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Smile and say Cheesemonger: Wanderlust Delicato owner Amber Park is heading to New York for a little competition and fun

Wanderlust Delicato owner Amber Park is photographed in downtown Spokane on Tuesday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

To say that Wanderlust Delicato owner Amber Park loves cheese would be an understatement. As the proprietor of the award-winning cheese, wine and charcuterie business on Main Avenue downtown, which is about to celebrate its third anniversary, the divine dairy food is her way of living and life.

So, it only makes sense that Park would finally travel this year to the Cheesemonger Invitational in New York – Brooklyn Steel at 319 Frost St. in Brooklyn, to be exact – on June 12 to be with like-minded culinary colleagues.

Park sat down at Wanderlust Delicato on Wednesday afternoon after closing up shop to discuss Cheesemonger, her plans for the Big Apple trip, Wanderlust and how her young business survived the pandemic.

Please tell me about the Cheesemonger Invitational. How did it come about?

It’s something that I’ve known about and have followed their social media pages for years. I’ve always thought, “Oh my God, that would be so much fun,” but I am also very competitive. I didn’t want to put my name in the hat until I thought that I could represent well.

I just got a wild bug and did it (laughs). I put my name in the hat, and they accepted me. I have followed them since Day 1, since I decided to do the cheese shop, so about three years now.

Why this year for the Cheesemonger Invitational?

I just felt like this was the year to rip the Band-Aid off and just do it and put myself out there and attend the Cheesemonger Invitational. I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for a long time. I’m very versed in wine, but this is my first time doing something very hands on with cheese, so I wanted to make sure that I was prepared and ready to go.

What is your strategy for winning?

(Pauses) well, there are a couple of different aspects of the competition. You have the knowledge-based part of it, so my strategy for that is to study, study, study. With the perfect bites and beverage pairings, it’s really going back to my training in food and beverage and wine.

But not going too crazy. There are some scenes with big toys on them trying to re-create the Mars landing on a cheese plate (laughs). My focus is what pairs well together, what goes well together. What is my idea of the perfect bite of cheese with an accoutrement that is, “Wow!”

Can you reveal what you’re going to do?

I can tell you about the different challenges that I need to do, but I haven’t decided the exact components of each yet, to be honest with you. We have to make a perfect bite, and my assigned cheese is the La Tur. It has to be bite-sized, and that is really the only requirement. So, I’ll want to choose items and flavors that go well and look well and really complement La Tur.

The other challenge is creating a perfect plate and a perfect beverage pairing to go with that plate. My assigned cheese for that is the Carline, which I unfortunately haven’t been able to source here. So, I’m working with a similar cheese that’s close enough to get an idea for the pairing.

How familiar are you with the two cheeses?

La Tur is one of my favorites. I love it! I can design 100 perfect bites with it. The Carline I’ve never had, so I have no idea (laughs). So, one is a personal favorite, and one is nothing (laughs). But it’s a challenge. The organizer of the Cheesemonger told me, “Just go with it. The cheese gods are at work.” It is what it is. I’m fairly good with going with the flow.

What has been complementary in your experience with La Tur?

Jams – I really like jams with a soft cheese like this. It’s a mixed-milk-style cheese, so you’re working with sheep, goat and cow’s milk. It’s not as sweet and friendly as your typical brie-style cheese. There is a little more earthiness and funkiness to it. The pepper jelly from Sweet Heat is a perfect complement. I’m also playing around with more sweet things because La Tur is very versatile.

What are you hoping to accomplish at the Cheesemonger Invitational?

Fun and education, honestly. It’s three days of workshops with cheese makers and producers from around the world. There are 30 to 40 of us cheese mongers tasting and learning and talking shop. I think the camaraderie, education and fun are definitely what I’m looking forward to.

The competition is going to be fun. Everyone cheers each other on. If I win or if I don’t, I’m just so excited to go and experience it.

Heading into summer, what cheeses are at the forefront for you?

Coming into summer, I always love fresh burrata. They’re very seasonal, and you can pretty much have it all summer long with your different tomatoes and basil. I also love fresh Feta or Manouri cheese in the summer. They’re light and airy, and you can really dress them up with honey or go savory with vegetables. Feta is really great with watermelon and other summer foods.

What is your favorite cheese on a daily basis?

It’s really funny because La Tur is one of my absolute favorites, and I get to use it for the competition, so I am super-stoked about that! I also like to try new things all the time. I’m really into sheep and goat’s milk cheese right now. There is so much more nuance and texture and protein.

And I love it when I get customer requests, too, because they’ll introduce me to a cheese that wasn’t on my radar, and some of my customer requests have become staples and some of my favorites.

Switching gears, Wanderlust Delicato has been around for nearly three years now. How did you survive the pandemic?

Just willingness to go with the flow and I hate this word but pivot. Part of my blessing was not being open for so long so that I was set in my ways. I could really go with what people were wanting. I did farmers markets, which was very helpful the first year of the pandemic to get out of downtown and into people’s neighborhoods where people were outside and felt comfortable shopping again.

I did personal shopping appointments, which was very helpful during the pandemic, and a lot of curbside. The community really stepped up and said, “We really need you in Spokane. What do you need from us to survive the pandemic?” The community was huge.

What has been the best part of owning and operating Wanderlust Delicato for you?

Customers. It’s such a customer- and relationship-based business. They want to see me succeed, and they do wonderful things. It’s been great.

I’m really looking forward to getting back to the full spectrum of what I wanted Wanderlust Delicato to be when I opened. Getting back to exclusive wine club parties and more tastings and open-house-style events I had planned and themed and weekly events.

I’m ready to have all cylinders firing again.

If you go: Wanderlust Delicato, 421 W. Main Ave., (509) 822-7087, Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, closed Sundays and Mondays.