Doing my job

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April 11, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Jay Koehler
Surdyk's Gourmet Cheese Shop
303 Hennepin Ave. E.

Call him the "matre de frommage;" Jay Kohler knows his cheeses. In fact, Kohler knows so many cheeses that he can't name a favorite. When he first started in the biz, it was the Sottocenere with truffles, but six years later, his taste has grown as complex as the Sottocenere itself, with its blend of truffles, ash and a half-dozen spices.

Stop by the shop, and he'll give you a taste. Or, sign up for one of the wine and cheese tasting classes Kroehler and other employees conduct at the Millennium Hotel, 1313 Nicollet Mall.

Koehler said that Surdyk's has the best cheese selection in town, one that could compete with acclaimed shops across the country. He orders 95 percent of the seemingly endless stock from as far away as Europe and Argentina or as close to home as Shepherd's Way farm in Nerstrand, Minn., near Northfield. (Koehler played shepherd there once, watching o'er the flocks by night.)

According to Koehler, the caves near Fairbault are similar to ones in Cambalou, France, where, for thousands of years, famous, pungent Roqueforts have been aged.

Koehler can tell you what cheese to eat with scotch (the Idiazabal, mild with a bite at the finish), with port (Roquefort), on nachos (the Queso Chihuaha is their "best melting cheese") or in risotto: the parmiggiano reggiano, which he has referred to as the "King of Cheeses."

Although he jokes that growing up in Wisconsin explains his cheese acumen, true credit goes to the years of experience and study at Surdyk's.

Koehler has learned a lot from his customers, too, he said. He calls it a unique way to learn, and the best part of his job.

"We have a face-to-face interaction with them; we slice the cheese right in front of them." Cheeses are cut fresh from wheels as large as 100 pounds.

Koehler paused to recommend the Irish Smoked Blarny to a woman waiting nearby. The cheese biz is quite busy, he said.

"It's hard to see something through to the end," Koehler said, but the customer left happy. And after all, it is just cheese, right? Wrong: it's necessary, and a finer point of life.

"As much as cheese is a necessity, we get really close to the luxury side, without losing the value of the necessity," Koehler said.