Meet Tiffany Kim: Our Specialty Cheese and Deli Merchandiser

Meet Tiffany Kim: Our Specialty Cheese and Deli Merchandiser

If you ask Tiffany Kim, our Specialty Cheese and Deli Merchandiser, what her favorite cheese is, she’ll tell you she doesn’t have one. But her favorite category is the washed rind cheeses, like Époisses, taleggio, limburger, and Munster — a.k.a. the gloriously stinky cheeses. “I love the flavor that develops from the brevibacterium linens,” she says, referring to the mold that’s used to ripen the cheese. “It has a meaty, savory quality to it that I just adore!”

How does one get to be such an adventurous eater? In Tiffany’s case, she was just born that way. “In my family, I was known as the girl who ate everything — I wasn’t even afraid of durian,” she says. “And then, I also grew up eating a lot of fermented food, like kimchi. My mom cooked everything from scratch, and she would pickle this, pickle that, pickle everything because she never wanted to waste food.”

Tiffany’s family is Cambodian and Chinese, and when she was young, they rarely ate cheese at home. But her best friend (and neighbor, lucky girl!) taught her all about it: in one of her earliest cheese memories, they ate mini Babybel cheeses together — and Tiffany ate a whole one, wax and all. The BFF’s parents were inveterate foodies, who spent their weekends visiting wineries and throwing elaborate dinner parties. By the time she was 12, Tiffany was tagging along on winery tours. “I’d just watch and listen,” says Tiffany, “and every now and then, they’d give me a sip of wine. I loved going to their parties, too. I’d make cheeseboards for them.”

In college, Tiffany majored in design studies, but even as she was digging into interior design, she knew it wasn’t a good fit. “It was kind of a low point,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ and realized that all my interests centered around food. I couldn’t stop thinking about cheese, so I decided to learn more about it.”

Until then, her cheese education had been experiential — she’d try cheese at the neighbors’ or at restaurants, or she’d ask strangers at the grocery store to point out the good stuff. So she picked up a copy of Laura Werlin’s New American Cheese, read it front to back, and then parlayed her newfound knowledge and childhood experiences into a cheese specialist position at a major grocery store chain. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of cheesemongers at grocery stores,” she says. “I had no experience, but I aced all the cheese questions, and they saw that I had a passion for it and was eager to learn, so they hired me.”

In her last semester of college, Tiffany took a job at a small, family-owned cheese and specialty food shop. There she focused on educating the staff and customers on cheese, including hosting cheese pop-ups at Silicon Valley companies, like Google, Intel, and Sony. As part of that role, she started working on her American Cheese Society (ACS) certification in Iowa, a rigorous process involving months of study and a three-hour test akin to the bar exam. “Going into it, I thought I knew a lot about cheese, but wow, I did not.” she laughs. “I really enjoyed the challenge, especially learning about the science of cheese, the microbes, which I’d never learned anything about in all my years as a monger.”

In fact, she enjoyed it so much, she was a little sad on the day of the test. “It really takes over your life,” she says. “All the classes, the stacks of study cards, and study groups. You meet so many wonderful cheese friends along the way. And I just loved the learning process — I never want to be complacent about learning.”

She passed the test with flying colors, and now she’s one of about 900 Certified Cheese Professionals® in the country. “When I took the test, there were only about 400 us,” she says, “but now it’s trending, and we’re seeing a lot more young mongers. It’s exciting. They have tattoos of cheese. I don’t have any, but I think it’s really cool.”

Tiffany joined Gelson’s about 4 years ago. As our Specialty Cheese and Deli Merchandiser, she works closely with our cheese buyer to find interesting and obscure cheeses, promote our cheeses at local wine and food festivals throughout Southern California, and keep an eye on cheese trends. “I go to the American Cheese Society conferences and food shows,” she says, “but I also read a lot of magazines and blogs, and I love podcasts. Right now, I’m really into David Chang’s podcast because he talks about a broad variety of topics, even music, but he always brings it back to food.”

Tiffany also trains our in-store cheesemongers. “I love empowering people to use their creativity to benefit our customers, and part of that is education,” she says. “I feel an incredible responsibility to respect the cheesemaker’s processes.”

“A lot of times, we gobble up cheese without knowing how much work goes into it,” she explains. “Every wheel of cheese requires many hands and several processes, from milking to pasteurization to aging — did you know there are people who just age cheese for a living? It’s so gratifying passing on that story and knowledge because when we’re able to maintain the flavor and intentions of the cheesemaker, our customers get to enjoy the cheese just as it was meant to be enjoyed.”

Tiffany is always excited to pass along tidbits of cheese knowledge to customers too. She writes and designs the gourmet cheese section in our monthly newsletter. Her favorite project? An infographic that allows customers to create the ideal cheeseboard — by the numbers, like a DIY painting kit. “I get to use my graphic arts skills,” she says. “They come in handy in merchandising too. I use my design eye on the cheese displays, and I’m able to spot visual defects in cheese — just like I would catch something subtle, like improper kerning, in a paragraph of words.”

Of course, Tiffany’s ideal cheeseboard would include at least one adventurous, washed rind cheese. If you’re still developing a taste for them, she has lots of advice for you. First of all, it’s important not to focus on the smell. “With other foods, smell and taste go hand in hand,” she says, “but when a cheese is at its peak of aroma, its stinkiest, the flavor will be mild, savory, and complex.”

What does that say about a cheese with no aroma? “They’re the ones that are mass produced, they have nothing to them, and they’re going to taste like plastic,” she says. “Aroma is a great quality to have — it means that the microbes and cultures are doing their job.”

Still, there are smelly cheeses, and there are smelly cheeses — Tiffany says newbies should start on the milder end, like a nutty, slightly sweet Cave-Aged Gruyère, and work their way up the smelly scale.

But here’s her biggest, most important piece of advice: try every cheese two or three times. “Cheeses can change,” she explains. “If you taste a cheese that’s been wrapped in plastic, it’ll taste completely different if you taste it again after it’s had a chance to breathe, and age can really make a difference too, especially for soft cheeses. Give every cheese a few chances, it might surprise you.”