After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, Ben Turkus—a Columbia native—waited tables at BlackSalt to earn money to move to Los Angeles; he had big dreams of following his film studies to Hollywood. He did end up pursing his dreams in California, but not with movie stars and film directors. Instead, Turkus was immediately enamored with Merlots and Cabernets and devoted himself to studying wine in Napa Valley at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
Upon returning to DC and BlackSalt, he furthered his education at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Arlington and took another course at the CIA on French wines. In 2006, he was promoted to wine director and assistant manager at BlackSalt, where he stayed until he left to open Proof in 2007. Although Turkus, who lives in DC’s Glover Park, has to use his wine experience as assistant sommelier, his primary responsibility is as the fromager—in short, he oversees 25 to 30 cheeses on Proof’s menu.
Before the restaurant opened, Turkus got a crash course in cheeses by traveling through France for a month and meeting with cheese and winemakers.
“It was a little bit of baptism by fire,” he recalls about his first months as fromager. “But you learn the most by just cracking the books and reading and tasting as many cheeses as possible. I’m kind of a big nerd with it.”
Favorite cheese of all time:
“Pleasant Ridge reserve. I could eat it literally all the time. It’s not an in-your-face style of cheese. There is a perfect balance of flavors, and the consistency is amazing!
Favorite milk type (cow, sheep, or goat):
“Cow. I think there’s a variety of flavors that are possible with cow cheeses. The others are more limited.”
Cheese you wish you could get here but can’t (because the FDA requires that raw milk cheeses are aged more than 60 days):
“I had some really crazy intense St. Nectaire in France that was really an unusual experience. I knew a certain amount about cheese, but after meals that was always pulled out as a postmeal cheese. It has an earthy funkiness that I’ve never seen in anything else.”
Favorite place to get a grilled cheese:
“On our late-night menu, we have a drunken grilled cheese. It’s basically scraps mixed with white wine and garlic. I used to go to American City Diner at 4 in the morning and get me a grilled cheese with tomato.”
Favorite condiment with cheese:
“Bleu cheeses with raw honey. It’s just one of those perfect matches.”
Favorite cheese-and-wine pairing:
“I love rich triple cream cheese with Champagne. The high fat is cut by the perfect acid.”
Best cheese for a turkey sandwich:
Best places besides Proof to get a good cheese plate:
“Bistro Bis, CityZen, and Palena.”
Favorite junk food:
“Chocolate-Oreo milkshakes from Potbelly.”
Cocktail of choice:
“A Manhattan, but I’ve kind of stopped drinking a lot of dark liquors. I had amazing things from [bartender] Justin at Central—really perfectly balanced cocktails.”
Go-to place for a late-night snack:
“Cashion’s Eat Place, late-night Friday and Saturday. They have some really awesome wings.”
Époisses or Taleggio:
Gruyère or Comte:
“Gruyère—I love the intense nuttiness.”
English or Vermont cheddar:
“English cheddar—you can’t beat the classics. But Vermont makes a good effort.”
Favorite dish on the menu at Proof besides cheese:
“Duck with pomegranate emulsion, grilled green onions, hazelnuts, and Chinese five spice. It’s just so good.”
What are some of the most-listened-to songs on your iPod?
“I go in waves of musical sessions, and I subject my customers to my music at the restaurant. Right now I like the Band, Radiohead, and My Morning Jacket.”
Favorite neighborhood restaurant:
“2 Amys is a bit of a walk, but I can walk there.”
Cheese before or after dinner?
“I prefer after dinner, but I think people in America like it before, so I try not to force it on them.”
Favorite breakfast item:
“Bacon, egg, and cheese. But I have been eating a lot of Kashi Go Lean with banana. It’s delicious and healthy.”
Best cheese for a splurge? Best that’s a bargain?
“For a splurge, I got some rounds of Vacherin Mont d’Or once. It was beyond expensive but so runny and herbaceous and delicious, I couldn’t get enough. For a bargain, caña de cabra, a Spanish goat’s-milk cheese and a big crowd pleaser.”