Much has changed since Chester Hastings, 43, grew up eating Parmesan cheese sprinkled from a green cardboard can. For starters, he has gone on to become a chef, cheesemonger, and author of two cookbooks, the latest of which, “The Cheesemonger’s Seasons,” pairs seasonal fruits and vegetables with cheese. The landscape of American cheesemaking has changed as well. He has seen this firsthand at the specialty food retailer Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles, where he began selling cheese nearly 16 years ago, most from Europe. Today, he includes many high-quality American cheeses among the shop’s 100 or so offerings.
But unlike Europe, where artisanal cheese has long been part of the everyday table, Americans can find cheese, like wine, somewhat esoteric. “I was amazed at how intimidated everybody was,” Hastings says of the early days at the family-run store. “It’s much like art or music; if you don’t know everything about this, then you might as well not know anything.” The cheesemonger believes that stories are the way to get people to understand cheese as an agricultural product and also help them enjoy it. “A lot of people think they’re supposed to like a certain cheese because it’s important or expensive,” Hastings says. “I try to get them to discover what they like.”
Q. What should people do to step out of their comfort zones and overcome the cheese-intimidation factor?
A. It’s about getting out there and asking for a taste and asking more questions. If you know you like goat cheeses, then that’s the jumping off place. If you know you like Parmigiano, well Parmigiano is part of a whole family of grating cheeses. Once that starts, I think you find yourself tasting things you’d never thought you would taste. The more people ask, the more it will change the landscape of how people sell cheese too.
Q. What are the biggest misconceptions and mistakes when it comes to cooking with cheese?
A. One is that somehow expensive cheeses shouldn’t be wasted on recipes. There’s this agreement that people shouldn’t spend $30 a pound on something like artisanally made Parmigiano-Reggiano when you can get cheeses not only from Italy but domestically for much less. The other is that they cook the hell out of it. Many of the recipes in this book are about combining flavors and gently bringing them just beyond room temperature to the melting point, where the perfumes can be appreciated.
Q. Talk about cooking with cheese and vegetables.
A. There were so many possibilities. When you go to Italy or southern France or even rural England, you’ll find the most amazing, simply prepared vegetables augmented by a little smoky pancetta or cheese. It certainly is something that’s on peoples minds — how to eat more vegetables, how to eat more fruit. Delicious, wonderful cheeses can certainly be a way to encourage that.
Q. Are cheeses, like vegetables and fruit, seasonal?
A. This is a world where we get strawberries in January. Even if they taste like nothing, we still have them. A lot of cheeses are made year-round and are wonderful. But there are some cheeses that are not. Especially in the springtime all these really, really fresh goat’s milk cheeses are being made. As it turns out these cheeses often have the same combinations of flavor or pair beautifully with many of the fruits and vegetables that are in season in the same moment. In that regard, nature is already in the business of food pairing.
Q. Do you have a recommendation to help New Englanders shake off our long, miserable winter?
A. It’s springtime and artichokes and fava beans and other wonderful things are starting to pop up. There’s nothing like a big chunk of not-too-aged pecorino with some raw fava beans and an orange cut up. It’s a flavor combination that I had in the artichoke fields in Sicily many years ago. It still just sings of spring. It’s fantastic.
Q. What do you eat on a busman’s holiday?
A. As a matter of fact, yesterday was my birthday. I went out for a fantastic meal with my family. I’m thinking it’s my birthday and I’m going to have some cake. Then I saw they had some amazing Castelmagno, which is a very rare cheese from Piedmonte in northern Italy. Really just chalky, wonderful, delicious. I literally sat there and finished the little bit of wine left in the glass with that Castelmagno cheese and I was in heaven. It was better than any slice of cake.