New Orleans has learned a lot about cheese in the past few years. Cheese plates are now a commonplace on restaurant menus. “American cheese” no longer necessarily means processed yellow slices, but can refer to the growing niche of fine domestic artisan cheese on par with European classics. And the term cheesemonger is understood as a proud professional title, not some archaic putdown.
St. James Cheese Co. has had an essential role in all of that, and the crew of this cheese purveyor and café has learned a lot along the way too. A new Warehouse District location of St. James Cheese Co. is slated to open tomorrow (Dec. 22). It’s designed as an embodiment of those lessons, especially when it comes to sharing their knowledge of this intricate and nuanced subject.
“People like talking about cheese, and there are a lot of interesting stories that come along with it,” said Richard Sutton, who runs St. James with his wife Danielle Sutton. “Where it came from, what went into it. People like learning that and being able to pass that on to their own guests.”
The new downtown St. James Cheese Co. at 641 Tchoupitoulas St. will be open this week from Tuesday to Thursday for retail sales and with a limited menu of cheese plates, plus beer and wine. It will close for Christmas and the weekend. When it reopens next Tuesday, Dec. 29, the full menu of sandwiches, salads and other dishes should be in place.
In pursuit of pairings
The new location is in an old industrial building of vaulted brick arches and big iron columns. Within, the design is intended give customers different points of access to the product and the cheesemongers themselves.
There’s a dedicated counter for ordering meals and a different area for retail cheese and meat sales, so that one doesn’t cut off the other.
“We had no idea how popular sandwiches would be when we first opened nine years ago,” said Danielle Sutton.
And then there’s a third spot, the cheese bar.
“It’s like a sushi bar, a good one, where they can tell you about what you’re eating and you can watch what goes into it,” said Richard Sutton. “We want to put that in front of people, front and center.”
The idea sprang from a form of professional development for the St. James staff. Each year, the shop sends representatives to the Cheesemonger Invitational, a national competition for cheese pros. One challenge at the event is to create a “perfect bite,” a pairing of cheese and other ingredients. The cheese bar is intended to be a snack bar version of this pursuit.
“There’s something really cool about finding that right pairing of flavors with a specific cheese,” said Danielle Sutton.
St. James is named for the London neighborhood that is home to Paxton & Whitfield, a cheese shop that has catered to Britain’s royalty since the reign of Queen Victoria. The Suttons both worked there while living overseas, and Richard eventually became the shop’s manager, which proved the springboard to his own self-guided education in cheese.
The Suttons met while attending Tulane University, and they decided to return to New Orleans to open their own store in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The shop debuted in 2006, and from its first small storefront on Prytania Street the business has grown into a well-known New Orleans brand, an important purveyor for restaurants and other specialty stores and a regional supplier.
St. James Cheese Co. is also a partner in Continental Provisions, a stand in the French Market that opened roughly a year ago and functions like a walk-up version of the cheese shop, with sandwiches, boards and retail cheese and meat.
St. James Cheese Co.
641 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-304-1485
(open this week, Dec. 22-24; full schedule begins Dec. 28)
5004 Prytania St., 504-899-4737
1100 N. Peters St. 504-407-3437
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.