutierrez is Le Grand Fromage of fromage—a Dairy King and a passionate one. A Germany-born military brat with close family ties to Taos and Northern New Mexico, Gutierrez takes cheese so seriously that we had to reschedule an interview while he attended the American Cheese Society Conference in Sacramento, Calif., a few weeks ago.
“I studied music and international-trade law in Oklahoma, but I left college about six months before securing a degree,” Gutierrez says. “It was the cheese that got me.” (He also spent time performing search-and-rescue operations with an Oklahoma chapter of the Civil Air Patrol.) A veteran of venerable cheese shops/creameries such as San Francisco’s Say Cheese and the Cowgirl Creamery, Gutierrez also worked with Norman, Okla., cheese mavens Forward Foods, who are his partners in the new Santa Fe outlet.
“The farmstead-cheesemaking community is a tight-knit group of people,” Gutierrez says, “and a real distinction has to be made between them and large industrial producers. When you drive by large cheese factories, even in this state, you may see a large pipe coming out of the building. That pipe dumps tons of industrial byproducts and who knows what else into the surrounding land and water. We do not, and will not, do business with those entities.”
Major construction began in May on the interior of the Cheesemongers of Santa Fe shop, which boasts about 1,000-square-feet of gorgeous wood-floored display and counter space, a scullery (a small wash area), storage units for keeping cheeses at their proper temperatures and offices. A few of the cheese cases, which, Gutierrez notes with more than a hint of nostalgia, are the original cheese cases from Forward Foods in Oklahoma, will hold between 100 and 150 different varieties of cut-to-order cheese. Up to 50 more selections will be available around the holidays. “We’re aiming for a 50-50 split between domestic and international cheeses,” Gutierrez says, “and we’ll carry some New Mexico cheeses too, like selections from the Old Windmill Dairy in Estancia.”
Gutierrez also plans to carry goats milk cheese produced by kids from Camino de Paz School & Farm in Santa Cruz, located about 20 miles north of Santa Fe. “It’s amazing to see those kids out there on the farm, working the plow horses and learning about the importance of the land,” he says. “There are a lot of kids out there that don’t even know where cheese comes from, and these boys and girls are making and selling it!”
Fromage may be the center of gravity at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, but other culinary treasures will be available. Gutierrez figures he’s managing about 50 different food accounts that will bring in an array of charcuterie including prosciutto di Parma, jamón Ibérico and salumi; local honeys and jams; fair-trade “bean-to-bark” and local chocolates; local breads from Don Diego Bakery, Sage Bakehouse and Wild Leaven Bakery; antipasti; a carefully curated selection of vinegars and oils; local and international mustards; and pickled and fermented goodies from Santa Fe’s own Barrio Brinery.
"The farmstead-cheesemaking community is a tight-knit group of people... a real distinction has to be made between them and large industrial producers."
“The cheese shop is meant to complement and support other local businesses,” Gutierrez stresses. “The folks at The Beestro right down the street have been incredibly supportive. It’s all about furthering those community relationships in the name of quality, selection and service.” Although that last statement may sound canned, Gutierrez means every word. He and a well-informed staff of four will be available to discuss the cheeses and their sensual intricacies, as well as the passionate people who produce them.
Gutierrez has been working closely with the nearby La Casa Sena wine shop to develop pairings for his offerings, and is already working on a roster of wine/cheese, beer/cheese and liquor/cheese pairing classes that will include the participation of local chefs, distributors and cooking schools. “Hopefully, by next year, we’ll have some sort of pouring license for alcohol,” he says, “but the goal for now is to open up shop and build a customer base.”
That shouldn’t be too hard, considering that Cheesemongers’ plans to offer a daily grilled cheese sandwich, cheese plates and a few other takeaway prepared foods. “We’re not even open yet, and I already have a backlog of catering gigs to sort out,” Gutierrez says. And because he doesn’t have enough to do before opening, Gutierrez is also putting the final touches on his BizMix business plan in the hopes of securing a grant for the business. The winners will be announced Aug. 21.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11 am-7 pm
Opening: Early-to-mid Sept. 2014