A Mensch of a Monger
Talking cheese with Chef Zach Berg in time for Shavuot
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
May 1, 2018
Zach Berg, co-owner of Provisions in Ferndale, began his culinary journey to cheesemongering with a kosher catering gig at the ripe old age of 13 when a family friend offered him a summer job washing dishes and unloading food trucks as Detroit hosted the 1998 Maccabi Games. By no means was that the first or the last time Berg’s Jewish community played a role in his career. From meeting his now business partner at Tamarack Camps, to teaching kosher cooking to Monday Night School students, Zach Berg has taken his passion for food and his Jewish roots with him all over the world. Now he’s back and on a mission: to make sure Metro Detroiters are eating better cheese.
“I really want to help people ask the right questions, connect with cheesemongers and cheese makers and just eat better food,” said Zach. “There’s plenty of access now, and that wasn’t the case ten years ago. I felt that to do what I wanted to do in food then, I had to leave Michigan. And I came home because I felt that to do what I wanted to do now, I had to come back.”
The road to opening Provisions, a quaint retail space offering cut-to-order cheese, craft chocolate and charcuterie, has been long, windy and full of experiences that have made Zach Berg the chef and business owner he is today. After that summer in ’98, Zach went on to work for multiple kosher catering companies before transitioning into restaurants. He bounced around to several chains including P.F. Chang’s and Champps Americana before entering Michigan State’s Hospitality Business School. Once in East Lansing, Zach started working in more independent establishments like Red Cedar Grill and Dusty’s Cellar.
“I learned to bake at Dusty’s,” said Zach. “I spent a semester of college getting to work at 9 p.m and baking until 4 a.m. Then I’d go to my 8 a.m. Technologies and Business class covered in flour.”
His interest in baking led him to one of Zingerman’s tasting events led by co-owner Ari Weinzweig. Zach was so taken by Weinzweig’s passion and care for food that immediately following the class he asked for an application and was hired. The folks at Zingerman’s quickly recognized Zach’s desire to learn as much as he could about the industry. They exposed him to new techniques and encouraged him to read a library of books on cooking and food.
“Eventually I was asked to start hosting some of their public tastings. I did that for two years, and then quite stubbornly went to culinary school,” said Zach. “I was not a studious kid, but I had this moment of realization that while I couldn’t have gone to whatever college I wanted to go to, I could go to whatever culinary school I wanted to go to. So, of course, I decided to go to the most prestigious one.”
Zach went to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, making the most of his time there. He was the President of the Student Wine Club, a role that involved venturing out for wine tastings every Saturday for 40 weeks. He also delivered cheese to the famous French Laundry, working for Soyoung of Andante Dairy, which is why he is one of only about 10 shops in the country sells her cheese.
“After culinary school, I moved to San Francisco and spent a year and a half in fine dining working in a Michael Mina restaurant,” said Zach. “I happened to run into Ari from Zingerman’s at a book talk for one of his books, and he convinced me that I looked miserable and should go back into cheese, which I did. I got a job at Bi-Rite Market, a very like minded company out in San Fran, and I ran their cheese counter for about four years.”
Zach came back to Metro Detroit in June of 2016 and jumped right back into food. After working at a couple of restaurants, he landed a job at Gayle’s Chocolates where he was reunited with his now business partner, Will Werner. While at Gayle’s, the duo piloted Provisions as a pop-up shop.
“The pop-up was a way for me to do a little market research while keeping my skills sharp and learning the cheese scene out here,” said Zach. “Will was already shopping at Farm Field Table [a speciality butcher shop that Provisions shares space with], and Matt, one of the brother’s that runs the place, said, ‘do it here!’ So we dragged a case in, which is much harder than it sounds, and set up shop. It’s been a wild, crazy ride ever since.”
So now we’re here, in Provisions, on a rainy and cold spring day. Zach and Will have been open for about five months and the place looks great. There’s a menagerie of cheeses in the case, shelves of chocolates and some really slick t-shirts that are way cooler than anything you’d expect to find in a cheese shop. Zach’s behind the counter building a cheese tray for a client on a handmade wooden board commissioned by local artists.
But we’re not here just because we like cheese. Shavuot is around the corner, a holiday which traditionally includes eating dairy products. And while we love a good blintz or cheesecake, we figured Zach was the guy to help us take our dairy game up to a gourmet level.
“I think it’s awesome that there is a dairy-based holiday in our religion. We do a great job of food seasonality playing a part in our holidays and festivals, and dairy needs its moment,” said Zach. “We as a culture are very much a fresh-cheese kinda people, we don’t do a lot of hard cheeses. Like most of the country, Jewish culture often looks at cheese as a condiment, something to go with your lox. And Shavuot is a time to make cheese the center of the plate. Eat a special cheese, and don’t put salmon on it.”
Solid advice. But we have so many more questions!
Let’s say we wanted to wow our guests with a seasonal cheese tray for Shavuot. How do we do it?
In the beginning, building trays wasn’t a skill that I enjoyed, but over time I realized it’s a great way to be creative. Building any tray starts with putting down the big stuff first. Then fill in with smaller things like nuts, dried fruit and crackers for variety and color.
