Five minutes with a Legend: Will Studd

Published on 7 September 2020

Self-confessed cheese lover Will Studd has been working with specialist cheese for over four decades as a distributor, retailer, writer, and creator and host of the award-winning international TV show Cheese Slices. And our refrigerators and deli cabinets are all the better for it. 

After establishing delicatessens in central London in the 1970s, Will migrated to Australia with his family where he devoted himself to raising the public’s understanding and appreciation of artisan cheese and played a signi´Čücant role in amending Australia’s strict dairy and cheese regulations. During his career Will has also written two books, Chalk and Cheese (1999) and Cheese Slices (2007), and created a Selected by Will Studd range of specialty cheeses that are available in Australia and the USA. In 2002, Will was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame and in 2009, the French Government honoured him with the prestigious title of Officer of the Order of Agricultural Merit for his work in the defence of traditional raw-milk cheese. 

The proudest moment in my career is a difficult question to answer, as I believe that pride in achievement is a dangerous trait. If you ask whether I am satisfied and happy with my career, I can say hand on heart, yes. I have been very privileged to meet many talented and inspiring people in the food and wine industry and share the story that lies behind hundreds of wonderful cheeses, particularly over the past two decades while making the Cheese Slices series.

The mistake that taught me the most was assuming that Australian specialist cheesemakers would welcome the opportunity to produce cheese from raw milk. The challenge I mounted over the Food Standards Australia New Zealand ban in 2002 on the production and sale of all raw milk cheese, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, turned toxic and led to the local industry accusing me of “food terrorism”, as well as threats of fines and jail. This was ironic because since migrating to Australia two decades earlier I had been on a mission to encourage the production of local artisan cheese; my first book Chalk and Cheese highlighted the merits of these products. Why do I feel so strongly about raw-milk cheese? It’s no accident that good quality raw milk is the starting point for cheese with a genuine taste of place in Europe. I have always wanted to taste authentic Australian cheese that is comparable or superior in quality and I will never give up pushing for a choice between cheese made with raw or pasteurised milk here. I still have an application to change the regulations with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal all these years later.

My first job in hospitality was working at Justin De Blank, a posh food shop in Belgravia in London during the early 1970s during my university holidays. Here I had my first taste of English farmhouse and “continental” cheese. The flavour was a revelation. I was hooked on trying to understand what made these cheeses so special and found it very rewarding to share this joy with customers. The experience provided me with the foundations for opening a chain of delicatessen shops in central London a few years later, stocking only the finest cheeses I could find.

The reason I got into this industry was that cheese is a natural food and the most interesting examples all have a story to tell, which connect with people at an emotional level. When I first started in the industry many specialist cheeses were hard to find and at risk of extinction. Believe it or not, working with them was widely regarded as being part of alternative London’s counter-culture at the time. To me, they were a good cause to support, tasted great, and luckily proved a good way to make a living that was far more fun than the accountancy I’d studied at university. When I arrived in Australia, I was surprised not to find any local farmhouse cheese and there was very little understanding of specialist European cheese. I formed a cheese distribution wholesale company called Butterfields Cheese Factors and fitted out a cash van based on one used by a company that supplied me in London. I remember how it rattled away next to the bedroom all night long during hot Melbourne summers.

The reason I stayed was I have an inquisitive nature and working with local cheesemakers in the early days led to lots of technical questions. I still find exciting new things to feed my obsession with cheese. These days I work with our two youngest kids, Ellie and Sam, who go by the name The Studd Siblings. We have a range of cheese selected by finest in class, which is sold in Australia and the USA as Selected by Will Studd. Our best-seller is Aphrodite halloumi, a lovely authentic handmade cheese made by a family in Cyprus who struggle to keep up with demand. I am very aware of how much they depend on us and the responsibility involved in ensuring their business has a future.

My mentor was Pierre Androuet – a French affineur based in Paris. He wrote a book called Guide du Fromage, which was the first to explain to a wider audience of cheese-lovers the influence of the seasons and what to look for when buying French cheese.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, it’s all the time we have to enjoy good cheese. Cheese is the perfect takeaway pre-prepared food and the growth of online trading means cheesemakers and mongers have taken the opportunity to reach out and tell their story directly to customers, who have plenty of time to listen.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose the golden age of Melbourne fine dining between 1984 and 1994 – it was a really exciting, fun time to be working with cheese. Brilliant, innovative restaurateurs and chefs, as well as curious consumers, were looking for a change from bland and predictable cheese. While most of those businesses have long since hung up their clogs, their legacy is still with us today. On a less positive note, more than 16,000 Australian family dairy farms have disappeared since then, and animal welfare and breed diversity have taken second place to production costs to ensure milk is cheaper than water. That is not a foundation for a sustainable specialist cheese industry, so there is plenty to keep fighting for to ensure future generations have a choice of good cheese.

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne hospitality industry in the last five years is single-estate coffee, roasted and brewed so you can taste it at its best. Forget lattés made with burnt beans and milk with no provenance. I am amazed and proud of how hard our eldest daughter Fleur has worked on the Market Lane business to change coffee culture in our city. And yes, filter coffee works really well with cheeses such as Comté, Gruyère, Gjetost, and even Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Selected by Will Studd cheese is available for purchase through several Australian retailers; see stockists here. See what’s on Will’s cheeseboard by following him on Instagram @willstudd.

 

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