Ewephoria, a sheep's milk gouda from the Netherlands: "It's the cheese the changed my life," said Evan Talen ’06. "It has a rich nuttiness and saltiness that I really like"–spoken from the mouth of a true cheesemonger.

After sampling it, Talen said it changed the way he thought about cheese. “At the time, I thought, ‘I need to explore more about this.’”

A career in cheese, specialty foods, and fine wines was not the vocation Talen envisioned for himself while he was at Calvin. “Sometimes I still think, ‘This is my career?’ But I’m pretty invested in this world now,” he said. “A huge part of my heart is in this.”

So much so that Talen, who serves as the general manager of Aperitivo, located in Grand Rapids’ burgeoning downtown district, recently won the Cheesemonger Invitational, a national event that pitted him against more than 45 cheese connoisseurs from around the country.

At the challenging competition, participants were tested by a written exam, which covers everything from the variance in the chemical makeup of different animals’ milk to the federal regulations regarding cheese storage at a grocery store.

Another part of the competition involved a blind tasting in which competitors were asked to identify such things as the cheese’s country of origin, type of milk it’s made from, and whether it’s pasteurized.

The “Olympics” portion of the contest included a timed trial to cut a perfect quarter pound of cheese and wrap it in cheese paper, which Talen described as a form of “origami art.”

There was also a salesmanship portion, preparation and serving of a perfect one-bite cheese snack, and a one-minute speech about your favorite cheese.

At the end of the demanding two days, Talen was surprised and honored to win the competition: “Not being from a big city, a lot of people were asking, ‘Where are you from?’”

The award helps to validate Talen’s career journey, which he struggled with initially, he said.

“I always thought I would be a famous painter someday,” said Talen. “Once I got to Calvin, I quickly realized I was more technically geared. I switched over to communications and was doing some video editing and broadcasting and was evaluating how all of that played together.”

After creating a digital media major for himself, Talen began working for a Christian camp doing middle and high school programming and then moved to California to continue in this ministry.

“After five years, I was asked by a friend to help run a wine and cheese bar, and I asked myself, ‘How is a wine and cheese bar the next step in my journey?’” he said. “Christian camping is a very intense and very concentrated thing. I wondered, ‘What is my ministry now?’”

But Talen has found a way to combine his creativity, his technical knowledge, and his compassion for people into a career that he is passionate about pursuing.

Learning from a master sommelier, Talen says he “fell in love with learning about wine and cheese pairings. It’s not only the scientific portion, but there is also something historical and romantic about it as well.”

And in his role at Aperitivo, he has the opportunity to create an experience for guests. “We try to provide an atmosphere for people to come and enjoy their time, to linger and maybe meet other people,” he said. “Food is core to who we are as people, and making that an awesome experience is fulfilling for me.”

And the same supportive, relaxed environment is offered to those who work with Talen.

“In the food and beverage world, there are a lot of hurting and broken people, and we try to truly care about them,” he said. “It’s a really cool way to impact an industry that can be not that way most of the time.”