Stephen Sweet, one half of the hugely popular pop-up Glasgow Gourmands, is a man with an undeniable passion for cheese, something that’s obvious even through the now all too familiar Zoom meeting setting.
But this wasn’t always the case, as Stephen explained to me on a recent call: “When I was a teenager, I had very basic tastes when it came to cheese. I was very much a cheddar or mozzarella on top of the pizza and that was it.
"The rest of my family, aside from my brother, are massive cheese fans, and I think actually, I was slightly put off cheese when I was a teenager because my dad always had this thing he would do whenever we were on holiday in France.
"He would find the most powerful, pungent cheese that he could find and deliberately try to force us to eat it because he really enjoyed it. So there was sort of this slight trigger mechanism, that anything really potent or a little bit different. I was like, ‘no, I'm not going to enjoy that’”.
Luckily for Stephen, he started to change his mind while working at Glasgow’s Hotel Du Vin at One Devonshire Gardens. Once the home of Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin Starred Amarylis restaurant, this fine dining establishment kick started Stephen’s career in hospitality and his journey into artisan cheeses.
"My real love of cheese developed when I was working at Hotel Du Vin. I'd heard about cheese trolleys in Michelin starred restaurants, but I've never actually seen one,” Stephen explained.
It was during one of his first shifts as restaurant supervisor that Stephen first saw the trolley and it was the reaction of customers that is one of his favourite memories of working there.
"My main memory of working there and with the cheese trolley would be when you’d wheel it over to bigger tables and just see the look of absolute joy on people's faces when they would see this fully stocked cheese trolley that looked so appetising and inviting.
"It was also great to interact and engage with people about all the different cheeses, as there’s so much more to cheese than milk and cultures - there’s a history behind cheese making that so interesting," Stephen said.
At this time Stephen was also broadening his cheese tastes, and learning along the way. “I was learning while eating, which is a dream for me” laughed Stephen and it wasn’t long before he was the restaurant’s cheese trainer thanks to his passion for the subject.
He said: "When you're passionate about something, it really shows in how you communicate it and teach it to others. It’s so vital, especially with something very nice, like cheese, wine or whisky or gin."
If it was Hotel Du Vin’s cheese trolley that started his love affair, his next job at the famous George Mews shop on Byres Road cemented it.
Not only did the shop help Stephen develop his cheese knowledge and love for interacting with customers, a move away from long shifts to more sociable hours meant he was free to set up Glasgow Gourmands with friend Jess Lomas.
This pop-up held extremely popular events such as cheese and gin tastings, which further proved the growing appetite for artisan produce.
Now after almost five years at George Mews, Stephen has been approached by chef Nico Simeone’s team to head up a pop-up version of their online Cheese Club, set up as part of Simeone’s e-commerce food and drink outlet, Home-X.
The Scots Italian chef’s ventures have gone from strength to strength over the years, with the ever popular Six by Nico launching as a cook at home product ‘Home by Nico’ in April 2020 in response to the national lockdown.
Home-X takes this concept further by offering costumes a range of ‘at home’ products such as an eight course vegan feast, a range of cookalong masterclasses from Simeone, a monthly wine club and The Cheese Club.
The Cheese Club launched in October on the Home-X platform and proved to be so successful that the team wanted to bring it to Glasgow as an in-person shop, which will launch this month in the former Fopp music shop on Byres Road.
This location has recently been granted permission to be turned into a new Six by Nico restaurant with outdoor seating and a rooftop bar. While there’s no opening date for this yet, the Cheese Club pop-up will remain in situ from this spring.
The natural choice to curate the cheese selection and run the pop-up is Stephen, who is excited to get stuck in.
He said: "I've always been a massive fan of Six by Nico and their concepts and seeing the care and passion that they put into their products and their restaurants.
"We have a very similar vibe in that we are both passionate about good quality food and drink. When I saw that they were doing the cheese club and when I was asked to be involved, I thought it was a great opportunity.
"With my background, I’m hoping to make artisan cheese more appealing to the general public."
Stephen will be manager and head cheesemonger at the pop-up, which will open in late March. It’s not far from his old employer, so what can customers expect?
"There'll be some great fan favourites, and a lovely Scottish cheese range as well”, Stephen explained.
"But we also want to do a lot with showcasing just how good the produce in the artisan cheese industry is in the UK.”
Customers can also pick up cheese accompaniments such as crackers, olives, breads, cured meats and there will be a deli counter serving both hot and cold snacks as well ‘a couple of surprises’, according to Stephen.
Speaking of his plans, chef Nico Simeone from the Simeone Group said: "Plans to develop and grow Six by Nico, in both physical and virtual markets, will be announced later this year.
"We've always had big ambitions to grow our portfolio and open new restaurant brands throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. Our journey started in Glasgow's West End, and the community we first served is vital to our organisation's development plans.
"We hope our customers are as excited as we are about The Cheese Club shop pop-up opening this month and our restaurant plans for the location on Byres Road later this year."
Stephen added: "The great thing about cheese is that it's constantly changing. It's evolving, it's developing, so it's never standardised.
"You never just say, ‘you know what, I know everything about cheese, I don't need to know anything else’".
With that kind of passion for the product, The Cheese Club is set to be a welcome addition for cheese lovers in Glasgow.
The Cheese Club Shop pop-up will open from late March and opening times will be Wednesday - Sunday from 10am - 6pm.