Julia Birnbaum: Say Cheese!

If you like cheese (and I think there’s something terribly wrong if you don’t. I’m looking at you, nephew), levity and a sense of adventure, the Philly Cheese School is an experience not to be missed. Proprietor Julia Birnbaum has been in the cheese industry working in education, marketing and social media since 2014. The school offers fun in-person and virtual classes with fun themes like “Cheese and Potato Chips.” Birnbaum’s goal is to bring the love of cheese to the queer masses in a place that’s welcoming and comfortable. I met up with the young empresario to find out how and when she became the cheesiest! 

Where were you born?
I grew up just outside of Philly, in Merion Station, went to college in New York and stayed there for about 7ish years — most of my 20s — and then I came back to Philly in 2017. 

Merion Station?
It’s a little town on the Main Line, close to Narberth. 

Ah, yes. I thought it sounded familiar. I grew up in Radnor. Did you go into the city much? I found that most of my peers had NEVER ventured into Philadelphia. I was shocked that despite having the means, many of them had never seen a play, gone to a museum…nothing. They were afraid of the city.
For my last three years of high school, I went to a small private school in Chestnut Hill and I had a bunch of Philly friends, so I was in the city a bunch. I was going to concerts and shows. South Street was a whole activity itself. Remember that? It was like, meet me on South Street, and we’d hang out and be bad kids for the day. Nothing really bad, just hiding out in alleyways smoking cigarettes mostly. That was my Philly experience. Growing up on the Main Line was cozy and lovely, though at the time, I didn’t see it that way, I just wanted to get out of there. But having the city so close was awesome. 

Give me the cheddar on the family.
I have an older brother. He is amazing, but very different from me. He’s a science/math guy and is a software engineer for a company in Seattle. He’s straight and likes sports, but he’s really funny and we love to laugh together. Hilariously, the year I moved back to Philly is the year my parents left Philly. [In a faux whisper] Which may be partially why I wanted to move back! They’re in Boston now.

[Laughing] They might read this!
Ha! You can still put it in. I feel like they would get it. My mom was an award-winning palliative care nurse practitioner, which is a really heavy job. I don’t know how she did it. And my dad is a scientist. They both retired and have been living their best lives. They’re in a different time zone every time I talk to them. Last week, they were in Spain. [Laughing] I’m so jealous!

Something you love about the family?
I grew up in a family of foodies. That’s where my love of all this started, but we also don’t take anything seriously. Everybody is getting roasted all the time. My dad’s a big wine guy and he likes to play a game where he covers up the bottles with little burlap sacks and then we try them and talk about them and try to guess which one’s the most expensive one. It’s fun. We love to go on little adventures to different restaurants too. 

As a kid, what were you into?
Animals. For a really long time, I said that I wanted to be a vet, until my parents took me to visit a real vet. She was talking about having to see sick animals and I was like, “Wait, they’re sick!? That’s terrible!” I just thought that vets sat around playing with animals all day. 

Funny. Did you have any pets?
I had a pet rabbit. There’s about a three-year period where in every picture taken of me, I’m holding a rabbit. 

What did you end up studying?
I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is a liberal-arts college, so you didn’t really have to pick a major, but I focused on writing and when I graduated, the plan was to do writing in NY. I got a job writing celebrity gossip for The Source. [Laughing] You know — the kind of articles that you read and think, “Journalism’s dead!” That’s what I wanted to write! The “Real Housewives” type of stuff. And for a brief time, I was an assistant to a star on “Real Housewives of New York” (namely, Sonja Morgan — for all you “RHONY” heads). Writing for The Source was fun. I was interviewing all these rappers and got to go to cool parties, but the money wasn’t there. But there was a cheese counter near my office and that’s how it happened. 

