Leslie Uhl’s Grate Escape

I used to love getting cheese advice from a cheesemonger named Leslie Uhl, who worked at Di Bruno Bros. Leslie had a glittering personality and a taste for unusual pairings; she once handed me a nibble of Gorgonzola topped with raspberry-chocolate jam and crushed coffee beans. It was brilliant. Last summer, she quit her job to spend a year traveling with Workaway, a website that helps travelers set up work or volunteer positions abroad.

For the last year, I have been following Leslie’s “grate escape,” as she calls it, via Instagram (@thegrateescape). We caught up recently via email, and I asked Leslie if she’d share a few stories about cheesing abroad. If you know her, then you’ll enjoy hearing about Leslie’s new beau and her campfire fondue. If you don’t know Leslie, may you be inspired by her story of leaving the cheese counter behind for a series of country rambles.

1. After 4 years of working in the cheese industry, you quit your job, sold most of your possessions, and committed yourself to a year of wandering the globe. Tell us where you’ve been for the last 365 days.

I purchased a one-way ticket to Australia, so I headed first to Sydney and central New South Wales, then South Australia, Victoria, and breathtaking Tasmania. I flew into Christchurch, New Zealand after 3 months in Aussie, spent half a year living on the South Island, and then popped over to see Ireland, Wales, and Great Britain over (this hemisphere’s) Summer! Back to New Zealand, and my temporary home on the Banks Peninsula, in less than a week. Who knows what’s next – I’m as good at making plans as I am at resisting a cheese plate.

2. Your Instagram has a running dairy theme, from a package of Lincolnshire Poacher you found at a pitstop in England to a pot of ricotta you stood stirring in New Zealand on Halloween. Tell us about a couple of dairy highlights.

My entire life has a running dairy theme, and thank all the goodness – I’ve been blessed with fabulous cheese experiences so far. I was very proud of a cheesecake I baked one night while living in a tiny caravan in the middle of the Australian outback, and I made the BEST fondue with bits of leftover blue, goat, cheddar, and Brie cheese over a fire while camping in the Grampians. The cheese shops in the U.K. are so much fun to visit, and I loved seeing Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Galway, Ireland in particular. I’m also lucky enough to live up the road from a Swiss farmer in New Zealand who sells me raw cow’s milk to make fresh ricotta and mozzarella at home!

3. Aside from cheese, have you developed other food obsessions?

I think I can self-diagnose with Chronic Food Obsession in general. Happy to have discovered that Aussie, NZ, and the U.K. find it more than acceptable to pour thickened cream over almost anything, including ice cream! That means a dairy double-down on desserts, about which I am over the moon. I definitely have a fish and chips habit, and my high-quality meat and fresh seafood intake is spoiling me rotten – no acute cravings for Vegemite or Marmite yet. Yet! Oh, and airplane food. I’m obsessed with airplane food.

Leslie and her mom in New Zealand

4. Can you give us a list of your travel essentials? What’s in your backpack that you couldn’t live without?

To be honest, nothing! There’s nothing that I couldn’t live without at this point, and that makes me a blend of proud, humble, and resilient. I’ve seen some less-than-ideal situations over the past year, and there’s no object that’s ever pulled me through. (Wait, does whiskey count?? I didn’t technically pack that…) But in all seriousness, it’s good company, good food, and a beautiful setting that I’m finding essential for my life right now. I will admit that sometimes a tube of toothpaste is the difference between feeling like a civilized human and turning completely wild.

5. Who is the most interesting person you have met on the road?

Ooo mama, I could write stacks of books about the people I’ve met. Farmers, artists, gypsies, chefs, and bankers from Turkey, Latvia, Austria, Malaysia, Brazil, and so many other corners of the earth. It’s hard to choose just one, actually, and I’m going to engage super-cheesy mode and pick two. First, my partner, who I met in New Zealand – he’s Welsh, an engineer by trade, and he spent a few years traveling through Africa and Asia before falling for NZ and spending the last 6 years there. He has a fascinating heritage (and native language) and it thrills me to no end to hear his many stories and opinions on life. And the second (get ready to groan) has to be me. The more time I spend outside of my comfort zone, listening, learning, and experiencing new things, the more I find my horizons expanding. My perceived limitations have been broken, rebuilt, and re-broken so many times and in such different ways, I can hardly explain what metamorphosis has taken place. I feel differently, I act differently, and there’s some key pieces of human empathy and shared experience that I’ve found along the way. Most importantly, though, I’m finding that what makes me interesting is my many interests – in other places, activities, art forms, science, nature, food, and above all, people. If you want to be interesting, be interested.

6. Do you have any advice for others who would like to follow in your footsteps and go nomadic for a year?

Same advice I have for bungee jumping, shots of Fireball, and eating haggis – Don’t overthink it, just do it. The best things I’ve done recently have been a result of under-planning, in fact, and I’m a huge supporter of spontaneity in all things. My travel motto is, if I’m happy, I stay; if I’m unhappy, I go. Change adjectives and verbs to suit, but the basic principle is the same. Also, pack light (see above).

7. Has distance given you any insights into the state of American cheese or cheesemongering as a profession?

My insights into all things American have downright exploded, thanks to everyone, everywhere sharing their outsider’s perspectives with me, 99% unsolicited. Maybe “outsights” is a better term, but with regards to cheese and the industry, I’m disappointed at what little knowledge exists about American cheeses. I still get the question “What’s your favorite cheese?” roughly every other day, but now I instinctively add the prefix, “You’ve never heard of it, but…” There is still a massive stigma about U.S. food products and our eating culture as a whole, which I try valiantly to overturn. I do wish the rest of the world, especially Europe, would spend some more time importing our cheeses for a change and giving due respect or, frankly, mere acknowledgement to our incredible food scene! Being the underdog can be really frustrating.

8. Where are you at this very moment, and what is the last thing you ate?

Right now I’m sitting at a cafe in Stratford-Upon-Avon in the U.K., and I’m picking at (read: scarfing down between questions) a latte and a steak and cheese toastie with pickles and mustard, (locally sourced, of course, of course).

9. Are there any shout-outs you’d like to offer, or unasked questions you want to answer?

Huge shout-out to the cheese heads back in the states! I miss being part of such a diverse, passionate, and accepting community. Consider me a cheese missionary, spreading the Curd Word across the nations. And of course, mad love to friends and family who have been nothing but supportive and proud from a distance.

~

Cheesing on Instagram? I’m working on a post about some of my fave IG accounts. If you have a favorite account you follow that involves a cheese counter, cheesemonger, cheesemaker, or cheese-centric cook, drop me a line! You can always find me @mmefromage

Want to go to Puglia? My neighbor Betsy Spivak is leading a trip in November with a 10-day stay at a masseria. You might remember that I co-lead a couple workshops in Puglia a few years back. Betsy got inspired to do the same and has connected with a wonderful host who teaches cooking classes using regional foods. Check out Puglia with a Local.

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One Response to “Leslie Uhl’s Grate Escape”
  1. Mike Geno says:

    great interview; I miss Leslie in Philly

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