Name: Alice Bergen Phillips
Position: Mobile cheesemonger
When Alice Bergen Phillips tells people what she does for a living, the most common reaction is, “That’s a job?” Her response? “I made it a job.”
The tenacious Chicago native is the founder of Cheesemonster D.C., a private, mobile cheesemonger based in Alexandria that aims to bring cheese to the people. That mission takes shape in various forms: Phillips leads classes on the history, geography and basics of pairing cheese, and she hosts a near-monthly cheese party (be still, our hearts!) at local restaurants, where guests sample and discuss a range of types. But the bread and butter — er, bread and cheese? — of her company are the beyond-elaborate cheese boards and bigger, more sprawled-out grazing tables she makes for private events.
Phillips starts with the same ingredients that amateurs would use to build a cheese board — mixed nuts, crudités, dried fruit — except she arranges them in a mesmerizing manner. Using different shapes, textures, heights and colors, she builds a swirling, undulating, edible work of fine art that you’re encouraged to touch. “I want my boards to have a cornucopia effect — if you take a few grapes it’s not going to ruin the whole thing,” says Phillips. “Nothing makes me sadder than when I come back after an event for my equipment and no one has touched [a cheese board] because they don’t want to ruin it.”
During busy seasons, Phillips estimates that she builds up to three boards a week. She’s been approached to consult with restaurants that want to develop a cheese program or need an on-site monger, but — much like the cheese — she prefers to stand alone.
“I don’t want to say the word bossy, but I’m always more comfortable being in charge of something,” Phillips says. Plus, her current role allows her to engage with customers about the products, which she enjoys as a self-proclaimed cheese nerd. Oftentimes when she provides a board for a party, Phillips will stick around to answer any questions and lead guests on a dairy-filled journey.
How she got the job
Phillips graduated with a degree in political science and got an internship at a national security think tank in D.C. Though she found the work important and fulfilling, she longed to be at her side job as a barista. At the coffee shop, she leaned how to taste in a more professional manner, educating herself about the origins of different beans and the best way to enhance their natural flavors. “I was more comfortable talking to customers and introducing people to new items and being a little more gregarious than I was sitting in my cubicle,” Phillips says.
When her husband’s job took her to California, she tried another unfulfilling attempt at an office job before landing a gig at a specialty food shop that sold fancy jams, coffee and cheese. The shop’s cheesemonger left shortly after Phillips came on board and she stepped up to the challenge. The chef taught her basic plating principles and instilled in her the importance of making food look good. When she and her husband moved back to D.C., she got a managerial job at Baked & Wired, which taught her how to run a business. Then, Via Umbria — an Italian restaurant in Georgetown — put out a call for a cheesemonger and Phillips got the job. It required her to cater private events, where her gorgeous cheese boards blew people away. Word of mouth spread like hot brie on a cracker and requests for private jobs started rolling in. In March of last year, she left Via Umbria to form Cheesemonster D.C.
Who would want this job
Obviously, the lactose intolerant need not apply. Those with a strong interest in food and a curiosity for where it came from will thrive in this line of work. Phillips spends a great deal of time getting to know her cheese suppliers and researching her products so she’s prepared to answer any questions.
“One of the reason my business works is because it’s not just a beautiful display. I can provide them with answers if they have questions [about the products],” she says. Because this type of job is front-facing, it’s important to have good customer service. “Cheese, wine and coffee are things that can take a snobbish route, and it’s my job to make it accessible,” Phillips says. “If you show up and you’re a jerk about it, no one is going to want to work with you.” The job also requires some artistic sensibility, so an interest in form and design are a plus.
How you can get the job
Starting a business like this takes retail experience — preferably in specialty food — where you can gain customer service and managerial experience. The District is home to a number of specialty food shops, including Dean & DeLuca, Glen’s Garden Market and Salt & Sundry.
If you’re interested in cheese specifically, start sampling different varieties on your own and developing a palate. Phillips also suggests joining the Mid Atlantic Cheese Coalition, which is made up of professionals and chefs who meet quarterly and geek out about cheese. “The cheese industry is awesome,” Phillips says.