DCF: Who Are You?
Alice Bergen Phillips, Cheesemonster, Owner/Head Cheesemonger. Originally hailing from Chicago, I grew up in a food-loving home (DCF: Totally know what that’s like!!). After earning a degree in International Politics and graduating Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa (DCF: woot woot!!) from Bates College, I moved to D.C. to pursue a career in international politics. However, I quickly found my side jobs working in the world of specialty foods to be far more compelling. I found real my calling in cheese, and have never looked back.
DCF: Why do you love what you do? What makes you funemployment?
ABP: Oh man, so many reasons! Working in the cheese industry lets me do so many different things that I love. First and foremost, I love that I get to provide a platform for amazing producers who work hard and take great pride in what they do. It gives me immense joy to introduce my clients to cheeses and accompaniments made by people who are passionate about their life’s work and who are making a difference in their communities.
Secondly, I get to make people happy! The world can be such a dark and disturbing place, especially these days – particularly in a place like DC – so bringing a little light and joy to people’s lives makes me exceedingly happy. (DCF: We need all the light and joy we can get!) There’s nothing like watching your guests’ faces light up when they see a big ol’ cheese display, or seeing a lightbulb go off over someone’s head during one of my classes. Moments like that are really priceless.
Third, there are so many different aspects from which to approach the world of cheese that it’s never ever boring. A lot of people don’t realize how much science is involved in the making of cheese, or how most cheeses have a long and fascinating cultural history. It’s my job to dive into each aspect and bring that knowledge to my customers. Art plays a big piece too – my cheese displays are definitely art pieces. (DCF: I’ve seen them, they are indeed edible art!) I have a little bit of an art background, so the fact that those skills play into my day job is really fun and exciting.
DCF: Who was your first mentor and how did you find them?
ABP: Honestly, I would say my parents are my biggest supporters and my mentors. They’ve always encouraged me to be great in every possible way, and shown me through their own accomplishments how to achieve. I credit them with the fact that I’ve never felt less-than, or like I couldn’t go for something that I really wanted. They’ve taught me to take calculated risks, to think things through, and how to pick yourself up when you misstep. They have always been there to give advice, listen to me vent, and celebrate my achievements. I count myself very lucky to have such a great support system.
DCF: What’s your happy place?
ABP: Professionally, my happy place is geeking out over tasting new cheeses and figuring out pairings. I love thoughtfully tasting products and trying to figure out exactly what is happening to my senses – getting beyond the cheese flavor and diving into what else is going on in that flavor profile. Is it lemony and herbaceous? Is toasty and caramelized? Is that a hint of fennel, I detect? Once I get a profile down, I can start playing with adding wine, beer, a cocktail, or whatever would bring those flavors to the next level. It’s an exercise that requires a lot of time, effort, and thoughtfulness, but it’s so much fun. (DCF: and so much talent!)
Personally, my happy place is home with my husband and our yellow lab, Sarge. Spending lazy days with the two of them is the absolute best.
DCF: Where do you get your energy?
ABP: Oh goodness, that’s a good question. To be quite literal, I come from a family of people who need a serious amount of sleep. If I don’t get enough sleep – I’m talking seven hours minimum – I am basically garbage and no good to anyone. Sleep is a major component to keeping me functioning. (DCF: As I finish tweaking this at 2am, I am totally the opposite lol).
On a more abstract note, I’d say that there are two things that keep me motivated and moving forward. The first is definitely my husband. He’s one of the best people I know, and has a truly enviable amount of self confidence and energy. He’s not one to take short cuts and is definitely the most honest person I’ve ever met. Watching how he approaches the world and the choices that he makes definitely inspires me to be a better person and to keep working hard.
The second thing is the cheese community itself. I love working in this industry for lots of reasons, but the people are definitely a huge piece of that pie. Cheese people really are some of the kindest, best people you can find, and being around them reminds me why I do what I do and inspires me to keep improving.
DCF: What does balance mean to you and how do find it?
ABP: The biggest lesson for me, when it comes to balance, is realizing that it is not a static thing. As days, weeks, and priorities change, so does the meaning of balance. Being someone who likes to be in control of things, this hasn’t been the easiest lesson for me to learn. (DCF: What a great way to look at it! Balance is definitely a moving target.)
