The Big Cheese

New Orleans, LA –

Cheese plates are nothing new in fine dining circles, but there's something different about them at many New Orleans restaurants these days.

First of all, they seem to turn up everywhere now, from their native habitat at upscale French restaurants to contemporary bistros and even some bars. More importantly, they're getting much more attention from the staff, many of whom approach them now with the geeked-out zeal of the newly converted. It's increasingly common to hear waiters regale customers about the character and provenance of the night's cheese selections, just as keenly as they describe their favorite wine.

The reason for much of this is St. James Cheese Co. and its cheesemonger, Richard Sutton. He and his wife Danielle opened the gourmet shop Uptown in 2006, and the place made an immediate impact.

St. James is hardly the only place for fine cheese around town. Martin Wine Cellar has been a leading retail and restaurant purveyor for many years. One of the veterans of its cheese counter, Dan Stein, opened his own shop early in 2007, and Stein's Market and Deli now stocks a deep and rich cheese selection, along with its main trade of deli sandwiches. The Whole Foods Market chain is big on cheese and plenty of other supermarkets have stepped up their own choices for shoppers after more than just Cracker Barrel cheddar and Kraft singles.

But with its intense focus on cheese, the sleek, modern-looking St. James is something new for New Orleans, and the word about the shop spread quickly. Now, St. James is busy with customers picking up a wedge or wheel to bring home, tucking into cheese-centric sandwiches or grazing through artfully arranged cheese plates.

But what really makes St. James special is Sutton's obvious passion for the product and his ability to transfer that enthusiasm to others. It's made a clear difference in the restaurant scene. Some local chefs describe a visit from the cheesemonger as a workday tutorial on the finer points of the cheese universe.

Richard and Danielle Sutton met while attending Tulane University. They headed up to Philadelphia after graduation to begin professional careers, but soon decided to make a big life change. They moved to London and both found jobs at Paxton & Whitfield, a two-century-old cheese shop which has kept Britain's royal family supplied with cheddars and Stiltons since the reign of Queen Victoria. Richard became the shop's manager and embarked on a self-guided education of cheese, gaining along the way indispensable access to cheese makers and the network of suppliers that run Europe's cheese industry.

When the young couple decided to open their own business, they picked New Orleans, their old college town, based on a gut feeling that a fine cheese shop would appeal to the food-obsessed city and fit with its culture of independent merchants.

Their biggest ally so far, though, has been the vivacious New Orleans restaurant scene. Cheese plates may seem pricey, but they don't generally carry a big profit margin. Rather, for many chefs the appeal comes from the intricate culture, nuanced flavor and endless variety wrapped up in fine cheese. Sutton shares the excitement of all that with his restaurant customers, and they, in turn have become disciples, helping to spread the word on curd.