We really like to play with shapes and colors. Try to vary the way you cut things: triangles, rectangles and cubes. Most importantly have fun with it, try new things each time and find things that work best for you.
What’s an easy way to make something your own on a tray, instead of just buying products and laying them out?
One easy and delicious idea is to chop up your own herb blend and roll a log of goat cheese in it. You can customize it specifically to your own taste. The one I’ve used here is rolled in rosemary and chives for an oniony/perfumey flavor. Another thing I like to do is soak raisins in rum, but you can use any kind of booze. Let them soak over night and then roll the goat cheese log in them. It’s a really nice treat for Mother’s Day.
How do we pick “seasonal” cheeses for spring?
When you think about eating seasonally, you often think about what crops are being grown that time of year or what is in abundance. In spring, you start seeing a lot of fresh goat cheeses and sheep cheeses because sheep and goats have a more specific lactation cycle than cows.
The lambing and kidding season starts in March and goes until about mid April. A few weeks after the babies are born, you can start taking the milk from the mother. To me, spring is all about sheep and goat cheeses that are super fresh, not really aged.
The more complicated way of thinking about cheese seasonality is looking at aged cheeses that were made in the summer, when there is the most fat content in the milk, and figuring out when those cheeses reach their ideal maturity. For example, if you have a cheese that was made six months ago, it was made at the height of summer last year. That cheese, if it’s meant to be aged six months, is at its peak right now. So it’s not spring in the direct sense, you have to do a bit of mental math, but you’re finding a cheese made at the right time in the summer that has aged to the perfect point to enjoy it.
What are some misconceptions you think people have about eating and buying cheese?
I have two…
First, try things you think you don’t like.
So often in this country, we get an inferior version of something, or a factory version of something. A lot of people say, “I don’t like goat cheese.” And I like to joke, “I don’t like crappy goat cheese either.” You may not have enjoyed an industrial version of blue cheese, but our blue cheese is slowly matured and has a dairy quality, and then a blue quality — it’s not just salt and ammonia. Our goat cheeses are not made from giant pools of goat cheese sitting for multiple days at a time. They’re fresh from a farm, and someone literally carried a milk jug 100 yards to the other side of the barn and started making the goat cheese.
It makes a huge difference, and I hope people have the courage to try things again and again and put away their preconceived notions. I personally don’t like oysters or olives, but any time they’re put in front of me I try them to see if there’s a special one.
Second, don’t be fooled by organic.
Organic, especially in dairy, is such a loaded term. If you really want to feed yourself and your family good food, you need to dig a little deeper than just looking for a seal on a product. If you talk to a lot of small farms, they’re not using GMO feed, they are using organic practices, they’re feeding their animals the grass in the field that can’t be certified organic, and it’s a tremendous amount of money to pay to have those seals put on your products.
You have to ask questions like what is the feed, what are the farming practices, what is the antibiotic regiment on the farm. And you might not agree with organic if you really research it. To be certified organic, you can’t use any antibiotics, even for a sick animal. For example, if you have a herd that’s strictly organic, and you have a sick cow, you take them out of rotation, but you can’t give them the medicine they need to get better and the animal suffers.
Also most of the organic feed used in this country comes from China, so you’re buying feed shipped across the world instead of using the grass in the fields because that grass can’t be certified.
Some people want to stop the conversation as soon as you tell them a product isn’t organic, and I want to say “I know the name of the cow this came from. The farmer’s children are drinking this milk un-pasteurized. This is so safe for you. This is humans feeding humans.”
Why come to a cheese monger as opposed to going to a grocery store?
We have a really strong grocery scene in Metro Detroit with some wonderful independent groceries and regional chains that have great cheese trays and great cheese selections. When we started thinking about Provisions, I really didn’t know if anybody cared about whether they were shopping at speciality stores or grocery stores and those nuanced differences. I was surprised when people started coming in and saying, “thank you, we needed this.”
We may have some products that you could find at another store, but we care for them differently. We tell our customers the story of the cheese, where it came from. And I think in this moment of mindfulness, we serve you a better product by giving you that story and the context and the ability to enjoy it.
In terms of sourcing, we focus on passionate producers. Our products come from a tradition, they come from a village. We usually know the name of the person who has made the cheese, often we’ve been to the farm. Will and I really think of food and travel and food and geography as synonymous. We’ve experienced this world by eating our way through it, and we try to share that. We want to take people on a journey.
And finally, we hear you’re getting married?! Mazel tov! Tell us everything!
I met my fiancé [Rabbi Megan Brudney of Temple Beth El] because my niece and nephew go to preschool there. When I moved back to town, Megan also had just moved to town, and people were suggesting that I meet her. But going on a blind date with a rabbi is a little intimidating, so instead I had my sister-in-law host a wine and cheese night that I ran at her house for people from the Temple, and Megan came.
She was super high energy and all around wonderful. Our first date was at an Indian restaurant, and it was so comfortable it was almost eerie. It was very natural, like we had known each other for a long time.
We’re getting married in June at the Crofoot in Pontiac. We are doing a “cheesecake” at the wedding, but made with actual tiered wheels of cheese for everyone to taste. Opening up a business and getting engaged within five months was a lot, but it’s been great, I don’t know that I’d do it any differently if I could.