Figuring out how to balance all that life throws my way has really come down to two different components: First, I’ve had to learn how to be more flexible and forgiving with myself. Just because I feel somewhat out of whack right now doesn’t mean that that feeling is going to last forever or that I’ve screwed up in an unforgivable way. It just means that I have to adjust a little bit here, or recalibrate a little bit there, and move on with my life. Secondly, balance for me all comes down to priorities. What does my gut say is most important for me in this moment? Is it work related? Is it personal? Is it more important for me to answer those last few emails, or to go for a long walk with my dog? Figuring out what activity in the present is going to serve me best in the future has been an exceptionally important part of feeling like my life is balanced.
DCF: What sacrifices did you have to make to get here?
ABP: Let me just say right off the bat, I feel pretty darn lucky to be in the position that I am currently in. Whatever sacrifices I have made along the way to get where I am are minuscule in comparison to the feeling of being where I am today. That being said, it hasn’t always been the easiest route. I’d say that one of the biggest sacrifices that any entrepreneur makes is eschewing the security of an “actual” job. No one is writing me a paycheck every two weeks. There is no guarantee that my business will be successful. No one is around to tell me what to do next, or what the right decision is for my business. Sacrificing security is absolutely terrifying, but it’s the only way to realize your vision.
DCF: What struggles have you faced as a women in your industry?
ABP: Geez louise, the mansplaining that I have to deal with is just incredible. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does… hoo boy. Male customers challenging my answers to their questions like they’re the experts so that they can impress their friends or partner, repeating things back to me that I’ve just told them as if it’s new information, talking over me when I try to answer questions… it’s super fun. There was one time, in my last job as a head cheesemonger, that a male customer cut me off mid sentence and said that he wanted to hear what my male subordinate had to say about a question he had instead of me. (DCF: Wow you’ve got to love the blatant sexism.) Cool, dude. Keeping my customer service face on and not eye-rolling my eyeballs out of their sockets can be pretty challenging sometimes.
DCF: What is the early advice you didn’t listen to that you wish you had?
ABP: I can’t attribute this to any one particular person, but various family members and friends have repeatedly encouraged me to trust myself and my own capabilities. I wouldn’t say that my younger self didn’t do that at all, but I wish I didn’t second-guess myself quite so much. I am someone who tends to look to others for validation, and learning how to trust myself and my own judgement is something that I’ve had to work at over the years.
DCF: What was your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?
ABP: Hmm… I don’t really respond to the word “failure”. I don’t mean that to sound big-headed or like I’ve never made a mistake (lord knows, that’s not true). But, honestly, in my book, if I’ve tried your best at something and it doesn’t work out, I don’t really count that as a failure. Dwelling on hiccups and calling them “failures” just has never really served me. It’s the same reason why I don’t really believe in regretting things either. When I look back at my life, the major decisions that I’ve made have always been based upon thoughtfulness and what made sense at the time. There’s no sense in regretting something like that – you do the best with the information that you’re given at any particular time, and then move on. (DCF: This is one of my favorite questions because everyone “fails” sometimes, it’s a part of life! But I love learning how each person responds to it because it varies!)
DCF: What was your proudest moment to date?
ABP: Aside from opening Cheesemonster, I’d say that the my proudest professional moment was being a finalist at the 2016 Cheesemonger Invitational. For those of you who don’t know, the Cheesemonger Invitational is a cheesemonger competition held twice a year, once in New York and once in San Francisco. Competitors from all over the country compete in a two day event comprised of fourteen different challenges, ranging from a written test focused on science and history, to blind taste and aroma tests, to salesmanship, to creating the perfect beverage pairing and bite. I entered the competition for the first time, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, and ended up coming in sixth out of almost fifty cheesemongers. That accomplishment proved to me that I could actually do this and be somebody in this industry. (DCF: ROCKSTAR!!)
DCF: What are you Currently Conquering?
ABP: For the most part, I’m still just trying to get the word out about Cheesemonster! Making a name for yourself is definitely the most challenging part of starting a business! I also just started this little thing called Cheese Club by Cheesemonster (Next one is Nov 15th) which is super fun. Once a month, I host a cheese party where we deep-dive into one particular cheese. We taste the cheese of the month, learn about it, pair it with a few beverages, eat some dishes cooked with it – essentially we eat, drink, and have a good time. It’s a lot of fun!