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Any way you slice it, a cheesemonger’s profession is serious business

Tracy Nelsen is Five Crowns' restaurant manager and official cheesemonger, sommelier and cicerone.
Tracy Nelsen is Five Crowns and SideDoor‘s restaurant manager and official cheesemonger, sommelier and cicerone. Nelsen is a certified cheese, wine and beer expert.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

At Five Crowns restaurant and its pub, SideDoor, Tracy Nelsen has a unique job title: cheesemonger.

It’s a funny-sounding word, but becoming a certified cheesemonger is no joke. Nelsen has to know her stuff for a role that’s uncommon, even in the restaurant world.

She serves as the house leader of cheeses. She plans the cheese menus, executes the cheese party planning and does the cheese purchasing. At Five Crowns and SideDoor, this is taken seriously. For years the Corona del Mar institution has hosted monthly cheese-centric events and a biannual gathering that’s truly golden for anyone who loves the fromage.

On a cold evening in January, Nelsen was busy working the first of 2020’s biannual gatherings. For cheese lovers, this event, pitched as an “ultimate cheese and charcuterie backyard party,” there was no better place to be. It featured a cheese lesson led by Nelsen and a buffet table elegantly displaying more than 25 different cheeses from several creameries.

Nelsen wore an apron emblazoned with various types of cheese for the occasion. Five Crowns, which is themed like an English inn and pub, staged the class in one of its dining rooms adjacent to its famed greenhouse and open-air patio. The room’s fireplace blazed, giving the event the cozy feel of a small private party.

Before hitting the buffet, each participant tasted a plate of five cheeses paired with five drinks. It was a greatest hits culmination, as the five were highlights from past monthly cheese events held at SideDoor.

A sixth cheese was planned for the class but didn’t arrive in time. But that wasn’t going to stop this party.

“You can feast on cheese,” Nelsen said at the outset. “It doesn’t get better than that, in my opinion.”

Cheesemonger Tracy Nelsen teaches a cheese education class at Five Crowns.
Cheesemonger Tracy Nelsen teaches a cheese education class at Five Crowns in January 2019.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

With Nelsen’s guidance, the diners rounded their plates. As they nibbled, Nelsen used words few associate with cheese: “crystal terracing,” “woodsy,” “microbes.”

“Cheese is a living thing,” Nelsen explained. “It evolves.”

When it comes to cheese, there is a lot to know: where it was made, its aging process, regional traditions. Beyond just aging, a lot of things affect the outcome, like water and grass.

As cheesemonger, Nelsen knows all this. And a lot more.

She is officially certified by the American Cheese Society. But what makes her even more unique among Orange County’s finest palates is that she’s also a level 2 cicerone (a beer expert as determined by Cicerone Certification Program) and certified sommelier.

Curiously enough, Nelsen says the cheese test was as hard as the wine one.

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Nelsen was born in Fargo, N.D., but didn’t stay there long. She moved around the Midwest as her father took on different jobs, including some time as an animal nutritionist.

Her palate developed as an adult. It didn’t take root from her childhood. Her family didn’t celebrate the subtle notes of wine over candlelit dinners. But, she notes, they did cook from scratch, supplementing meals with produce from their home gardens.

“I will say I’m very Midwestern in that spice, for me, meant add more salt and pepper to the gravy that goes with the mashed potatoes and the meat,” Nelsen said.

She raised two daughters, training them to have good palates through tasting classes.

“The kids absolutely loved it,” Nelsen said. “It was pretty pivotal to them. I would say my youngest daughter has surpassed my palate.”

Sometimes if all three of them are together, they can be a tough crowd. They’re able to pick everything apart, questioning interesting spices.

Food halls are meant to be community spaces, so the team behind the Tustin Mess Hall is working to local create events and classes that are safe during the pandemic.

Nelsen got her start in the culinary world at a high-end deli in Long Beach. That later led to various positions at restaurants, including time as the service director for the Center Club in Costa Mesa.

It was there, during a Christmas dinner for a group of doctors, that Nelsen’s wine appreciation breakthrough moment surfaced. The doctors were drinking high-end wines, trying to one-up each other on prestigious purchases.

Nelsen facilitated their drinks, but then something novel happened: They poured her a glass and asked for her opinion. No one had ever done that.

As a wine buyer and restaurant veteran, Nelsen knew some wine buzzwords. But she was certainly a novice. The sommelier training would come later.

Nelsen swirled the drink. She recalls it being a red Bordeaux blend from California winemaker Quintessa, made in the late ’80s. Even as a novice, after one taste, she knew. This was special. Everything was in balance.

Today, Nelsen wishes she could watch a video of that evening and see it all go down again because of what she said to the doctor asking her thoughts.

“Well,” she replied, “for the first time I understand why somebody would spend a hundred dollars on a bottle of wine.”

After that Christmas party, Nelsen got more involved in wine buying. She studied the literature, but never got too serious. That didn’t happen until several years later when she was hired at Five Crowns to be a wine captain in 2006.

A cheese table for customers at Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar.
A cheese table for customers at Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

She helped servers, greeted customers, opened bottles and recommended pairings. The job gave Five Crowns some Old World class.

