Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie

Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie in Marylebone, on regionality, seasonality and Alain Ducasse

Interview: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Image: Orlando Gili

When La Fromagerie began, London was rather behind in the food stakes. Did you feel like a pioneer?
I started from home, out of my garden shed, so I suppose I was a bit of a ‘kitchen sink’ pioneer. I had a market stall in Camden Lock, which was unusual to say the least, sitting among all the record stalls and incense. By the time I opened in Highbury in 1992 I had a clear idea of what I wanted the business to look like—and it hasn’t changed. I wanted to be in touch with the producers and cheesemakers, to go with the flow of the seasons and to have no serve-over counters. I wanted to have a shop that felt like a larder.

Has our relationship with food changed?
People know more now about the path from land to table. Before, most people had no idea at all where things come from, how regionality and seasonality create the food chain. Businesses like mine give so much more to a customer and make the shopping experience more interesting.

What is it about cheese that excites you?
Cheese is such a basic food, isn’t it? Milk is the first food we experience as babies, so we have a natural relationship with dairy products. I love the excitement of opening a mature cheese like a cheddar or parmesan—being the first person to crack it open. The taste of the first crumbs are magical and we share them with customers if they happen to be there. It brings smiles to faces.

What do you look for in a supplier?
I like to know whether they are using milk from their own herd or buying from a close neighbour. I love it when they make their own starter culture and rennet rather than rely on manufactured ones, and show me how they want to evolve their cheese so that each batch has its own identity.

Milk is different day to day, and the seasons play a huge role in the way it tastes. Dry, hot weather produces more herbal flavours than wet grass pastures, which are heavier and denser. That’s why I love farmhouse handmade cheeses that have seen the passage of time and all that it encompasses.

How do you manage your relationships with them?
I’ve travelled a great deal to meet up with cheesemakers, especially those who aren’t used to working outside their small communities. I need to get to know them and want them to know me so they are confident about us, and we can help them with the logistics and paperwork. I love discovering new cheesemakers. La Fromagerie highlights the importance of the producer and maker just as much as the product itself.

You supply lots of top restaurants. How do you forge relationships with chefs?
We don’t just sell lumps of cheese. We get to know the chef and the style of restaurant, how they like their cheese to be cut, what works with their menu and, most importantly, we give one-on-one tutoring to the staff. We teach them how to look after and cut the cheese and do regular tastings, so they can explain the cheeses to their customers.

Although this takes up a lot of time—our wholesale area has lists of requirements for each client—it means we give them something that’s unique to their business. The cheeseboard is an integral part of the meal, rather than an add-on.

You host special events at Moxon Street. Do any stick in the memory?
The very first cheese and wine tasting event we did, soon after opening in November 2002, was for me the turning point. It gave me the opportunity to showcase the business and the cheeses in a way that was both instructive and enjoyable. That evolved into dinner events, regional tastings, all sorts of ways of celebrating what we have in the shop.

I love hosting book launches where we can produce food from the books, because we have an amazing kitchen team. Memorable ones include Michel Roux, Yotam Ottolenghi, Mark Hix, Antonio Carluccio, most recently Stanley Tucci, and also a breakfast with Alain Ducasse where we discussed the merits of British and French cheeses. I’ve been so lucky to be able to enjoy the company of so many amazing people.

So what’s your secret?
It’s not about fancy fitments and décor, it’s about the produce. If we make a toasted cheese sandwich, it’s made with the best cheeses rather than a whole load of cheap stuff. Just because it’s melted doesn’t mean you can cut corners. I wouldn’t have something for sale in my shop that I wouldn’t want to buy myself, simple as that.

How many shops can you say that the owner is here every day and is a visible element to everything that goes on in the business? There is a restaurant saying that goes “le patron mange ici”—the owner eats here. The same applies to me. The owner buys her produce here and takes it home to enjoy.