Brandon Chrostowski just might be one of the most interesting people in Cleveland. I am not the jealous type, but I am definitely envious of his career path – a trained chef, sommelier, and now a fromager at L’Albatros. If you like cheese (or at least want a very good meal), head to L’Albatros to meet Brandon and the most impressive cheese board in the city.
1. Tell us a little about your background. Well, classic story. I started in the kitchen, and then made the switch to the dining room years back. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with my Bachelor’s degree, apprenticed under Charlie Trotter in Chicago, who helped me make my way over to France. Once there I worked at two great establishments: Jean Bardet in Tours and Lucas Carton in Paris. Once I arrived back in the states I worked in NYC at Picholine, Le Cirque and Chanterelle. Chanterelle made the greatest impression on me. Owners, Karen and David Waltuck, have really given me wisdom and many tools for success. Now I’m here in Cleveland.
I don’t consider myself a cheese expert; I’m always learning. My title would be fromager. My passion for cheese is like my passion for life – it’s exciting. Working at great restaurants, cheese and wine has always been the centerpiece. I became a certified sommelier a few years back and have since refined my skills and knowledge to pair the best of both worlds. I have been very fortunate to work under the right people. There’s an expression that “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Although I am far from perfect, I have had much perfect practice.
2. What is your role and responsibility at the restaurant? I’m not much for titles but since you asked, I am the Assistant General Manager and my responsibility is to make sure the restaurant runs smoothly. I am also the fromager which would be extremely difficult to do not having the right staff. Fortunately, we have the right staff. I have a strong team to fall back on at the restaurant, beginning with Zack Bruell and Rob Rasmussen.
3. On average, how many daily cheeses are offered? Around 15. When I get really excited sometimes over 20.
4. How often will the cheese selection change? Where do most of the cheeses come from? It changes biweekly. It’s tough to say. From all around the world, but mainly France and the United States.
5. What is the best cheese and wine pairing? Fourme d’Ambert with Vin Jaune L’Etoile.
6. For someone hosting a party, what should their cheese tray look like? There are so many ways. I like to have about 5 or 6 cheeses: 1) a goat’s milk, preferably a young, soft. 2) a double or triple crème cow’s milk 3) hard cow or sheep’s milk 4) a washed rind cheese 5) a blue 6) and lastly, something unusual that doesn’t conform. For me, Sottocenere would be a great example.
7. Where are the best places locally to buy cheese? And online? Locally, head to Paul Minnillo from The Baricelli Inn, or Dion from Chef 2 Chef at The West Side Market. If you choose to order online, be wary. You don’t touch, smell or taste the cheese online. You’re at the mercy of reading bits of information and the reputation of seller from the Internet. If you find a cheese monger who knows your palate and whom you can trust, then it’s a different type of relationship. For consistency, go to Murrays Cheese, Artisanal or Formaggio Kitchen online.
8. You tell a story with each cheese you offer. What’s your favorite story? Stichelton is probably my favorite story. It’s a “rebellious cheese.” In the late 1980’s a couple of guys decided to make a raw milk form of stilton cheese. As you know, stilton must be pasteurized. To get around this rule, they found the traditional recipe for stilton and renamed it for the village that later became known as Stilton, Stichelton. The cows graze on the northern part of the Sherwood Forest. This cheese is fantastic. It’s well-balanced, tangy, and creamy. Hey, maybe even Robin Hood himself would have eaten this cheese.
9. What is your favorite and least favorite cheese? Favorite cheese is hard to say but I love a good Monte Enebro, Rafael Baez makes the best. Least favorite is any goat cheese that’s out of season; I’m not a fan of “bucky” flavors.
10. What’s your favorite item on the menu? The cassoulet.
11. What’s your impression of our city so far? So far so good. It’s been a lot of work and little play, thus far.
12. Aside from where you currently work, what restaurant has really impressed you thus far and why? Where are you dying to get to? To be honest, I really haven’t had a chance to go out and eat. Aside from a slice of lasagna at Trattoria, I can’t comment much about the food scene. However, from those whom I’ve talked to at work, the Flying Fig is at the top of our list.
13. What cheese can always be found in your fridge? My wife is a fan of triple crèmes so there’s always a St. Andre, Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur or Pierre Robert.
14. What point in the meal is best to eat cheese? Why? After the main course. There’s something sensual about being full, then eating more. It’s like having a great meal then making love.
15. What local cheese has really impressed you? When we moved here in the fall I tried Lake Erie Creamery’s Blomma goat cheese. It tasted a bit out of season then, but in the spring time it will definitely be on the cheese board.
16. How do you select which cheeses to offer? I have a standard spread of cheeses 12- 14. For example, a hard goat’s, a soft sheep, a washed rind cow’s. You can fill these in with any cheeses. There are hundreds of styles of these cheeses and I only get what’s ripe.
17. Will L’Albatros offer any cheese tastings? Yes, in the near future.
18. What is the best way to store cheese? NEVER WRAP DIRECTLY WITH PLASTIC WRAP. To get technical, each cheese has its own range of temperature and humidity; usually between 50 to 58 degrees, with 80 to 90% humidity. With the exception of blues: 42 to 46 degrees and 90% humidity. Cheeses should also never be wrapped in plastic wrap. It suffocates them; remember, they are alive. So for someone at home (average refrigerator temperature at 39 degrees with 32% humidity), for example, the best way to handle cheese is to store it in a cool, damp part of your basement or house. Or in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator wrapped first in a light wax paper, then wrapped in plastic wrap. At the restaurant I use cheese paper. Don’t forget, cheeses like it to be fairly dark.
19. Best plate of food you have ever had? When I worked in Tours, at Jean Bardet, I had a roasted pigeon (squab) with sweet potatoes cooked in a caramel with a touch of raspberry vinegar and, of all things, bananas.
20. Are there any current trends in cheese? Yes. Trends that I’ve noticed while purchasing cheese is the increase in quality of small, artisan cheese producers. People such as Andy and Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm have built a cheese cave allowing these small Vermont farmers to age their cheese properly, but most importantly get paid sooner than later. A trend here and abroad is artisan cheese in grocery stores. These artisan cheese shops are venturing out to grocery stores to get their cheese more accessible to the masses. People are going to large grocery stores to buy their cheese as opposed to going to the local cheese makers. This has all been possible by the overall awareness of artisan cheese being increased by those before us.
21. How can one really hone their palate and learn more about the various types of cheese and go beyond the basics? Find an affineur or fromager that you trust. Taste with them. Get to know them, but more importantly let them get to know you and where your palate’s at, then fall in love…with cheese. Read about the long history of some of these cheeses, but more importantly understand the life of these animals. That’s what makes cheese beautiful and alive.
22. Do you make any of your own cheese? If so, what kind and is it difficult? No. I have tried making cheese, but it’s difficult with the homogenized milk you buy in the store. I have had much better luck making cheese with cheese makers.
23. Which cheese makes the best grilled cheese? Practically, a simple cheddar. If I were to have my last grilled cheese sandwich on earth, it would be made with fontina between two pieces of brioche, cooked in white truffle butter…divine.
24. Do you cook? What’s your specialty? Yes. Mushroom risotto, my wife’s favorite.
Images courtesy of Kyle Roth.