Julia Birnbaum holds a platter of cheeses in front of a light-up sign that says "say cheese"

What were your best and worst moments working in the hip-hop realm?
A favorite moment was when I went to a party thrown by G-Eazy. It was a whiskey-tasting event which was really cool and I noticed someone in the corner of the room. I’m a HUGE Lil Wayne fan. He was my hip-hop awakening. I used to be an emo kid and then some friends got me into rap and hip-hop. Anyway, I recognized that it was his manager. I kept tasting whiskey until I got the guts to approach him. We laughed and chatted for a while and he said, “You’re going to be at the show right?” When I said, “Nooo, I’m broke. I couldn’t afford tickets to the Lil Wayne show.” He said, “Oh! I’ll put you on the list.” So I got to go to the concert and be like, “I’m on the list!” It was the best thing ever. The worst thing was when I did a story on Top Dog Entertainment. It’s a record label that Kendrick Lamar is on and I worked really hard on the story. I was so excited to be in print. When the issue came out, I rushed to the newsstand to get a copy and they accidentally put someone else’s name on the article! It was awful! I was very sad.

So then you started working in the food area. I read that you were a “Head Monger.” What is that?
In the world of cheese, a monger is the person behind the counter. My first promotion was to head monger. The counter where I worked was in Grand Central so it was fast-paced and really intense. I must have cut my hands in every way possible and was in the ER getting stitches left and right but I was very proud that I learned quickly and excelled in the job. That’s when I fell in love with it and the rest is history! 

What are some of the things that you bring to the school with your knowledge of cheese?
Cheese is a field that people often think they don’t have access to. It seems fancy and expensive. I’ve had people ask me things like, “What’s the right amount of cheese to eat” or say, “I don’t know anything about cheese. I’m not French,” and it breaks my heart. I want folks to know that cheese is for the people. It’s for everyone, and there are no rules. If you go to the grocery store and buy a $5-a-pound cheese, you’re doing it right. 

What I try to do at the school is to first make it a really comfortable environment. Any question is a good question. This is a safe cheese space! It’s fine not to have a perfect knowledge of cheese. It’s actually more weird that I do. I love to do what I call “high-brow, low-brow” parings. It’s where I take a fancy cheese and put it on a cookie or potato chip. I do a class where I pair cheese with Halloween candy. Again, there’s no proper way to do it. If you’re enjoying it and sharing it with friends and making a memorable experience, that’s all that matters.

I imagine you teach about what cheese is more pungent and which is smoother, etc.
Oh, yes. And getting to know your own palate. Getting in touch with your own body and there’s also a mindfulness to it. To sit with a great piece of cheese and feel your feet on the ground as you think of the texture and the flavor and ground yourself in the moment. It’s one of the many awesome things food can do for us.

I love the physical space here with the exposed brick walls.
I really lucked out. During the pandemic when I started out, I was just virtual. I would ship the cheese to someone and we’d meet on something like Zoom and I’d teach the class. It was great, I had a lot of corporate groups, which was interesting, and companies wanting to do things to show employees appreciation during the pandemic. These weren’t people who signed up for a class. They just showed up to work virtually and I’d hop on, [sing-songy] “Let’s talk about some cheese!” But it was a chance to loosen up and have fun.

About two years in when things were looking a little less Covidy, I was doing sessions in parks. People would buy tickets and I would show up with boxes of cheese and we’d do outdoor classes. That was super fun but inevitably people would ask, “When are you getting a permanent space?” Then one day, I was walking through the Italian Market — buying cheese of course — and walking back, I saw this place and almost got hit by a car rushing over to read the sign in the window that said, “For rent.” I called the number and that’s how we got here.

What’s been the most difficult part of opening a business?
The government really gave me a run for my money. I’m not a restaurant but I’m also not just an event space. There’s food involved, so they didn’t know where to put us. It took months to get it straightened out. Also, it’s a vulnerable feeling being a woman doing anything. When we opened, Philly Mag did a profile on me and the company, and I was very open about the fact that this was an intentional queer space. Everyone is welcome but we prioritize the comfort of queer people, especially women and non-men. And guys got mad about that. It was like, [in a petulant voice] “What, men can’t eat cheese anymore!” I mean, yes, you can eat cheese too. 

But with an attitude like that, eat it at home over the sink!
Yeah! Don’t bring that vibe. I mean, come on, you have soooo many spaces you can go. And everyone is welcome here. All I was saying was that when I put this together, I had my community in mind. I was surprised at the backlash. 

