Chef John Harris at Lilette changes the cheeses on his board two or three times a week now that his supplier will deliver something new and enticing at practically a phone call's notice. At Café Degas, chef Ryan Hughes has offered close to 80 different cheeses over the past eight months. And at Iris, waiters have begun regaling customers about the character and provenance of the night's cheese selections as keenly as they describe their favorite wine. Over the past year, cheese boards have been turning up in more New Orleans restaurants, getting higher billing on menus and treating diners to increasingly fine, rare and nuanced examples from the universe of imported and American artisanal varieties. The reason is St. James Cheese Co. and its cheesemonger, Richard Sutton, who opened the gourmet shop Uptown with his wife Danielle in 2006.
The sleek, modern-looking shop is something new for New Orleans, which previously did not have a retail emporium so intensely focused on cheese, and word spread quickly. Now, St. James is busy with customers picking up a wedge or wheel to bring home, filling up on exotic cheese sandwiches or grazing through artfully arranged cheese plates with a bottle of bring-your-own wine. But what really makes St. James so special is Sutton's obvious passion for the product and his singular ability to transfer that enthusiasm to others. Local chefs are eating it up.
'I usually have Richard pick the cheese for our boards, which means I'm learning a lot about cheese along the way, too," says Iris chef Ian Schnoebelen. 'It's pretty incredible. I've never met anyone who knows that much about cheese. He knows where the sheep come from for a cheese, he knows what the sheep ate and what that does to the flavor."
The list of restaurants Sutton supplies on a regular basis includes some of the city's best and most popular, such as Bayona, Commander's Palace, Herbsaint, Cuvee, Stella!, Dante's Kitchen, La Crepe Nanou and others. Chefs in Shreveport, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Mobile, Ala., have come calling as well, and a number of local wine shops also stock cheese from St. James in their deli cases.
Hughes estimates cheese board sales at Café Degas have risen 25 percent since he started patronizing St. James. Sutton even consults with him on new dishes, helping select cheeses to augment a salad or duck preparation.
'Most chefs, if they're honest, they'll tell you they know much less about cheese than meat or fish or vegetables," says Hughes. 'Richard's out there educating a lot of us."
Sutton says supplying restaurants makes only a small contribution to his shop's bottom line. But he believes it is important for his goal of raising the profile of fine cheese in New Orleans, where it has not had a prominent role in the locally dominant Creole cuisine.
'To make this work at the retail level, you don't just want to be a reseller," says Sutton. 'A supermarket is a reseller. We want to be a resource. We want to be the place you go and encounter someone who knows about this very specifically, the way other people know wine or your butcher knows meat. When you have a connection like that, your customers start getting a lot more out of the whole experience. If people are being exposed to more cheese like this in restaurants, that's good for us in the long run."
Originally from Delaware, Sutton first came to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, where he met his future wife Danielle. After graduation in the mid-'90s, Richard began a banking career in Philadelphia while Danielle went into public relations. But then the couple decided to make a big life change and moved to London. They both found jobs at Paxton & Whitfield, a 210-year-old cheese shop that has supplied cheese to Britain's royalty since the reign of Queen Victoria. Richard soon became the shop's manager and embarked on a self-guided education in cheese.
'Cheese is hugely subjective, but if you taste Stilton every day for three years you'll get to know, sort of intuitively, when it is just perfect," he says. 'By having my own little world at the cheese shop, I was really lucky to be able to try things all the time and get to know them."
He also gained indispensable access to cheesemakers and the network of suppliers that run Europe's cheese industry. Those connections keep St. James in good stead today, as cheesemakers regularly send Sutton wheels of their best product for his feedback and to gauge customer response at his retail counter.
The Suttons decided to move back to New Orleans to open their own business, choosing the city on a gut feeling that their shop would appeal to food-obsessed residents and fit in with the city's culture of independent, locally-owned merchants. While St. James' success so far may endorse that view, some of the shop's biggest fans give the credit to Sutton's own passion and personal approach to the business.
'Richard is so gung ho about cheese," says Lilette's Harris. 'I totally trust him, which is a great relationship in this business. I'm just loving having this guy here."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Richard and Danielle Sutton curate a selection of more than 100 cheeses at their Uptown shop.