2019 Big Cheese Superstars

Vanessa Chang, ACS CCP

Food writer and educator Vanessa Chang believes that the best things in life are fermented: Cheese, wine, beer, good bread, and even chocolate and salumi. Her background in cheese (she is a Certified Cheese Professional) was a foundation to explore the world's other crafted foods and how they play well together. When not researching foods and pairings, she works in food marketing. She teaches across the country and her work has appeared in the New York Times and Sunset.


Janet Fletcher, Author

Janet Fletcher is the publisher of Planet Cheese, a weekly blog and e-newsletter, and the author of close to 30 books on food and wine, including three books on cheese (Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer and The Cheese Course). Her writing on food and wine has won three James Beard Awards, and her work has been published in The New York Times, Saveur and Food & Wine. Janet is the cheese columnist for Specialty Food and SOMM Journal magazines, and she teaches cheese-appreciation classes around the country. Her next book, Wine Country Table, will be published in April. (www.janetfletcher.com)


Kirstin Jackson

Kirstin Jackson is the author of “It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping Amiercan’s Unique Culture of Cheese.” Kirstin Jackson is both a cheesemaking teacher and a wine and cheese educator.  She loves showing people how to make creamery burrata pillows as much as she adores pairing her new favorite local wheels with wine. She blames her parents who took her on trips to the California dairy country at a very young age for feeding her obsession.  


Charlie Kalish

Charlie Kalish is a cheese expert and food writer. After graduating from college, Charlie spent his late twenties in Europe making cow, goat and sheep milk cheese in central and southern France and as a Fulbright scholar. Charlie trained in affinage (professional cheese aging) with two of the world's leading cheese aging companies, Mons Fromager et Affineur in France's Rhône Alps and Cellars of Jasper Hill in Vermont. A contributor to Culture and Cheese Connoisseur magazines, and an active member of the American cheese community, Charlie leads industry workshops to cheesemakers across the USA and Australia. Charlie and his twin brother, Michael, competed on Food Network's Chopped (S30Ep5), won the Great Food Truck Race (Season 7) and Co-Hosted "Big Cheese". Charlie has also appeared on Cooking Channel, Travel Channel and Martha Stewart.


Michael Kalish

Michael Kalish began his food career in commercial beekeeping in Santa Barbara County and got his first taste of wine and cheese while working for a cheese shop and joining a wine crush in Healdsburg, California. He was the first American to receive formal training in dairy and meat processing in the Piedmont, Italy, at l'istituto lattiero caseario e delle tecnologie agroalimentari. He has since worked for, and trained under, some of Europe's finest artisan cheesemakers and affineurs (professional cheese agers), including Mons, Fromager et Affineur (FR) and Luigi Guffanti (IT). In the USA, Michael managed operations for Artisanal Premium Cheese in NYC and has taught affinage and cheesemaking workshops United State and Australia. Today, Michael is also a Food Network veteran, being a Chopped Finalist, Great Food Truck Race Champion (Series 7) and co-host of "Big Cheese".


Erika McKenzie-Chapter

Erika McKenzie-Chapter is Pennyroyal Farm's head cheesemaker and herd manager.   She has a Bachelors Degree in Animal Science with a Dairy & Livestock Production emphasis and a Masters Degree in Animal Biology from UC Davis.  Before opening Pennyroyal Farm with fellow UC Davis grad Sarah Bennett, Erika apprenticed on a small farmstead goat dairy in France and worked as the head cheesemaker for Redwood Hill Farm.  Since launching the creamery in 2012, Pennyroyal Farm's cheese has earned national awards as well as Best in Show Awards multiple times at the California State Fair.


Rachel Perez 

Growing up with a French father, cheese was always in Rachel’s blood. Even as a child, she gave her family detailed tasting notes about the cheese plate at the dinner table. She joined the cheese world in 2006. Rachel Perez worked in independent cheese shops, international grocery stores, French cheese makers and cheese importers across the United States and Europe.  She is currently a category specialist for Tony’s Fine Foods. Rachel has been an active member of the American Cheese Society Judging and competition committee since 2011.  She is a Certified Cheese Professional and a Garde et Jure in the International Guilde des Fromagers.


Lassa Skinner

Thalassa (Lassa) Skinner is co-founder & owner of the general consumer cheese magazine Culture, now in its 10th year (sold nationwide). She caught the cheese bug 25 years ago and earned her chops at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA – as well as in restaurant kitchens across the Boston region. In 1999, she headed west and settled in the Napa Valley, where she started a cheese program at Tra Vigne’s wine bar, managed the St. Helena Farmers Market, opened the Oxbow Cheese Merchant in downtown Napa, co-authored Cheese For Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, May 2012) – and started Culture.  Lassa is passionate about spreading the love of cheese across the US and beyond, judging cheese and teaching at venues across the country and overseas as well as partnering with chefs, wineries, breweries and all things food-centric. Always happiest behind a counter, Culture recently launched educational seminars under Lassa’s capable hands, both for industry and for cheese lovers.


Juliana Uruburu

Juliana Uruburu has passionately pursued a life of cheese.  For the last thirty years, she has managed cheese stores for the award-winning specialty food retailer Market Hall Foods in Northern California.  In addition to managing, staffing, buying and merchandising for the cheese counters, Juliana produces and directs the sustainable food education promotions and is the Retail Director for Market Hall Foods.  Juliana is a creator and founding member of the California Artisan Cheese Guild.  A frequent panelist and cheese judge at the annual American Cheese Society Conference, Juliana has also been the Lead Judge for the California State Fair Cheese Competition and she was one of the cheese judges for the inaugural Good Food Awards.  She is one of only a handful of Americans to be inducted into two of the most exclusive French cheese societies -- the preeminent Guilde des Fromages de St. Uguzon (2007) and the prestigious Chevalier du Taste Fromage (2010).