I program submissions for The Women’s Film Festival and just last night, I watched a documentary about the misogyny women face in the beer-brewing industry. It was crazy — women reporting getting r*ped and groped in addition to regular harassment. As one woman said, “You take a male-dominated field and add alcohol to it, and it’s a bad mix.”
Yeah, I mean, hello, there are a lot of reasons why I wanted to start my own business. I was tired of being in a very old-school, male run, food scene. 

So switching gears, what was an early sign you were gay?
I insisted on only shopping for clothes in the boys section when I was young. Fortunately, my parents were really chill about it. Once I got into middle school, I was really into goth and did a lot of crazy things aesthetically. Looking back, I was trying to keep boys as far away as possible. 

Coming out?
Since I was very small, I always knew there was something inside of me that I didn’t understand. I remember watching “Seinfeld” and thinking, “Why do I like the Elaine scenes so much?” or watching the Britney Spears video and thinking, “This is making me feel weird.” Honestly, it was rough because I didn’t know why I felt different, and back in the late ’90s, there was very little representation for me. I can’t even remember any femme, out lesbians at the time. It was like, “What if that is me, but I don’t look like Ellen DeGeneres? Where do I fit in?” It sucks, because that should have been an incredible time of discovery, but instead it was like, “Puberty isn’t hard enough and now this?” It wasn’t until I went to college in NY and met other gay people that I started coming out. 

Tell me more about Philly Cheese School. What will people find here?
We offer guided cheese tastings. You arrive and there’s a plate of cheese in front of you and you learn about them as well as your own preferences. We have private events so you can book the place out for a birthday party or holiday party — with or without cheese — but if requested, I do a 12-foot grazing table and it’s really fun. I still do a lot of corporate events and you can go on my website to see the public events and buy tickets to whichever class sounds like fun to you. We have all different-themed classes. I also often collaborate with other experts and do beer or wine pairings. And we have gift cards for that foodie friend. We did a bunch of stuff for Pride, a gay cheese class featuring cheeses all made by gay people and queer cheese speed dating.

Fun! OK, lightning round: What would your theme song be?
Well, I’ve had “Bossy” by Kelis as the ringtone on my phone since high school and I can’t figure out how to change it, so I might as well go with that! Or maybe something a little softer like “Silk Chiffon” by MUNA which is a song about queer joy and I think we need more of that now. 

Did you grow up in a religious household?
My dad is Jewish. My mom is Christian. But we weren’t super religious. In December, we would have a menorah in one room and a Christmas tree in another. When I was 13, I was given the option as to whether or not I wanted a bat mitzvah, though it didn’t really feel like an option. It was like, “It’s your choice, but your grandmother would be so upset if you didn’t.” It was actually really cool. It’s rare that as a teenager, you get celebrated for the hard work that you’ve done and to have the whole community recognize and celebrate you. I also met my very first lesbian at Hebrew school. She was my teacher and I remember her saying something about her partner and I was like, “So you have a business?” and she said, “No, my partner, like my wife.” And time stood still for me. The room spun around and I was like, “You can do that?!

Julia Birnbaum wears a black t-shirt with the word "Brieyonce" on the front and a long black skirt. She has her hands on her hips as she poses in front of shelves

I love it. What’s a sport you wished you could compete in?
I’d love to do Sumo wrestling! I am a person who lives in a bigger body and I love the idea of using that for power. I do a little bit of weight lifting and love watching Olympic lifters like Tamara Walcott, who is just amazing. She’s a fat lady who goes against the myths that we’re unhealthy or lazy. [Laughing] But what would I wear for Sumo wrestling?

Worst date ever?
When I was living in NY, I was dating this girl and we met up for Pride and she brought a date! I was like, “What is going on?” I ended up in front of Stonewall, crying, during Pride. Which I think might be a gay rite of passage.

Well, at least you’re past that now. I understand that you’re engaged?
Yes. We’re getting married in October. She’s the best. She’s also a small business owner. I think if I didn’t have her example, Philly Cheese School wouldn’t exist. She really pushed me to make the jump. 

You’re the cheese queen but do you cook?
My fiancée is the chef in the house, but last year I nailed down a crazy good mac-and-cheese recipe. So if you have a potluck, that’s probably what I’ll bring. 


For more information on Philly Cheese School, visit phillycheeseschool.com.

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