John Braga of Murray’s Cheese Bar about his love for cheese
John Braga grew up in Brazil, where he learned to make cheese on his grandfather’s dairy farm. Today, he creates innovative boards and pairings as a cheesemonger at a New York City classic; Murray’s Cheese Bar. We sat down with him, tried a few of his signature pairings, and talked all things culture.
What is your story?
Well, it all starts in Brazil where I was born and raised. I remember going to my grandfather’s farm every holiday when I was 6-10 years old mostly for fun but also to help him make cheese! My grandfather owned a dairy farm there and made cheese almost his entire life. Unfortunately, he passed a few years later. So my family decided to sell his farm.
I have been obsessed with cheese ever since but never had the chance to make my own again. I went to college in Brazil (not related to cheese) and finally decided to move to NYC for work. Once I got here, I realized it was actually time to change careers, even though I had no clue of what I wanted to do yet. I spent months sending out resumes, with no success.
One day after the gym I stopped by a Murray’s Cheese shop at Grand Central Station and saw that they were sampling this block Cheddar called Prairie Breeze. As soon as I had a bite, I realized that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: work with cheese.
I didn’t know how though until they told me that Murray’s ran a program at their Education department where you could work as a volunteer at their cheese classes, learn all about cheese, and even bring cheese home! So I took one class, then another one, and I took so many that I felt confident to apply for the position of Cheese Monger at Murray’s Cheese Bar.
Cheese fascinates me! Cheese is a living product. It’s delicious. It brings people together. It brings you all good memories. The real question is: why not cheese?
I even pair cheese with cheese sometimes! – John Braga’s unmistakable love for cheese
What are your earliest childhood memories of cheese? Of food in general?
I remember making my own cheeses with my grandfather and then sharing it with the rest of the family for breakfast in the morning. We would always eat cheese in the morning and in the afternoon. Always with a cup of coffee.
Are there other Brazilian expats in NYC working in food that you know? Is there a common thread, something you all bring to the scene here?
We see a lot of Brazilians coming to Murray’s to learn more about cheese but I haven’t met anyone who works in the business and lives in NYC yet.
What is your number one cheese destination?
If you are in NYC, I would definitely recommend Murray’s Cheese shop in the West Village. It’s cheese Heaven! They sell over 200 different cheeses, charcuterie, and everything else you need to build a cheese board.
What are the most important aspects of a cheese pairing?
At Murray’s, we like to come up with pairings where you’re still able to taste the cheese but also find new flavors. That being said, we usually like to pair cheeses with food and beverage that have similar flavor notes (for instance, a nutty Alpine style cheese with some hazelnut butter), or we can pair a cheese and wine that were made in the same region (considering the idea terroir, if it grows together, it goes together), or we can pair them using the principal that opposite attracts (like pairing a crumbly salty blue cheese with some creamy and sweet honey).
What combination are you most proud of? Current favourite? Classic combo?
I love pairing Bayley Hazen Blue by Jasper Hill with some Italian pistachio butter. Bayley Hazen Blue is the perfect blue cheese for those who either love or think they hate blue cheese. It’s dense and creamy, with some grassy and nutty flavors, and it’s just perfect for dessert. Enjoy it with a glass of fruity or dessert wine and you’ll never forget that moment.
What is your top cheese at the moment?
It always changes. But lately I’ve been really enjoying Harbison, also by Jasper Hill in Vermont. Harbison is this luscious spreadable bloomy-rind cheese made with cow’s milk and wrapped in spruce bark. The cheese was also named best of show at the American Cheese Society’s 2018 Judging and Competition.
What would you recommend a non wine drinker pair with cheese?
Cheese can be paired with pretty much anything. Beers, cider, whiskey, tequila, you name it. And if you don’t drink alcohol at all, you can pair it with tea, coffee, virgin cocktails. The list is endless.
What are some ideas you’ve brought to Murrays? What have they taught you?
Murray’s is a place that always allows me to be creative. So when I am building my cheese flights, I like to think of it as a painting. It needs to have colors, and textures, and different shapes but also different flavors. Since I grew up in Brazil surrounded by all these different flavors, and colors, shapes and textures, I get to bring all of that to the restaurant.
Murray’s has taught me a lot about cheese and how to connect what I knew, the flavors I grew up with, with what the rest of the world has been eating for centuries.
What are some unexpected things people can pair with cheese at home when
I would say that the craziest pairings I have seen were spreadable cheese with potato chips, or a goat cheese with Pop Rocks. But like I said, people can pair cheese with pretty much anything. I even pair cheese with cheese sometimes!
Any big cheese no-no’s?
I’m normally open to everything. But if you could skip those dairy products you find at your local grocery store and started buying real cheese, I would totally recommend that. Also, if you love truffles, try asking your cheesemonger for cheeses that taste like truffle, instead of buying truffle cheese. There’s nothing better than potato chips with a nice Camembert that actually tastes like truffles.
Why should travelers to NYC visit Murrays?
Murray’s Cheese is one of the biggest cheese shops in the world. Going there is definitely an experience you don’t want to miss. We sell cheeses from the US, Europe and even Australia. And guess what? You can even try them all! Just ask your cheesemonger for a sample.
Design your ideal cheeseboard.
My ideal cheeseboard would need to have at least 3 cheeses: a goat, a sheep, and a cow’s milk one. They would all have different textures and shapes, and maybe even come from different countries too. I would add some walnuts or almonds, fruits, honey or jam, and also some crackers.
If I had any vegetarian friends coming over, I would skip the meat. Otherwise, I’d add some prosciutto and salami. I would finish my cheeseboard with some seasonal flowers, just to add some colors and make it look pretty.