The Eating...Our Words 100: Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger

Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.

Blanche Kinze wasn't always a cheese master at Kroger, selling Goudas and Époisses from the Murray's kiosk inside the newly renovated store at Shepherd and 11th. Kinze wasn't always even that big of a cheese fan.

The native Houstonian started working in restaurants at the incredibly young age of 12, when she got a job bussing tables in Clear Lake, and was bitten by the service industry bug. After tending bar at places such as The Laugh Stop for years, Kinze went to the Art Institute of Houston for her culinary arts degree and was lured to Taos to open a restaurant after graduation. But Houston was always calling her back home.

After working in restaurants for 17 years, Kinze took a break -- to work on the business side of the industry for another 15. Three years ago, the kitchen called her back and she took a job as a chef with Kroger. And when Murray's Cheese announced that it was partnering with Kroger to take its New York-based cheese selection nationwide, Kinze was tapped by Kroger to help roll the kiosks out -- starting in Atlanta. Before long, she found that she'd fallen in love with something she'd previously regarded as just another ingredient.

"I thought it would be something fun to add to my background," Kinze says. "It's always good to learn something new." Now, however, her palate has expanded to appreciate even the stinkiest, moldiest, most eccentric cheeses: "Do you smell that?" she crows, describing the first time she ventured into the Murray's cheese caves in New York City. "Those aren't gym socks -- that's Époisses!"

Soon, Kinze was back home in Houston, where she helped the first Murray's cheese kiosks get started two years ago. The Kroger store at Shepherd and 11th is where you'll find her most days -- and with Kinze's infectious enthusiasm for cheese, it's no surprise that this store moves more cheese than any other Kroger in the southwest region.

Who she is:

Blanche Kinze is the woman who can tell you why Mimolette has those weird grooves in it (cheese mites -- just don't think about it) and also how it was used by peasants in the French Revolution (as cannonballs when they ran out of ammunition). She can also tell you the difference between real Gouda and force-aged Gouda; how to stop worrying and learn to love stinky washed rind cheeses; and how to recognize when a cheese case "isn't loved." She can pair any cheese to any situation, food or beverage and will help you put together a cheese platter to rival all cheese platters at your next party.

Why does she like it?

Along with Kroger's sommelier, James DeLeon, Kinze has been giving free cheese and wine/beer-pairing classes for many months now. Educating her customers about the wide range of cheese types, styles and flavors is one of her passions. She also loves helping people's palates change over time just as hers did.

"Some people smell 'funk' when they smell Époisses," she says of the notoriously pungent French cheese from Côte-d'Or. "I smell gorgeous, yummy, super fabulous cheese." Getting other people to smell that means getting them "to step outside of the box."

"There's more to cheese than just sharp Cheddar," she says. "You've gotta try something new."

What inspires her?

Kinze loves broadening her customers' horizons -- and she especially loves to see that new knowledge and passion passed along.

"It's great when you see little kids who are willing to try new things," she says, before telling a story about a regular customer who now lets her little girl pick out the cheese during the grocery trips each week.

Kinze is also inspired by diners' newfound affection for cheese as a whole course, or as dessert. "It's so refreshing to see Americans come on board with what the Europeans have been doing for centuries," she says. And when her customers come to her looking for assistance in assembling a cheese plate, Kinze couldn't be happier.

If not this, then what?

Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, Kinze is no stranger to hurricanes and other serious weather events. She's fascinated by them, and always wanted to be a storm chaser as a kid. As an adult, she's passionate about feeding people and helping others learn to cook or prepare food for themselves.

As a result, Kinze says her only other ideal job would be as a "storm chaser chef," a job title she and her brother (who is also a chef and a meteorology geek) made up together. "We'd chase storms and then stick around in the areas that have been affected and feed people, or help them cook what's in their refrigerators or freezers before it goes to waste," she says with a laugh. "What could be better?"

If not here, then where?

Having lived elsewhere already, Kinze is content to stay put in her hometown now. "The weather gives you plenty of bad hair days," she says, "but there's nothing like watching a Texas thunderstorm roll in over the bay -- and there's nothing like a good hurricane."

The Eating...Our Words 100:

Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer and Educator at Spec's Sam Ray of Republic National Server Thai Van of Kata Robata Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile Benjy Mason of Down House

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