Meet Miss Cheesemonger
My goal for November is to give thanks to some of my fellow cheese bloggers. Reading up on their cheese lives always gives me insight into dairy cases on other coasts. Two weeks ago, I sat down for an East/West Skype chat with Miss Cheesemonger, a.k.a. Veronique Kherian, of San Francisco.
Madame F. and Miss C. had lots to talk about. If you’re a cheesemaker, you’ll find her thoughts on trademark law especially interesting. If you’re a dairy bystander, scroll down to see Miss Cheesmonger’s dream board, a selection of her favorite morsels from California and Oregon. It’s got me all hot’ bothered.
Miss C., you are a lawyer and a cheese blogger? How did this come to pass?
I started blogging about cheese just after law school, and if it wasn’t for my stint as a cheesemonger, I probably would not have started blogging about it at all. I had graduated from law school in 2009, which is widely considered one of the toughest years to find a job, according to many of my colleagues. I spent that whole summer studying for the bar, taking the bar, and sending out hundreds of resumes. By September, I was getting tired of not hearing back from anyone. I was burnt out from law school, the bar exam, and the dismal job market, so when I saw a Craigslist ad seeking a “cheese guru,” I jumped at the chance. I wanted to do something completely unrelated to law, and get my hands (literally) dirty. Plus, this would be the perfect opportunity to provide my French husband with some high-quality cheeses, since he was missing his French varieties. I applied for the job, which was at the Cellar in San Clemente, CA, interviewed, and got it. I think my 1.5 years spent in Normandy and Aix-en-Provence, France, helped seal the deal.
I only thought of starting a blog the night before I was to start the job. I knew I would be learning a lot of new things, and needed a way to synthesize all of it. The practical side of me also wanted to have a writing project to show to future potential employers when I did jump back into the legal or business world. A little bit later, I realized this blog was a great way to show my French friends that Americans do, in fact, make some excellent cheese, too.
Are there any similarities between the two professions – cheesemonger and lawyer?
Funny enough, I do see some similarities. I see my knowledge of both cheese and law as a tool I can use to help people make their lives a little easier. At both jobs, people would come to me, and say, “I have a situation going on. Can you help me?” It doesn’t really matter whether the situation is an upcoming party or a new trademark. I did what I could to help my customers at the cheese shop with the same zeal I represent my clients as a lawyer. Even though the situations were different, I still needed to use the same problem-solving skills and interpersonal skills.
Because of all of the different types of people I was in contact with at the cheese shop, that really helped prepare me to handle all sorts of situations. I started my San Francisco law practice in May 2011, and a huge part of my business comes from word of mouth. I have always been shy, so jumping into a conversation with new people was tough for me. However, after talking with dozens of people a day at the cheese shop, I got used to it. That’s one hurdle I was able to overcome and put into use after my cheese shop days.
How is your legal specialty — trademarking and intellectual property — relevant to the cheese community?
I am so glad you asked this! My practice today focuses on trademark and copyright, both of which are subjects within the vast realm of intellectual property. I have been working hard to tell people in the cheese community that if they have a business, or they are selling something, then they have intellectual property (IP). IP is not just about technology.
The most significant area of IP for the cheese industry is trademark law. Trademarks can include logos, product names, company names, or slogans. All companies work very hard to create an association between their trademarks and the products they sell. For instance, we know we are about to taste a fabulous, triple crème cow’s milk cheese when we get a wheel of Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam because the words “Mt. Tam” and “Cowgirl Creamery” send us specific signals of quality. Cowgirl Creamery has built a certain level of expectation surrounding the words “Cowgirl Creamery” and “Mt. Tam” in the cheese world. This level of consumer recognition and expectation is what is called goodwill, and that is the real value of a trademark. If another creamery were to then sell some inferior cheese under the name “Mt. Tam”, Cowgirl Creamery would have legitimate reason to want to stop that activity because the new cheese would disrupt the association in consumers’ minds between the words “Mt. Tam” and Cowgirl Creamery’s cheese. Consumers could confuse the two “Mt. Tam” cheeses. Trademark law then allows users of a mark certain rights to minimize confusion between marks, or prevent misleading trademarks. (I hope that made sense–let me know if it doesn’t).
