Agatha Khishchenko has many titles: attorney, cheesemonger, and, most recently, small business owner.
It’s 7 pm on a Saturday, and Dekalb Market Hall, a sprawling space packed with 40 food vendors specializing in everything from gourmet pickles to pierogis, bustles full of people. At Belle Cheese Brooklyn, the artisanal cheese shop Khishchenko opened in mid-June of last year, Khishchenko and Clair Widmaier are busy at work.
Widmaier, the shop’s manager and only other full-time employee, met Khishchenko a little over a year ago, but there’s an easy familiarity between them as they glide around each other in the small space, laughing and teasing each other. Khishchenko’s brown hair is in a braid, kept off her face with a camo head band, while Widmaier sports a floral print bandana. “We mesh well and she sees my vision for the shop and what we want it to grow into, we just really clicked,” said Khishchenko.
Belle Cheese offers between 75 to 85 different varieties of cheese, and a yellow and blue overhead menu boasts made-to-order sandwiches— a grilled cheese for every palate. Jars of figs, locally-sourced chocolates, and packaged honeys line the counter next to the cash register. Tonight is a special occasion—raclette night, which the shop does once a month. Raclette is a type of cheese and also a Swiss dish consisting of melted cheese traditionally served with boiled potatoes, pickled onions and small pickles.
“We only do it when we’re together on Saturdays, because it takes two people,” says Widmaier. Regular customers know to come on raclette nights, and while Widmaier operates a one-woman raclette-making assembly line, Khishchenko hosts the regulars, the two occasionally switching roles.
Saturday is the only day the two close the store together, and they have an informal tradition of bringing snacks from home, like hummus, as a shared dinner of sorts while on the job “because we’ve bonded and like a lot of the same foods,” said Widmaier. But tonight, there will be no hummus; the two look forward to filling their respective white bowls with raclette.
Khishchenko and Widmaier both knew they wanted to serve raclette since the early days of Belle Cheese. Khishchenko used to work at a restaurant where they served a holiday raclette for staff dinner, and although she doesn’t remember the first time she had the dish, “I remember I just fell in love with it.”
Khishchenko, who’s worked in food-related jobs since she was 18, got into cheese a little over five years ago, largely self-taught and picking up knowledge throughout her various restaurant jobs and travels in Europe, as well as professional courses in London and San Francisco. She’s been in New York City since 1999, except for the years she attended a Boston law school.
After moving back to the city in 2006 to work as a lawyer, Khishchenko sought a way to keep her “foot in the door” of the food industry. For three years, she maintained her day job as an insurance defense attorney while working part-time on Sundays at a restaurant, as “a release from my day job.” She decided to pursue her passion and open her own shop while still working as an attorney full-time.
Her schedule is packed: Monday through Thursdays she works as an attorney, and on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, after finishing her day job, she closes out the day at Belle Cheese.
“I used to be a big cook, but now I don’t have the time or the energy,” she said. “We’re on our feet for nine to 12 hours, I don’t like eating food that’ll weigh me down.”
She and Widmaier usually bring food from home for meals. “I try to eat vegetables, a salad, but that’s obviously unsuccessful today,” Khishchenko laughs.
For Widmaier and Khishchenko, dinner consists of bites taken in between the steady flow of customers. The two are perennially multi-tasking—Khishchenko munches from her bowl as she chats with three regulars, refilling their glasses of wine and plates of food, while Widmaier eats later in the brief lulls between taking customers’ orders.
Widmaier flattens cooked potatoes with the palm of her hand before placing the potatoes and sliced summer sausage onto the grill. A quarter wheel of Reading Raclette from a Vermont farm sits on and is melted by a raclette machine. Widmaier plates the grilled ingredients alongside cornichons and glides a spatula down the sides of the cheese, scraping melted cheese onto the platter and ladling her home-made ramp pesto on top as the finishing touch.
“I love when it gets crunchy like this,” says Widmaier, indicating the small drips of melted cheese cooling at the base of the raclette machine. “You know what you’re going to get when you’re familiar with something and make it so many times, so the fun is in the little bits. I save the crunchies for me and the cheese rinds for Aggie.”
Widmaier recalls her childhood, when her mom would make latkes and set aside the leftover crunchy pieces into a bowl, handing out equal bits to each family member so they wouldn’t fight over them. “There’s a kind of nostalgia to it,” she says, munching on a small piece of the dried melted cheese. She shaves off pieces of the raclette rind throughout the evening, setting it aside on a dish for Khishchenko to eat later. “Aggie likes the rind,” she notes.
“It’s got a crunchy, almost caramelized flavor,” explains Khishchenko.
“She will eat the rind of almost any cheese,” Widmaier interjects, laughing, “Even ones that I wouldn’t.” Widmaier left behind a more “corporate” cheesemonger job to work at Belle Cheese. She says it was a big risk, but it was “the best decision I’ve ever made.”
While she’s used to multi-tasking, Khishchenko says she’d love eventually to work solely in food and have more time to herself. But even after a long day on their feet with few breaks, Khishchenko and Widmaier are smiling and full of energy. When the potatoes are finished and the raclette machine is unplugged, about an hour before closing, the two don’t show any signs of slowing down.
“I get a lot of stress from this, but also a lot of joy. Selling cheese is really fun,” says Khishchenko. “There’s an immediate gratification, an immediate joy you see when someone tastes it.”Tags: Brooklyn food