Alisha Norris Jones

The cheesemonger

“Cheese is a picture of cooking and science that has evolved over hundreds of years,” says the Boston native who moved to Chicago in 2010 to study religion and anthropology at DePaul. “It’s a picture of culture.”

Over the years she made rent grinding in some eight restaurants, along with a half-decade stint behind the cheese counter at Whole Foods, before building and managing the cheese program at Marz Brewing until the pandemic struck. @_immortalmilk is the Instagram handle she adopted when she launched her freelance cheese board business, distinguished by arrangements that are playful, intuitive, and “a little Goth.” She briefly retired Immortal Milk this summer when she took a job as the sales manager for Port Washington, Wisconsin-based Blakesville Creamery.

Interview by Mike Sula

Photos by Matthew Gilson

My first restaurant job was at Publican Quality Meats, where I was a server. Then I became a pastry assistant at the Publican where I lasted for four months because I had no kitchen experience and I was anxious all the time. I ate nothing but cake scraps and schnitzel. I lost ten pounds.

I said, “I think I should go back to the front of the house.” That’s where I first came in contact with cheese. The really cool thing about that job was I got to set up the cheese case and get to know how to care about everything. Like, “This is how you’re supposed to wrap it. Don’t cross-contaminate between a blue or pressed Alpine or a soft ripened. This is how you temper cheese. This is what it means when it’s over tempered. Don’t fuck it up, or else chef’s going to notice.”

The cheese case at Whole Foods is called the cheese coffin, because you can fit a dead body in it. It’s that big and deep. I was dealing with way more cheeses than the ten at the most at PQM. It’s just a wonderland to play in. I loved being able to taste through whatever I needed to taste through and get into the rhythm of cheese care. That felt really soothing, being able to work with this product and then being able to leave and not think about the pressures of working a 300-cover brunch.

You don’t see that many Black mongers, and I would see someone scurry past the cheese case and then stop and stare at me. Oftentimes it felt like there was a fear or fascination there, when certain customers refused to approach the counter. It was like more of a fear of, “Maybe I’m not in the right economic range for this. Maybe this is not a thing for Black people. Maybe this isn’t a thing for trans folk. I don’t know if queers are welcome here.”

There was a point where I would start hollering at people, “You should come over here and try this sample.” And “This is why we should care about the milk. This is how they treat their cows.” “What do you need this for? What’s your price range? This is within reach. This is supposed to be for everyone.”

I got to work at James Beard Award-winning restaurants and that wasn’t normal seven years ago. But I wish it was a bit more normal. In order for folks to be more comfortable going for these positions and eating this food, they need to see people that look like me on the other side of the counter. You can look like me and still do this thing and do a great job. It’s not like a white thing. 

Food & Wine came out with an issue, where they profiled [cheesemonger] Lilith Spencer who was doing gorgeous plating working with colors and form and I was just like, “Oh, I think that’s what I want to do. This is everything that I’ve seen in restaurants that I’ve worked in: paying attention to plating and being really meticulous about it, but it’s with cheese. It might be something to look into.” And that idea went out of my head for another three years.

I got a new supervisor who was an American Cheese Society-certified cheese professional who was just like, “You’re kind of smart. You’re good at this. You should probably go for the certification.” I thought, “I could probably make cheese plates on my own. I’m going to get the certification and then try to figure out how to create my own business, because what else am I going to do right now besides work at Whole Foods?”

My reasoning for going for it was you have to fight so much for anything being a person of color in most industries. Gatekeepers really respect small pieces of paper. So if I have a piece of paper that says I know about cheese, maybe people will take me a little bit more seriously.

At Marz, I was learning how to slice things myself, learning how to make jams, ganache, all that stuff on the fly. [During the pandemic] they started doing farmers’ markets. Ed [Marszewski’s] like, “I have a kitchen, and you can use all your accounts. Do you want to sell some cheese plates?” That’s when Immortal Milk began.

I would first start with a mood board: “This is the vibe that I’m going for.” And then I’d pick my cheeses, meet up with a photographer, take a photo. I would write these little bibles: “This is the history of every cheese. These are my tasting notes. This is the wine that you should be drinking with it, and here’s also a playlist, because if you can’t go to a restaurant, why not bring it home?”

And then I would announce on Facebook and Instagram that I’m selling a cheese plate, and I would do about 30 orders a weekend, which equaled out to about $500 to $700. It felt amazing. It was such a special time, and I’d rather do something like that than, like, work in a brigade system any day.

One of the reasons I now have a salary job is because Instagram changed everything; like way less engagement. In general, it’s kind of dead. And the folks that were the most dedicated now are burnt out, because there’re only so many times that you can deal with a frustrated customer, or someone not really listening to you, or not getting the concept of something and wanting to show up at your house in the middle of the night. 

Alisha Norris Jones has a passion for designing cheese boards and making cheese accessible to all. Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

The boards I was turning out were beautiful. And it was really disheartening to see a slump in sales combined with the grind of running an underground business. It wasn’t fun anymore. It felt like it was the end of an era. Something in the back of my head was just like, “Maybe get a bit stable and come back to this when you have a bit more money and you feel a little less fragile.’

Gatekeepers really respect small pieces of paper. So if I have a piece of paper that says I know about cheese, maybe people will take me a little bit more seriously.

Alisha Norris Jones

Now I have this weird, normy, nine-to-five job. I didn’t know at the time whether or not I would have the bandwidth to do everything. But from having a stable income, and knowing I’m going to be OK, I’ve found myself sketching out cheese plates against my will, making new mood boards, reading new cookbooks. I was burnt out and stressed about money, but now that I’m not, I can get back into this.

Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

I feel the joy is back. Knowing that I have the time to really sit down and read more and educate myself and go to cheese shops and try new things, and not worry about whether or not I’m going to make rent because I only made $40 last week. That’s what I needed all along. I’ve worked in a lot of places, obviously, that ranged from really intense to possibly emotionally abusive. This is the first time where I’m able to earn a check and not worry about anything else besides this nine-to-five.

I hate that we see cheese as being a bourgeois thing. It’s a way that folks have sustained themselves for years. Many cultures practice dairy preservation. I think of how the ploughman’s lunch—or just bread and cheese—have sustained both the rural laborer and factory worker.

I’d rather think about that than something that’s served in a Michelin-starred restaurant that only a few have access to. I think both Velveeta and Brillat-Savarin have a place in a conversation about cheese. It doesn’t benefit anybody to be elitist about it.