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Inside Chicago's Cheese World: The Great American Cheese Collection

By Erika Kubick in Food on Jun 16, 2015 5:05PM

A selection of great American artisan cheese. Photo by Erika Kubick

The Plant is an ongoing sustainable farming project that grows and produces food in a repurposed industrial building in The South Side's Back of the Yards neighborhood. At the top level, there is a cheese sanctuary unbeknownst to many cheese-loving Chicagoans. It’s called the Great American Cheese Collection. Once described by the Tribune’s Bill Rice as the “missionaries of American cheeses,” the Great American Cheese Collection is the single largest source for artisan American-made cheese in the entire country. They represent more than sixty small cheese makers and 300 different cheeses. They provide cheese for more than 400 fine dining restaurants around the nation, including Chicago restaurants like Gilt Bar and Tavern on Rush.

The Great American Cheese Collection is the brainchild of Giles Schnierle, who began his career in the mental health field designing programs for drug rehabilitation. “I woke up one day and realized I sucked at it,” says Schnierle. “I was too impatient.” Schnierle then decided to enter the culinary world as a chef and began his own catering company. “I was known as the Bar Mitzvah King of the North Shore,” explains Schnierle. “What made us different was that we gave people the kind of food you would see in a restaurant. Each plate was amazing.”

Schnierle’s love of food and cuisine sparked a curiosity for the most interesting and unique ingredients. The only problem was that he could never get his hands on those products, because there was no one to distribute them. “That’s when I realized the power of distribution companies,” says Schnierle. “The little guys couldn’t enter the market because there was nobody there to take them, so I took them.” That’s how Schnierle began his first distribution company, Heartland Trading, 27 years ago. About 12 years in, he decided to focus solely on the cheese and that’s how the Great American Cheese Collection began.

Since then, Schnierle has become one of the greatest advocates for small cheese producers. “We have a mission statement that I wrote a long time ago,” says Schnierle. “From the four corners of this country, we bring together some of America’s finest cheeses from small producers that would never otherwise be brought to the marketplace.” In addition for providing a channel of distribution for small producers, Schnierle also developed a relationship between chefs and cheese makers. “I was initially thinking, as a former chef, that this is what I would want,” he explains, “It gave an opportunity for chefs to relate to cheese and cheese makers like they never have before. It made things a whole lot more fun.”

During our visit, Schnierle presented us with a platter of seven artisan cheeses to mimic their process of tasting cheese out to a client. Each cheese was delicious and special in its own right, but our favorite was La Mancha Moo, a blend of cow’s and goat’s milk made in the Camembert style, from Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery in Michigan. While Schnierle had tasted the cheese before, he was struck by how much it had improved with this batch. “This is an example of one of the great factors in the artisan cheese community: cheese changes,” he gleefully exclaimed, “having cheese around like this is like having a case of Spanish wine in your basement: you drink a bottle every month and it’s different every month.” The cheese was incredibly well-balanced, buttery and grassy, with a charming elasticity that caused an incredibly silky mouthfeel. “The salt is enrobed by the fat, there’s enough acid here to provide a counterpoint. Salt never tasted so good,” Schnierle murmured as he finished off the bite of creamy cheese.

For the time being, the Great American Cheese Collection isn’t making their own cheese. They simply receive batches of cheese and care for them as they ripen, much like a cheese nursery. While they don’t consider themselves affineurs, the term for professional cheese curers, Schnierle did cite several instances when cheese makers expressed astonishment at the excellent state of their cheese under his care. In the future, the Great American Collection is hoping to host cheese classes, in addition to bringing on interns. They’re also seeking sales representatives and a warehouse assistant. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in cheese, contact Schnierle through the Great American Cheese Collection’s website.

The Plant hosts a weekly market every Saturday until September, where you can purchase cheese from the Great American Cheese Collection. The Plant is located at 1400 W. 46th St.