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Lunch With...

C.J. Bienert at Cheese Bar

5/1/2024

C.J. Bienert is Des Moines’ chosen cheese monger. Through his Cheese Shop and Cheese Bar, he has enticed the city’s palate to appreciate distinctions between whey and casein proteins, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk fats, Pyrenees and Alpine terroirs, etc. 

He has promoted wine and cheese tastings to graduate level educational events. And he realized the dream of turning his hobby into his career. 

We asked him to lunch and met at Cheese Bar. That place has a minimalist, Nordic look with sleek wood and handmade rustic accessories. Wood panels hang from the ceiling, while picnic style tables and a long bar dominate the room. One wall is covered with photos of a virtual hall of fame of food producers who supply Cheese Bar and Cheese Shop, including local super farmers Larry Cleverley and Jordan Clasen, plus La Quercia founders Herb and Kathy Eckhouse. 

Cheese Bar is not just a novelty or specialty café. It is one of Des Moines’ most innovative restaurants. Bienert hires creative friends from the food business, and menu decisions are collaborative. Sausage recipes are original, and cheese forward creations like what goes into fondue, raclette, mac and cheese and grilled cheese are being reworked seasonally. A full bar with a lively happy hour encourages customers to experiment with new dishes. 

When we met, Cheese Bar was bustling for a midafternoon weekday. Happy Hour here is 3-5 p.m. and features $5 champagne, sparkling wines and superb homemade sausages. Over corn dogs (the best I ever tasted) and boards of cheeses, charcuterie, pickles, Marcona almonds, jam, toast and crackers, we talked mostly about the cheeses I was eating. 

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First off, why are Cheese Shop and Cheese Bar in two different locales? 

“I think about that every day as I make six or more trips between the two. I keep thinking that one of the neighbors between 42nd and Ingersoll will report me to the police. Anyone who keeps driving the same route that often must be casing things out. 

“Seriously, though, we wanted to have them in the same place. It just would have been too expensive to comply with zoning and fire safety regulations if we added on at The Shops of Roosevelt. It would have cost hundreds of thousands just to install the sprinkler system because of the age of the water pipes and the pump.”

Why did he want two separate businesses dealing primarily in cheese? 

“We didn’t at first. In fact, I told my wife that if I ever wanted to open a restaurant, just kick me. But she ended up encouraging me to do it. 

“You can only sell so much cheese as a retail shop, and I tend to buy too much because I want to help the cheesemakers, many of whom are my friends. Cheese is not simple. Our food costs are 30% not 20% like it is for the standard successful restaurant. So, we can’t afford waste. First we started selling grilled cheese sandwiches and mac and cheese at Cheese Shop, but that wasn’t enough. We needed a full restaurant, not just a few tabletops in a retail store.”

What did Bienert do before opening two businesses to prepare for a life in cheese? 

“I went to Roosevelt when my father Charley Bienert had Timbuktoo coffee shop there (in The Shops at Roosevelt). That was my retail background. I worked for Orchestrate Management and was a ‘day one’ employee when they opened Gateway Market & Café. 

“I loved it, but I didn’t want groceries to be my legacy. So, I went to work with some cheesemakers I admired. Vermont is a very special place for cheese in America. They have all kinds of agriculture money. That helped Jasper Hill get started and to build their ‘state-of-the-art’ underground cave aging facility. 

“A lot of Vermont cheese people never leave Vermont. It’s a long way (from the ‘Northeast Kingdom’ cheese zone) to anything. The closest city to Jasper Hill is Montreal, so I went there a lot and love it. It’s a wonderful food town. 

“Marisa Mauro founded Ploughgate Creamery. Her creams and butters were amazing. I have given tastes of similar butter to people, and they think they are eating cheese. After a fire at Ploughgate, Jasper Hill carried on Marisa’s tradition with her Willoughbys. It’s a washed rind cheese.”

What about Wisconsin? 

“Pleasant Ridge is in ‘The Driftless’ region of southwestern Wisconsin. The Ice Age glaciers drifted over it. It’s near the House on the Rock. The Driftless is only a four- to five-hour drive from Des Moines. The Milwaukee area cheesemakers are six to eight hours away. Our entire staff went to Pleasant Ridge once, in four cars.” 

How do cow diets affect cheese? 

“Pleasant Ridge Reserve is made in batches that can be quite different. They can tell you the weather and the fat content on the day they were made. They only make their Reserve in the summer, like the alpage versions of Gruyere and Beaufort that they resemble. Summer is when the cows’ milk is richer with the grass they graze upon. When cows run out of food, their fat and protein contents go up. I drive to Pleasant Ridge to pick out my batches.”

What’s going on with sheep’s milk in the U.S.? 

“Traditional American sheep don’t have the genetics for making great cheese milk. Mariana Marques de Almeida is changing that. She’s a Portuguese scientist. The founders of Maple Leaf Cheese in Juda made her a partner. She moved to Wisconsin and imported 1,500 Assaf sheep. Their genetics are so valuable that the farm is on lockdown. It’s like Kobe cattle or Iberica pigs. People would steal them, or even their sperm, for their breeding abilities. 

“Their milk has high protein in the casein; it’s not lost in the whey. They don’t make cream; all the fat is in the cheese milk. Assafs produce more milk, too. We will be buying more of this sheep’s cheese. Blakesville Creamery in Port Washington won the ‘best European style goat cheese’ award in 2021.”

Pleasant Ridge is even represented in Cheese Bar’s tableware. 

“We made our cheese boards out of Pleasant Ridge’s aging barrels. They are so petrified that they can go into the dishwasher without absorbing water.”

Bienert has realized a familiar American dream — to make his hobby his career. What would he be doing otherwise? 

“If cheese was just my hobby, I’d be the same guy. I’d probably be making a lot more money if I was selling insurance, though.” ♦

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