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Norbert Wabnig: Der Kaesehaendler

PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

Norbert Wabnig likes to tell the story of how, on his way to apply for a $1.80-an-hour job in 1975 at the Cheese Store in Beverly Hills — which he now owns — he was nearly run over by James Caan in his Porsche. The Cheese Store was like that, the kind of place where locals, European expats and movie stars alike would wander in for a wedge of Manchego (Wabnig's current favorite) or Bleu de Bocage or Époisses. "Cary Grant would come in. Dustin Hoffman, he still comes in. I met Laurence Olivier. Fred Astaire would walk up and down the street." Although Wabnig admits that he sees the people who work for the stars now more than the stars themselves, the tiny, 1,200-square-foot shop can still draw them in. If not Olivier, then Wolfgang Puck, whose restaurant Spago is only a few blocks away, and who, like Wabnig, is a native Austrian.

Although he was born in Vienna and lived there until the age of 12, Wabnig grew up in New Orleans, where he lived until he came to Los Angeles as a young musician to "try and become the new Lennon. We were in a band. We were that close," says Wabnig, who plays the piano, guitar, bass and drums ("apparently not well"). After going broke and having his car stolen — "They found a body in the trunk, months later in a Safeway parking lot" — Wabnig found his way into the Cheese Store, and the rest is, as he says, cheese history.

Wabnig loved the shop from the first minute. He brought in more cheeses, starting with 200 when he bought the shop in 1978, to approximately 600 that he has now: pâtés, foie gras and pantry items such as pastas and mustards, and "I don't even know how much wine." He took it from what he fondly calls "an upscale Hickory Farm" to a place that is both homey and Old World, yet where Cary Grant would probably still feel at home.

Billy Wilder certainly did. For if you wander in off the streets of Beverly Hills yourself and Wabnig is in an expansive mood, not only might he show you his basement enclave (wine collection, piano) or talk about his car and motorcycle collection (Jaguar XK120, 1957 Mercedes-Benz 220S convertible, Russian Ural motorcycle with a sidecar), but he might take you up into his attic studio. There, amid guitars, cheese, wine and Beatles paraphernalia, you will find the picture of the famous filmmaker that made the cover of Der Spiegel, taken on those very stairs. Who doesn't love a wheel of cheese?