Another part of IP, called trade secrets, is comprised of special knowledge or information that gives one creamery an advantage over others. This type of IP can include: recipes, supplier lists, the special know-how that makes each artisan cheesemaker unique.
Copyright law is also relevant to the cheese community. This area of law covers creative works–pamphlets, commercials, posters, print advertisements, even technical manuals. If cheese companies want to protect other parties from making unauthorized copies of those materials, they can seek protection according to copyright law.
Also, when naming their cheeses, cheesemakers often want to have fun, so they name their cheeses some sort of play on words on a well-known trademark. Made-up example: let’s say a cheesemaker loves BACK TO THE FUTURE, and names a cheese BACK TO THE PASTURE in honor of it. That cheesemaker could be liable for trademark infringement and be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. This is more the sort of scenario I imagine will hit smaller cheesemakers than the other one.
Do you work with any California cheesemakers?
Right now, I am a member of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. As part of my membership, I am on the regulatory affairs committee. It’s a new committee that was formed to respond to passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration new and enhanced mandates in the realm of food safety. This committee, under the hand of Alissa Shethar of North Bay Curds and Whey, is working to offer resources to the public and our members to help them understand the new regulations. There is a lot of material to go through, and finding the most effective ways to communicate this legislation is a great challenge for all of the committee members. The committee is made up of cheesemakers, industry folks, and food safety experts. I’m the only blogger in the group.
Do you have a favorite style of cheese?
I’m not sure I have a favorite style, but I gravitate toward soft, spreadable cheeses. That might have something to do with my love of slathering stuff over bread. Apart from that, I do have a soft spot for fresh chèvre. I think that comes from my time in Aix-en-Provence, when I first became really interested in cheese (6 months in 2004). I had read in a guide book that around Easter was the best time to get fresh goat cheese, because that was the kidding season, so that’s what I did. It just stuck.
If you were going to put together a local cheese board from your area, what would you include?
There are so many delicious cheeses in this part of the country, but I’d try to include:
Anything from Bohemian Creamery (try Cowabunga, stuffed with cajeta!)
And then I would wash all of that down with some Kefir from Redwood Hill Farms. Their kefirs are SO ADDICTIVE, especially the Mango/Orange/Pineapple one.
Is there anything you’d like the cheese world to know about you?
I’ve found that cheese really brings people of all backgrounds together. It sounds “cheesy” (haha), but I have seen so many people light up when cheese enters a conversation. Writing about cheese has served me so well, even in my legal career. When I meet someone new and tell them I am a lawyer, they think, “Oh, OK, another lawyer.” But then when cheese comes up as a topic, they open up because, in many cases, they have fond memories of a specific cheese, or they love food, or they’re lactose intolerant. This is true when I meet anyone, whether that person is an insurance broker or an orchestra conductor. And of course, when I meet someone in the cheese world, we have lots to talk about.
I’m also constantly amazed at how complex and sophisticated cheese is as a subject. I had no idea when I started blogging that I would have enough material to take me though three years (and counting!). I still feel like I know nothing about it. There’s always a new cheese to discover, a new pairing to play with, or a new cheesemaker to meet. I feel incredibly lucky that so many cheesemakers and industry folks have opened their doors to show me what they do, so that I can share their stories with readers. The more I become involved in the cheese world, the more amazed I am at how supportive its inhabitants are.
Lastly, because a lot of younger people have been asking me career questions lately, I’d like to say to people out there: pursue what you love, no matter how crazy it sounds! I had no idea that I would wind up owning my own intellectual property law practice, writing about cheese, and working with artists. These are all my favorite things in the world. There was no job that let me combine everything, so I cobbled one together on my own. It took a lot of dedication, and the support of many mentors, friends, family members, and my dear husband. It is still a work in progress, but every day, I get to do exactly what I want. There is no better feeling than that.