NEW YORK — Max McCalman points across the low-ceilinged room and lowers his voice as if a baby were sleeping. "It's like when a child is really upset and won't get in the bathtub," he says. "But then it gets in, warms up, and 30 minutes later that child comes out of the bath as an angel."
Mr. McCalman is not talking about a child, however. He is in the cheese cave of an upscale New York restaurant, talking about a chunk of Alsatian Munster soaking in a bowl of white wine and water.
McCalman works at Picholine, the Manhattan restaurant that opened the first temperature- and humidity- controlled cheese cave in the United States. McCalman is the first and, according to the National Restaurant Association, only maître fromager - the cheese equivalent of a sommelier - in the country. Since Picholine began its cheese program nine years ago, cheese caves have appeared in gourmet restaurants across the country, including Jean-Georges and Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan and Boulevard in San Francisco.
Cheese is hot in the United States, especially American "artisanal" cheeses - specialty cheeses made by hand in small batches. In May, Picholine's chef-proprietor, Terrance Brennan, opened the Artisanal Cheese Center, the first establishment in the country dedicated to improving the quality of cheeses through the European art of aging, or affinage.
American cheeses have gained global recognition in recent years for their premier quality and have become increasingly popular among international caseophiles, or cheese lovers, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board says. Among them, artisanal cheeses represent the fastest-growing sector of the specialty food market.
Over all, commercial consumption of cheese in the United States has increased almost 40 percent since 1991, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture.
At Picholine, McCalman supervises the development and presentation of cheeses from their infancy to the point of consumption - at their peak of ripeness. Working out of a small room in the restaurant that is lined with wine racks, McCalman sources, orders, studies, turns, wraps, bathes, tastes, and recommends his cheese. "I'm pretty much 24/7 cheese," he says.
He is also the author of the book "The Cheese Plate"; he teaches a cheese course at Manhattan's The New School, and gives lectures, seminars, and cheese tastings around the country. In addition, he is designing courses to teach with a colleague at the Artisanal Cheese Center.
McCalman tends each of the 50 cheeses on Picholine's cheese trolley like a nurse in a baby ward.
"I think of them as little individuals," he says, pausing to reposition the Caerphilly (a firm, Welsh cow-milk cheese with a mild, lemony flavor). He prefers the term nurseries to dairy farms.
"I give them each a personality. That way they respond better." McCalman gently unwraps the Swiss Flixer sheep milk cheese (a delicate chestnut flavor) and adds, "Cheeses are a lot happier when they can breathe and comingle."
He is concerned about the future of cheese. "Cheese is becoming an endangered species, and I'm on a mission to rescue [it] before it becomes extinct," he says, cradling a hunk of Hock Yberig (a Swiss cow-milk cheese known for its sweet, sumptuous taste).
McCalman is worried about the livelihood of cheesemaking, and aged mountain cheesemaking in particular. Cheesemakers can't charge sufficiently for cheeses that are aged for more than a year; they get a quicker return by producing yogurt or ice cream. Aged mountain cheeses also need more attention: someone to turn the cheese, brush the cheese, wash the cheese, mature the cheese. This means that quality aged cheeses are getting harder to find. "I used to be able to find a five-year-old Sbrinz," McCalman says, motioning to a Swiss cheese on the trolley. "Now I'm happy if I can find a three-year-old Sbrinz."
Cheesemakers might be getting impatient with aged cheeses, but consumers can't get enough of them. "People want to get on this cheese wagon," McCalman says.
Through his lectures and classes, McCalman preaches about cheese, denouncing the common belief that cheese is fattening, raises cholesterol, or is laden with lactose.
"It is a near-perfect food," he says, poking his head into the cheese cave to pick his selections for the evening. "Gram for gram there is more nutrition available in cheese than in any other foodstuff."
McCalman also wants to allay concerns about cheeses made from unpasteurized, or raw, milk. "The bacterial plate count levels are actually lower in unpasteurized milk than plate counts in pasteurized milk that you buy in the grocery store."
While pasteurization kills bacteria in cheese, it also destroys enzymes found in raw milk, such as gums and emulsifiers. "The aromatic esters are what give the cheese strong aromas, and when the cheeses are pasteurized there is less aromatic flavor and the texture becomes rubbery from the heat treatment," he says.
It is near 5 p.m., and Picholine's chef de cuisine, Bjorn van der Horst, pokes his head into the room to discuss the nightly cheese menu with his maître fromager. On the two cheese trolleys, the 50 slabs of assorted cheese sit like anxious orphans hoping to be adopted.
McCalman, who knows the personality and characteristics of each and every slab, gazes at them with a look of paternal tenderness.
So which cheese would describe his personality? "I'd want to be a Sbrinz," McCalman says without hesitation. "It's one of the oldest cheese types with the highest protein and calcium content. It is expertly crafted, majestic. It's inimitable."