It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday. Jon Mizrachi and Dan Grenke are ready for class. Their students are gathered in a circle, eyeing the vocabulary lists they’ve been given, taking in the focus of the evening’s lesson — yellow, crumbly, even a little stinky — sitting in front of them on a thick, black slab. But there won’t be any quiz at the end of class. When Grenke calls the class to order, he says, “We’re not here to learn facts. We’re here to taste.”
At first glance, Mizrachi and Grenke seem just like ordinary young, post-collegiate Manhattanites. Apart from running back and forth between their apartments in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and taking care of errands in the city, they’re pretty laidback guys — until they start to talk about cheese.
“It’s supposed to be the food of the people!” Mizrachi told the Forward enthusiastically between sips of coffee. “It was literally what peasants made when they had too much milk and needed to keep it. It wasn’t supposed to be this big, special, highbrow thing!” The world may be overrun today with wine and cheese tastings, but Mizrachi isn’t happy with the closed-door, turned-up-nose culture that now surrounds his beloved dairy delicacy. So he decided to do something about it — to do his part in bringing back cheese, wine and even beer to the people.
Six months ago, with co-worker and friend Grenke, Mizrachi started Lowbrow Gourmet, a small business bringing wine, beer and cheese education to the homes of regular folk. “The idea for the name actually came from the art world,” Mizrachi said, referring to a time when a friend showed him a magazine specializing in underground works known as Lowbrow Art. “I realized there’s a really strong parallel between food and art,” he explained. “Art used to be a folk thing, a part of culture, and eventually it became this high-society thing. And people are afraid of good food because they think they need to know a lot about it to enjoy it. In reality, all you need is tastebuds and some good friends to talk it over with.”
He speaks from experience. “Just because you didn’t grow up with great food doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it,” he said with a laugh. The son of a Sephardic father and Ashkenazic mother, Mizrachi wasn’t exposed to much as a child — not in the food department, at least. “I came from a really poor culinary background,” he confessed. “All my first birthday parties were at McDonald’s, and my mom never really cooked, not so much because she couldn’t… maybe she just didn’t want to do the dishes, who knows!” he said.
At 15, Mizrachi decided to make a change, and so he started cooking on his own after school. While in college at the University of Hartford’s music school (he studied music production), he worked in specialty food store, the West Hartford, Conn., branch of Wild Oats Markets, and continued afterward at Tuller Premium Food in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. There he met Grenke — and a slew of customers who returned to the shop again and again for the guys’ friendly and casual advice on artisanal cheese.
Grenke’s culinary background was also rather uninspired. A graduate of the University of Michigan and a sometime actor, he was raised on Midwestern supermarket fare. “You know, mac and cheese, frozen dinners — my mom did cook, but nothing fancy,” he said. But one day he reluctantly tried an unusual specimen on a restaurant cheese plate and took an interest in the product — one that eventually led him to his job at Tuller. “When we got the idea for Lowbrow, we already had a lot of regulars who came to talk to us,” Mizrachi said, “and we had the support of stores we’d worked with.” Grenke and Mizrachi sought out inexpensive but locally produced artisanal wines and cheeses, and, thanks to word of mouth and some loyal customers, Lowbrow slowly began to grow.
“It’s a very abstract thing to be able to taste something and make an association with something else,” Mizrachi said. Hence, Lowbrow gatherings center on “the cheat sheet,” a glossary of wine and cheese terms Mizrachi and Grenke explain so that partygoers can begin to grasp the language of tasting. “The kinds of stuff people come up with is hilarious,” Mizrachi said. “One woman was eating a piece of Gruyere once, and I saw her whispering in her husband’s ear,” he remembered. “She eventually confessed, ‘Well, I’m breastfeeding a baby, and this cheese smells like breastfed baby vomit!’ And you know, if you think about it, cheese is basically spoiled milk! So she wasn’t too far off!”
It’s not quite what you’d expect to hear at a fancy get-together — and Mizrachi and Grenke couldn’t be happier. “We’re doing this for the types of people we’ve met — people who aren’t snooty; regular people who are just interested,” Mizrachi said. Grenke agreed. “The best thing about this is we’re there to bring our senses, to experience things and check ourselves in a community environment,” he said. “You don’t have to have encyclopedic knowledge to enjoy these things.” And so far it looks like the Lowbrow plan is working. It’s not uncommon to find Mizrachi and Grenke staying around long after a Lowbrow tasting is over, enjoying a glass of Riesling with their customers. As Mizrachi put it: “These are foods that were a big part of society, and then they sort of lost their way. So Dan and I hope we can bring it back to earth.”
Rebecca Milzoff is a reporter at New York magazine.