Everything changed for Nelsen once she heard about an opening to take an introductory sommelier exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The U.K.-based organization is the preeminent group of its kind, professing to set “the global standard of excellence for beverage service within the hospitality industry with integrity, exemplary knowledge and humility.”

The Court grants four levels of expertise: introductory, certified sommelier, advanced sommelier and master sommelier.

In her naiveté, Nelsen thought to herself, “Sure! That’d be interesting.”

As she found out soon enough, it would be terrifying.

Nelsen faced an uphill battle. The introductory exam involves two days of activities, including a multiple-choice test and blind tasting exercise. Her fellow test takers had already been studying and preparing together.

Nelsen had not. But she stepped up to the challenge anyway, cramming with about two weeks of dedicated study. Sometimes she fell asleep, wine books in hand.

*

The test took place in Anaheim. Michael Jordan, a famed restaurateur and master sommelier, was there.

Nelsen felt the pressure, but terribly so. Pass or fail, she would still have a job. But there were feelings of impostor syndrome. Though she had significant industry experience, she hadn’t studied as long as the others.

A peak moment of the exam is a blind reading of wine, which the Court calls “deductive tasting.” The process has five students each taking a turn at discovering whatever wine is in front of them.

The first judges for appearance. Is it clear or hazy? What is the color? What is its secondary color?

The second goes for the nose. How does it smell? What fruits are there? Any minerals? How old does it seem?

The third takes the taste, judging aspects like sweetness, texture, body and balance.

The fourth compiles all that and makes an initial conclusion of its identity. What are its possible grape varieties? Is it Old World or New World? How old is it?

Then the fifth rounds it off with a final conclusion.

What stuck out to Nelsen that day was a moment when she sat in that fifth seat. She recalls 40 people staring at her, including master sommeliers.

It began regularly enough — out spurted thoughts on the wine’s appearance, smell, taste, the initial conclusion. The students were building off one another’s ideas, talking about the glass being a California cabernet.

Nelsen felt they were way off. Nervous at the idea of defying them, she nevertheless announced a different direction. The declaration caused some of the masters to perk up.

Nelson said she didn’t think it was a California cabernet. It was actually an Argentinean Malbec, about three years old, appellation Mendoza.

She was 100% right. She knew so when someone pulled out the hidden bottle. She read the label: Malbec, Mendoza region.

“It was one of those incredibly validating moments for me,” Nelsen said. “That was the moment I was most proud of, not passing the test. That made me more excited than passing the test, because I proved to myself I had a reason to be there.”

At the end of the day, she got her introductory certification, a pin, a glass of champagne and congratulatory handshakes.

Normally, the test scores are kept confidential, Nelsen said. You either pass or don’t.

But Michael Jordan leaned in and quietly told her something she’ll never forget: “You need to continue. You had that second-highest score in the class.”

Six months later, Nelsen went to New Orleans and passed the exponentially more difficult level two exam. She became a certified sommelier.

She did not celebrate the milestone with a stellar bottle of wine. Rather, Nelsen moseyed over to the French Quarter and imbibed a hurricane at Pat O’Briens, where the sugary rum drink was invented.

That was a mistake.

Nelsen jokes now, “It was a very bad decision. It’s just super sweet and really not all that interesting.”

*

Leslie Collup takes notes as Doug Hedenkamp takes a bite of cheese.
Leslie Collup takes notes as Doug Hedenkamp takes a bite of cheese during a cheese education class at Five Crowns in Corona del Mar in January 2019.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

SideDoor is a separate operation within Five Crowns, though similarly themed as a cozy English gastropub. Ever since its grand opening in 2010, it has always had a specialty cheese element on the menu.

Eventually, Nelsen took over SideDoor’s cheese program, which got her wondering: Does cheese have an expertise certification program like wine? Is there a sommelier for cheese?

In America, there is.

Enter the American Cheese Society, a Denver-based group that offers the most dedicated of cheese people to become a Certified Cheese Professional (CCP). Nelsen decided to be one of those people.

Unlike studying to be a wine sommelier, Nelsen notes there was “no real book you can pick up.” Rather, she read Congressional bills. She studied from a thick binder of materials. She also studied from a website geared toward people wanting to become CCPs.

Unlike eating cheese, studying about for the exam was no fun, Nelsen said with a laugh.

To pass the 150-question CCP test, she needed to know an awful lot about fromage, including best practices, cheese stories and origins. According to the American Cheese Society, CCPs must also know all the “core competencies” common to the majority of cheese industry jobs. Examples are the duties of retailers, cheesemongers, cheesemakers, distributors, importers/exporters, restaurateurs, educators and food writers.

According to Nelsen, she needed to know everything from how much to charge for a cheese to the intricacies of importing cheese from Italy.

“The reason that the cheese test, I think, is harder than the other tests I’ve done is because you’re expected to know it all,” she said. “You have all of the alphabet soup of government agencies involved, so it’s a huge database.”

In July 2018, Nelsen traveled to Pittsburgh for her CCP test. A few weeks later, she received an email.

