There’s a strong probability that if you ask me what I want to eat at any given moment, one of the myriad examples of a specific intersection of milk, bacteria, and time is going make an appearance on the list – In other words, to take a cue from Monty Python, I love me some cheesy comestibles.
Cheese is one of those foods that is both simple comfort and elegant luxury – the variety of milks, styles, additions, and ages create a universe of flavors that accompany us through so many moments in life from quiet and simple dinners to ravenous post-bar snacking to romantic interludes and fancy parties (this is all starting to sound a bit Suessian – I would eat cheese in a boat, I would eat cheese from a goat..). But if you want the really good stuff you have to go a little further than your local mega-grocery – that’s where Jill comes in.
Jill Gedra Forster is the proprietor of Buffalo’s first dedicated cheese shop, Nickel City Cheese and Mercantile. As a native of WNY Jill had spent the earliest part of her culinary career glamorously – working in nursing home kitchens and pizzerias, and while she may not have been crazy about the food that was being made at these early jobs, she did find that she loved the fast pace of those kitchens. Eventually Jill moved to Vermont to attend the New England Culinary Institute. “A friend of mine was talking about going to cooking school, and this was still very early in the 90’s when there were no top chefs and no Food Network. Chefs were still thought of primarily as servants who had bad hours, no holidays, and no money, and the more I thought about it the less I cared about all that, so I moved to Montpelier to go to school and it was awesome because I finally found a place that I felt I belonged.”
After a few internships and jobs including stints in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and a rather unpleasant experience working at a hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, Jill found herself in the kitchen of Cafe Louis in Boston. Cheese boards and plates, while common at most restaurants now, were a bit of a rarity in the dining scene at the time, and Cafe Louis was one of the few in Boston that featured one on its menu – Jill was responsible for taking the deliveries and testing the cheeses for quality as they came in each week. “This wasn’t Velveeta or Kraft singles or anything that I had made a grilled cheese with before, and I started to fall in love with these new products that I was trying each week. I worked at the restaurant five or six days a week, and on Sundays I would go and work behind the counter at Formaggio Kitchen, who were supplying the restaurant with its cheese so I could learn more about that side of the business.”
Upon some urging from her brother (Steve Gedra of The Black Sheep) to move back to Buffalo Jill went to work in his previous restaurant, Bistro Europa. “In October of ’09 Steve got married to his now wife Ellen and said ‘I’m moving back to Buffalo and buying a restaurant, and I think now is a great time for you to come back.’ I was dealing with some personal issues at the time and knew I wanted to be back in Western New York with my family. Knowing that my brother was coming back certainly made the transition a little easier and I spent the first few months working at Bistro Europa waiting tables. Steve and Ellen were the leads there, but at the time Bruce Wiesezala (Of Bourbon and Butter and previously the executive chef at Tabree, which occupied Nickel City Cheese’s retail space before Jill opened shop) was the sous chef there and we would have these late night post-service food conversations over a few beers about how Buffalo needed a butcher shop and a cheese shop. We were identifying these other gaps in the food landscape here and I decided that I just needed to make it happen. I had lots of support from my family and a ton of support from my brother who said ‘I’ll buy cheese from you, and if I buy cheese from you so will other restaurants.’ So all of a sudden, without even being open I was selling cheese wholesale to all these chefs – I hadn’t even found my storefront yet.”
While Nickel City Cheese certainly has a bit more in stock than the shop in the Python skit above, their well-curated collection speaks volumes about the differences between quantity and quality. This isn’t a wall-to-wall assault of cheese, but a deliberate and thoughtful stock put together by Jill that includes cheeses, cured meats and fish, canned goods, olives, breads, pasta, and some sweets. They also make some crazy good sandwiches and soups for their lunchtime patrons, including this super simple French ham sandwich they make with just ham, butter, and pickles that I’m obsessed with. It’s amazing – the kind of sandwich that after you take your first bite you kind of just sit there on the bench outside the store pondering why you’re not taking the rest of the day off from work to sit in a park and drink tons of wine while eating a whole basket of these things.
This isn’t the place to come for your EZ-Cheeze and American singles cravings, but a trip to Nickel City Cheese won’t break your bank – Jill doesn’t sell any cheese in the shop that costs more than forty dollars a pound, and the majority are significantly less than that. For her, it’s all about flavor, seasonality, and what her and her customers like – though there are always some surprises. “I really don’t like cheese with a ton of additives or stuff in it, but there is this one cheese from Wisconsin called Balsamic BellaVitano that I brought it for a wholesale customer, the rind is soaked in balsamic vinegar, and it was for an olive oil shop so it was perfect for them. Rather than letting the inventory of it that I had sit I decided to put it out in the shop and suddenly people where coming in to buy it by the pound, they went crazy for it and I’ve sold a twenty-pound wheel of it every week for the last year.” Jill told me. “Cheeses have seasons, I don’t really bring in any of the Alpine cheeses like Gruyèr or Comté in the middle of the summer because to me that says fondue, mac and cheese, french onion soup and other cold weather hearty foods. In the summer it’s a lot lighter – Mozzarella, Buratta, and the fresher goat cheeses are more prevalent.”
The space is understated and without pretension, a simple front room with a few cases for cheeses and meats, some dry and canned good, a kitchen, and a small patio set into the back courtyard away from the busy street where people can enjoy their lunch or dive right into their cheese if they absolutely can’t wait to get home – this patio is also where Jill hosts classes ranging from Cheese 101 to more advanced educational fare like Cheese and Sake Pairing and Mozzarella Making. “Come and spend some time with us, our classes are awesome, and we have tastings that can absolutely help educate our customers and help them find cheeses they like that start with very easy eating cheeses and then move in some more adventurous directions.” A visit to Nickel City Cheese is as much a learning experience as it is a gustatory destination, and Jill and her team will be thrilled to introduce you into a world of advanced fromage, whether you’re dipping in a toe or diving in headfirst.
Nickel City Cheese is located at 423 Elmwood Ave in Buffalo, NY