BEIJING – Axel Moreaux, a French restaurant owner in Beijing, just wanted to plan a new cheese board for the menu.
"I said, 'OK, now, I'm going to buy a lot of cheese from you,'" Moreaux said, recalling the start of big cheese negotiations with a supplier a few days ago. But the meeting ended abruptly when he learned he could no longer buy the cheeses he wanted.
Chinese authorities have banned a host of soft cheese over worries the bacteria colonies found on some varieties aren't officially approved for import. Impacted cheeses include French brie, camembert and roquefort, Italian gorgonzola and English stilton. It's perplexing foreign restaurateurs as they scramble to stretch remaining cheese stocks while revamping menus.
"You cannot provide a plate of French cheese if you don't have all that stinky, famous cheese, like camembert," said Moreaux, lamenting that he'd already printed new menus and purchased wood plates in preparation for the cheese spread launch. He's also getting rid of one of his bestsellers, a goat cheese salad.
Across town at Maison Flo, French chef David Thiery is gearing up for the restaurant's giant 18th anniversary celebration in three days — without any cheese.
"Normally, we should have cheese for everyone, but the supplier just cut off the order," he said. "No more cheese ... it's not a joke."
Cheeses Thiery cooks with — hard varieties, like parmesan, emmental and mozzarella — are unaffected by the ban, so many of Flo's dishes will stay the same.
Without the ability to replenish the restaurant's 10 or so cheese varieties on hand, he estimates Flo's current stock of soft, stinky cheeses will be gone in a week. And that means explaining the death of the cheese trolley to customers. "They will understand, I think," he said. "We are living in another country with [its] own rule and regulation, and we have to accept it."
"Life continues, and I just have to adapt," he said, making it clear he planned to consume large amounts of cheese on visits back home to France.
Others are even starting to wonder if the cheese ban is meant to encourage domestic companies to get in big on the cheese-making business.
"If they close now the border, I think it's that they know this will be a big market — so why import, instead of producing it?" said Clement Bacri, owner of Beijing's Bistro 108. It could "increase [the] economy of China — from my point of view, it may be the reason."