Normally, Nelsen is not excitable. But upon reading that email, even though she was at work, she jumped up and down. She had passed, adding another line to her already impressive résumé of certified sommelier and cicerone.

Once Nelsen got home, she opened up a good bottle of wine. She did not eat any cheese.

*

When Nelsen was planning the cheese and charcuterie backyard party in January, it was supposed to be one of two for 2020 alongside the monthly “cheese takeovers” at SideDoor where they feature a specific creamery.

Tracy Nelsen, cheesemonger, hosts a cheese-pairing event on Facebook Live.
Tracy Nelsen, cheesemonger of SideDoor in Corona del Mar, hosts a virtual cheese-pairing event on Facebook Live in April in lieu of her business being closed during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
(Screenshot by Bradley Zint)

But two months later COVID-19 happened, shutting down businesses nationwide, including Five Crowns and SideDoor.

Nelsen and her team were not deterred. Nothing would stop the cheese.

On April 23, Nelsen took her cheesemonger ways to the internet with a Facebook Live virtual cheese and wine tasting. Participants picked up their curated plates with products from Vermont cheesemaker Jasper Hill Farm, some other bites as pairings, and a bottle of pinot merlot or sauvignon blanc.

Then they tuned in at 7 p.m. for Nelsen’s seminar.

It was a low-tech production but effective. Nelsen stood in a corner of SideDoor with a stationary camera aimed on her. An assistant, Alison Leigh Robbins, monitored Facebook for any comments and questions streaming in.

“It’s great to see you all, even if it’s through a computer screen,” Nelsen told the virtual audience.

Through Facebook, viewers sent her virtual hearts and notes of encouragement, calling her “the cheese guru.”

Nelsen gave them detailed explanations of the cheese lineup, throwing around words like “washroom” and “it’s kind of squidy.”

One variety, the Winnimere — a soft, decadent cheese wrapped with spruce bark — got a detailed description. Nelsen called it, “Like a sexy woman in the red dress that stands out from everybody else. That is this cheese.”

At that point in the broadcast, 73 people were tuning in, even more than she would’ve had during a normal SideDoor event.

Nelsen took some time to answer viewer questions, which Robbins read to her.

One was the best way to store cheese. “I don’t do it often,” Nelsen noted. “I sit there and eat it.”

She added that if you have to, wrap it tightly with something like Saran Wrap, making sure there are no air holes. Sweat will build unwanted mold.

Nelsen noted that cheese was as important than ever during a troubled time. Eating it releases dopamine in your brain and makes you happy, she said.

“And right now,” she surmised, “we all need that, so buy a little cheese.”

To Nelsen’s fans and anyone who loves cheese, that April evening she certainly was an essential worker.

*

One of the cheeses available to attendees of a cheese party held at SideDoor.
One of the cheeses available to attendees of a cheese party held at Five Crowns restaurant in January 2019.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

On July 30, Nelsen hosted another virtual cheese tasting. It was the same format as before, but this time the fromage was from five different countries. Robbins again helped with the video and reading live comments.

At one point, when getting excited about the possibilities about mixing and matching, she waved her hands and accidentally tipped a glass of chardonnay.

“No more wine for Tracy!” Robbins joked. “You’ve been tasting too much today, Tracy. I’m cutting you off.”

“No, I haven’t,” Nelsen replied, cleaning up the broken glass. “I have not been tasting enough!”

She soon found another glass and refilled it.

The rest of the presentation went off without a hitch.

But one variety added a new dimension to everything. It was a bold French blue cheese by Herve Mons called 1924 Bleu. Nelsen noted that it had been aged in a cave.

“It has that cave look,” she said, holding up the block.

It gives it a mustiness, tangy, peppery, “big and bold” flavor. Now, everyone knows: Amazing cheese can come from caves.

*

At Lawry’s Restaurants, the Pasadena-based company that owns SideDoor and Five Crowns, Nelsen’s unique contributions are noticed.

Ryan O’Melveny Wilson, Lawry’s chief marketing and strategy officer, said her expertise in cheese, wine, beer and spirits adds “an extra layer to the dining experience at Five Crowns and SideDoor that our staff and guests find incredibly valuable.”

He added that her cheese program, wine events and classes “open our guests’ eyes to the beauty of the perfect pairing. They leave the events with an understanding and appreciation of the product, bringing them a new level of enjoyment.

“She’s one of the reasons why our guests keep coming back.”

**

If You Go

What: Virtual wine tasting dinner with Tracy Nelsen, Five Crowns and SideDoor certified sommelier, cheesemonger and cicerone

When: 7 p.m., Aug. 27. Meals available for curbside pickup on the 27th from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Where: Virtual event is through Facebook Live, Facebook.com/SideDoorCdM/live/. Pickup is at Five Crowns, 3801 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar

How much: $150 for three-course dinner for two. Includes melon and crab, pork steaks, sticky chocolate toffee cakes, and three paired wines

How to order: Visit bit.ly/SideDoorCdM. Select takeout and delivery, choose Aug. 27 as the date, and select the Duckhorn Wine Dinner for 2

Bradley Zint is a contributor to TimesOC.

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