Raymond Hook looks up from behind the bar and, grinning, ambles over to hug a bespectacled woman and shake her husband's hand. It's the first full week of business at Woodfire Grill, the season's most hotly anticipated restaurant. Atlanta's inquisitive foodies have been streaming through the door all night, and Hook seems to know at least half of them.
Hook, 38, has been hired by chef/owner Michael Tuohy to establish the restaurant's cheese service. He guides the giddy newcomers to the gleaming Euro-Cave, a high-tech, temperature-controlled cooler displaying shelves stocked with odd-shaped, cream-colored examples of what the French call "milk's leap toward immortality" resting on handmade straw mats. The foodies lean in, oohing and ahhing. Their appetites properly whetted, the couple prepares to be escorted to their table.
"Order the grilled peach with your cheese course," Hook calls over his shoulder before disappearing into the kitchen. "It's great with the pecan-crusted chevre!"
If you see a cheese course on a restaurant menu in Atlanta, odds are mighty good that Hook has had a hand in it. Formerly the general manager and cheesemonger for Star Provisions, the gourmet market that shares space and ownership with Bacchanalia restaurant, Hook is now a full-time cheese consultant to local restaurants and markets. His arrival in Atlanta in 1999 coincided with a growing national interest in artisan cheese, a unique, handcrafted dairy product made in small batches. As any good foodie will tell you, cheese plates have become one of the hottest new trends at upscale restaurants and cheese tastings are fast becoming the fashionable alternative to wine tastings. There's even an entire restaurant devoted to cheese, called Artisanal, that opened last year in New York City. It is a very good time to be a cheese expert.
Hook's exalted place among the city's foodies is a far cry from his initial foray into the life of a cheese purveyor. His first cheese case was a modest endeavor. In 1984, when Hook was 19 years old, his father bought him a restaurant in tiny Norman, Okla., and it came with a small deli case visible to the customers. He stocked it with green-and-white boxes of Boursin and canned goat cheese simply to keep it filled with a low-maintenance product. His focus was on the restaurant's food, says Hook, who began working in the food industry as a line cook when he was 16. The restaurant, called Boomerang, served mostly Italian and Mexican dishes, and Hook prided himself on using only fresh ingredients to make the restaurant's sauces.
The restaurant's name took an ironic twist less than two years later when Hook discovered his father had bought it using funds acquired in shady real estate deals and it had to be sold.
Wanting to extricate himself from his life in Oklahoma, Hook enrolled at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and took a series of jobs cooking in enormous hotel restaurants to pay for his education. He earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management but had no clear vision of his future, so he worked odd jobs in and out of the restaurant industry for several years. He eventually landed in San Francisco at the end of a gig as a marketing consultant for cable companies.
In 1996, he answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a food sales position that led to an interview at Ulysses Foods, a gourmet and specialty foods retailer. Up until that point, cheese was never something about which he was particularly passionate.
"We interviewed 25 people for the job, and we knew he was the right one immediately," recalls Kate Collier, whom Hook considers his mentor in the rarified field of cheese. "He was the only one who actually touched the products when he saw them. He picked the cheeses up and sniffed them -- that was a good sign."
Collier found a willing student in Hook. The two of them would spend hours in Ulysses' large walk-in cooler, combing the shelves to find the day's perfectly ripe specimens. "She taught me that the handcrafted cheeses -- and food in general -- is about more than the food itself," Hook says. "It's also about the social and historical significance, the stories behind it, where it comes from, who makes it and why they choose to make it that way, how much care goes into creating these products."
Hook spent time visiting the budding Northern California cheesemakers on their farms and recounted entertaining tales of his trips to his customers. Restaurants on both coasts were beginning to respond to diners who had traveled to France and wanted to repeat the experience of an ambrosial cheese course before dessert. Raymond began selling cheese to passionate Bay Area chefs who were anxious to get their share of the pie (or wheel, as the case may be). Since artisan cheese was largely ignored in the country before the end of the millennium, knowledge was scarce and the chefs looked to Hook for education and guidance. The more he knew, the more cheese he sold.