Meet NJ-Based Cheese Sommelier, Nadine Ryan of Common Lot Restaurant
By Sarah Emily Gilbert
When it comes to selecting cheese, I have two options: extra cheese or extra, extra cheese. As sophisticated as my process sounds, it’s evident that my affinity for cheese clouds my decision-making skills. Fortunately, there are individuals whose job is to guide people like me through the over 650 varieties of cheese, and Nadine Ryan is one of them.
In addition to owning Common Lot Restaurant in Millburn, New Jersey with her husband, Ehren, Nadine holds a cheese sommelier certification from Wifi Hohenems in Austria. Most of us are familiar with wine sommeliers, but cheese sommeliers are somewhat rare in the United States. Nadine received her certification abroad in 2007, but the certification exam was not available in America until 2012. In fact, less than 1,000 individuals hold the title in the U.S., but Nadine’s Austrian roots are helping to boost those numbers.
“Cheese sommeliers are much more common in Europe,” she explains. “The title is actually gaining in popularity due to the size and variety of Europe’s cheese industry. Cheese courses are very common and extensive and are often delivered to a guest’s table via a cheese trolley (or cart). There are often numerous options on the trolley and a cheese sommelier's role is to assist the guest in making selections, or to create a selection for the guest.”
In addition to a former employer’s need for a cheese trolley manager, Nadine credits her interest in the food to her Austrian upbringing.
“My earliest introduction to cheese was the wooden boards of cheeses, meats, pickles and bread that is called ‘Jause’ in Austria,” she says. “It is very common as a lunch or light meal. You can enjoy Jause anywhere from fine dining establishments to small Alpine huts while hiking or skiing.”
Whether you’re in Europe or the United States, the certification process is rigorous. In order to receive certification in Voralberg, Austria, Nadine had to take a theoretical course followed by a written, verbal, and practical exam. The American Cheese Society requires candidates to pass a three-hour multiple-choice exam along with a minimum of 4,000 hours of work in the industry (cheesticks.com). Along with the certification comes an ability to explain the complexities of cheese to consumers and co-workers, a skill that can prove particularly helpful to Nadine and her restaurant.
Only open since April 2016, Common Lot doesn’t have a cheese program yet, but the Ryans hope to create one eventually. In the mean time, Nadine uses her expertise to guide the chefs (her husband being one of them) when they include cheese in their dishes. At present, Nadine’s favorite “cheesy” dish on the menu is the Comte Cheese ‘Butter’ with figs, prosciutto, merlot vinegar gel and crostini.
“Comte cheese is a fairly mild semi-hard cheese from France,” she explains. “ The chef melts it down and cooks it out until it has the texture of butter and then adds cream and eggs to it. You spread it on the bread and it has a richness to it that is complemented by the saltiness of the prosciutto, while the sweetness of the figs brings a light freshness to the dish. The merlot vinegar gel then adds that pop of acidity to balance the dish – it is really delicious.”
That’s not the only thing that’s really delicious at Common Lot. The restaurant serves eclectic dishes that are representative of the places that Nadine and Ehren have worked or visited including Australia, The Channel Islands, India, China, England, and many others. NJ Monthly also named Common Lot one of the Top 25 Best Restaurants for 2016.
As a true fromager, Nadine doesn’t have a least favorite cheese. “I am always trying new cheeses and really enjoy the variety,” she explains. “It very much depends on the type of cheese for the meal or the occasion, so I always have lots of different options.”
For more information on Common Lot, located at 27 Main Street in Millburn, call 973.467.0494 or visit commonlot.com.