New shop brings cheese veteran back to Atlanta

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Raymond Hook, former general manager at Atlanta’s Star Provisions, is back in town, and set to open Cappella Cheese in Atlanta in April, along with partners Clay Jackson and Samantha Naik. He talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his passion for cheese, and what you can expect to find at the new shop.

Q. When did you get interested in cheese?

A. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. My family bought a restaurant there, and it had a 3-foot cheese counter. We took it out, but people kept asking, “Where’s the cheese?” So, we put it back; I got interested in cheese, then I started to love it, and learn about it.

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Q. What was your first cheese-related job?

A. It was called Ulysses Fine Food, in Berkeley, California. ... We specialized in leaf-picked lettuces that we sold to Chez Panisse. They also were a specialty food importer. It was great, because my job was selling cheese to the top restaurants in San Francisco.

Q. Did you meet a lot of top chefs back then?

A. A lot of chefs who’ve gone on to incredible fame, like Michael Mina, who was a sous chef at Aqua, and then owned it, and Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys, who became a Vegas chef.

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Q. How did you first land in Atlanta?

A. I was recruited to come work at Star Provisions, and be the general manager, and run the cheese program. When I left there, I went back to California, and started working for a nationwide specialty distributor.

Q. And, that led you to New York City?

A. I moved to New York, became a sales manager, and became more involved in the business of cheese. But, now, I’ve returned to the cheese counter, and I’ve returned to Atlanta.

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Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Q. Why back to Atlanta?

A. My two business partners are here. You know, I’ve lived all over, and moved around a lot, and never been tied to any one place. But, I will say, when I lived here 20 years ago, really nice things happened to me. I was involved with the Food Bank, which is really important to me. And, I met people here who I stayed friends with after I left. That’s when you know they’re real friends.

Q. How did that sync with opening Capella?

A. It was the opportunity to come back and actually build the cheese shop of my dreams, do it the way I thought it should be done. So, it’s an amalgamation of great cheese shops I’ve seen all over the world. We went the extra distance on everything. All the equipment was custom-made in Italy, and shipped to us.

Q. What are some of the bells and whistles?

A. The most important place is the little 100-square-foot ante room, where I will be choosing aged and ripe cheeses. If it’s not ripe, it’s not going to be on the counter. We’ll have a room for soft, bloomy rind cheese, another room for washed rind and blue cheese, and another room for large format and aged cheese. Each will be controlled for the correct temperature and humidity.

Q. What is the business model for Capella?

A. When we open, it (primarily will be) local. But, for the long term, probably 90% will be e-commerce.

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Q. What will be available for local shoppers?

A. We’ll be making little meat and cheese trays, sandwich kits and snack kits. We’ll have wine in temperature-controlled coolers for each style. We’ll sell flowers, produce, bread and pastries, and there will be a sampling area. Plus, we’ll have a station at the counter where we make fresh mozzarella every day, seven days a week.

Q. What’s your goal for Capella?

A. The real goal is to have the greatest cheesemakers in the world want us to sell their cheese here. I just hope people appreciate it, for all the effort it takes to get great cheese. But, it wasn’t designed for selling just high-end cheese. We want to give all of our customers, whoever they are, their next favorite cheese. It’s all about sharing knowledge, because, the more you know, the better consumer you are.

Capella Cheese. 255 Ottley Drive, Atlanta; capellacheese.com.

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