The Maitre d’ of Cheese

I must confess. I want Carolyn Stromberg’s job. She spends all day surrounded by stinky cheese, nibbling away her work hours immersed in plethora of funkiness. There’s no three-walled office cubicle for this former Cowgirl Creamery apprentice. Only a butcher’s block and a stainless steel cheese slicer, along with one of the ultra-coolest gadgets I’ve seen in a long time– a glass-enclosed cheese cave built right into the wall of the Old Hickory Steakhouse restaurant at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland.

And, these are no ordinary cheeses, mind you, so get that grocery store smoked gouda and that plastic-wrapped havarti out of your head. Carolyn, whose proper title is Maitre d’Fromage, spends much of her time working with a variety of local and international purveyors in search of the very best seasonal cheeses to present at their ultimate peak.

Each cheese is carefully selected based on origin, texture, taste and appearance, and is housed in the restaurant’s own cave which is kept at just the right temperature and humidity (60 degrees and 80 percent humidity) in order to preserve its optimum ripeness and moisture level. The cave, which is the only one of its kind in the D.C. area, can best be described as a sort of humidor for cheese.

For diners at the Old Hickory Steakhouse, a classic tasting platter might begin with selecting from a fruity cow’s milk Piave from Italy or a piquant Lord of the Hundreds sheep’s milk from England or perhaps an earthy Irish Cashel Blue might be your savory ticket. U.S. artisan cheese makers get a well-deserved nod on Carolyn’s list as well, whether you’re craving a buttery Nettle Meadow Kunik from New York or an Up in Smoke goat’s milk from Oregon.

Boasting more than two dozen artisanal cheeses, the collection can be worth an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 on any given evening.

And, these rare cheeses don’t come cheap. Boasting more than two dozen artisanal cheeses, the collection can be worth an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 on any given evening. With this in mind, cheese lovers are encouraged to choose wisely, which is where Carolyn as Maitre’d comes into play.

After spending all day ordering, slicing and tasting some of the most respected dairy producers in the world, Carolyn fills her evenings catering to the inner-cheese junkie in all of us. Pushing along her trolley of goodness (a custom-made cheese cart), Carolyn presents fifteen or more varieties table side for guests to choose from.

What results is both delicious and educational, as diners are first asked about their personal taste preferences and then offered several options from the trolley. As choices are narrowed down, Carolyn offers her take on the history of the cheeses along with pairing suggestions. The presentation culminates with guests customizing their own cheese plate, which can serve as a tasty beginning or end to a carefully-crafted meal built for the passionate cheese lover.

As part of the Old Hickory’s dinner menu, which is an impressive collection of delights in and of itself courtesy of Chef Wolfgang Birk, the customized artisanal cheese option, is just the beginning. With views overlooking the Potomac and a contemporary design take reminiscent of a Georgetown row house, the restaurant boasts a collection of 130 award-winning wines designed to pair with hearty cuts of grain-fed Black Angus beef (which can be decadently topped with lobster tail or foie gras) and signature dishes such as pepper crusted organic Scottish salmon with butternut squash risotto and truffle leek sauce. Birk, a former chef of the five-diamond awarded Casa Casuarina (a.k.a. the Versace mansion) often culls from local farms and producers in an effort to keep the menu fresh and contemporary.

Service is tight here as well, and the little details make all the difference, such as presenting a wedge of unsalted butter on cold salt stone to accompany the basket of bread. Yet, the most unique aspect of the resort’s restaurant is Carolyn’s table side cheese presentation, which is a foodie adventure not-to-be-missed, so when you’re ready to get your cheese on, hit the Gaylord National for an experience tailored to those who crave a little more pungency in life.