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Ulysses Foods closed suddenly when the owner became embroiled in a scandal involving a separate business venture. Hook, tired of the intense competition in the San Francisco food world, put his feelers out for a chance to be the big cheese in a smaller pasture. He was introduced to Anne Quatrano, co-owner of Atlanta's Bacchanalia and the soon-to-be-opened Star Provisions, through a mutual friend. When Quatrano offered Hook the opportunity to manage his own cheese shop, custom-built to his specifications, he packed up and headed south.
I first encountered Hook two months before Star Provisions opened. On my way to meet him at the now-defunct Cosi in Decatur, I tried to imagine what a cheese guru would look like. I surmised two likely possibilities: a solemn, wrinkle-browed Frenchman with slicked-back hair and a thin moustache, or a sunny Robert Redford look-alike who grew up frolicking among the vineyards of Northern California.
Hook was neither. Tall and stout, with cocoa-colored skin (his mother is Native American) and wispy, jet-black hair, he shook my hand amiably and seemed rather shy. He was quiet through most of our meal. A vegetarian, he ordered a beet and goat cheese salad and frowned after the first bite. "This cheese is not right," he said, shaking his head. "They haven't stored it well. It tastes sour. This is why people think they don't like goat cheese." It was clear that what Atlanta needed was a Cheese Guy.
The next time I saw Hook was at Star Provisions cheese shop, located in the back corner of the 4,000-square-foot market. "Hello, William!" said Hook brightly. "Welcome to the Wonderful World of Cheese!" With a white apron tied around his waist and an orange Star Provisions baseball cap fit snuggly on his head, he looked like the happy friar of fromage.
The front case was overflowing with 40 different kinds of artisan cheese, each one a miniature work of art small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. There was pyramid-shaped goat cheese from the Loire Valley; round, wrinkly-skinned Camembert from Sonoma; and soft, creamy, sheep's milk cheese from Burgundy. Next to the counter, three refrigerator-sized cases displayed larger wheels of cheese from every region of the world.
Each delicacy had a sign describing its qualities -- herbaceous, gentle, smoky, challenging -- and listed quirky, often unpronounceable names: Humboldt Fog, Wabash Cannonball, Afuega'l Pitu, Ticklemore, Garrotxa, Llangloffan, Idiazabal, Roaring 40s.
I watched Hook rope his customers in with charming stories. "Oh, that's a beautiful cheese," I heard him intone reverentially to one woman. "It's made by a woman in Virginia who tends a herd of 18 sheep." He took wheels from the case and cut thin slices for customers to taste: "These folks specialize in sheep, but they have one cow named Zoena, and this is cheese from her milk." He had an infectious goofiness that dispelled any notions of snobbery. "Oh yeah, the Pierre Robert is one of my favorite triple cremes -- mild and buttery. Let it sit out for an hour and then spread it on fruit and nut bread. You'll love it. Hey, Linsey! Wrap up a P-Bob for William here ... "
I had intended to spend $10, maybe $15 at the most, on cheese that day. I spent almost $50. And when my friends and I swayed and moaned in ecstasy that night as we sampled each cheese in the order Raymond had suggested, I was convinced it was worth it.
After several months of overspending and absorbing countless stories from the Cheese Guy, I began to wonder if perhaps Hook wasn't just a good retailer who could bluff his way through a sales pitch. So I bought a thick book on cheese and decided to test Raymond's knowledge. After a Saturday afternoon trip to Star Provisions, I rushed home to verify his stories about the cheeses I'd bought. Was Ardrahan really made in County Cork? Was Cindy Callahan really a lawyer who gave up her job to make cheese? Is Abbaye de Belloc really made by a recipe that is more than 3,000 years old?
Yes, yes and yes. "Damn," I thought. "This guy really knows his stuff."
Cheesemaking is a pretty basic process: A starter is added to pasteurized or raw milk to sour it, then rennet goes in to coagulate it, separating the curds (solid) from the whey (liquid). Then the curds are cut to expel more whey, the whey is drained and the curds are slowly heated. Then they are cut again, salted and pressed or shaped. The fundamental method varies according to the type of cheese being produced. It is an arduous, time-consuming process that seems to also require a great deal of trial-and-error, experience, a little luck and magic.