Raymond Hook was living in San Francisco when his business associate emailed him about opening a cheese shop in Atlanta. Hook, a cheesemonger with decades of experience, was interested under one condition: “Only if it can be the greatest cheese shop we could make,” he replied.
Capella Cheese, which opened this past July, is the realization of that grand ambition. Filled with natural light and shimmery blue tile, the lofty space houses more than two hundred cheeses. Its centerpiece is the glass case filled with globally sourced selections, behind which cheesemaker Brittany Billups crafts mozzarella daily. There are four cheese holding rooms with their own humidity and temperature controls; the room that holds the “bloomy rind” cheeses, for example, is about 41 degrees and 95 percent humidity. “You go in there in the mornings and it’s like walking down San Francisco Street. It literally builds a fog,” Hook says.
Hook discovered his passion when he worked at his family’s restaurant in Norman, Oklahoma, in his youth and took over its small cheese case. “The more I learned about cheese, the more I wanted to learn,” he says. He’s had stints selling cheese in San Francisco and previously lived in Atlanta to open Star Provisions, Anne Quatrano’s gourmet market, in the late nineties.
At Capella, he’s happy to share his years of expertise. “We try to help people who are just starting their cheese adventures,” he says. “We have plenty of cheese for them and for seasoned cheese connoisseurs, people who really are looking for specific flavors.” As this writer can vouch, he’s particularly gifted at making suggestions for whatever dish might be on the menu at home. Here, he offers a few such picks.
For macaroni and cheese
For a mac and cheese that’s extra gooey, Hook suggests Widmer’s Cheese Cellars’ brick. “It also gives Detroit-style pizza that crispy, melty edge,” he says.
For the perfect grilled cheese sandwich
You can’t go wrong with Thomasville Tomme by Sweet Grass Dairy. The Georgia-made cheese is “mild but has a nice flavor and melts incredibly well,” he says.
To pair with a baguette and jam
Any brie or soft cheese with a white bloomy rind is ideal for this classic picnic snack, Hook says. Green Hill by Sweet Grass Dairy works perfectly.
To layer on baked ziti
“Our Giorgio Cravero two-year-old Parmesan is spectacular,” Hook says. “And it gets that crispy top you’d be looking for.”
For a warming raclette
Raclette is both a type of cheese and a traditional Swiss dish of bubbling hot cheese paired with boiled potatoes or bread. Hook suggests either the raclette from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont or any Swiss variety. “The Swiss Raclette is a little more full-flavored, and the Vermont one is slightly sweeter but not sugary-sweet,” he says.
For the charcuterie board
Make an impression on a cheese board with a creamy, spreadable robiola by Guffanti. It’s even better with a touch of honey, Hook says. Capella sells the robiola enrobed in flowers, but you could also use Alp Blossom, a smooth, flower-crusted Alpine cheese, for a similar effect. It also makes a great hostess gift.