Bringing in the cheese

May 31, 2011

There’s no polite way to say this: Cheese is high maintenance — as in arena-rocker high maintenance, like the kind of star who demands Cristal champagne, a licensed chiropractor and vanilla-scented candles backstage before the show.

Cheesemaking requires a pristine environment. All surfaces must be sanitized and disinfected. Same goes for the equipment, which must be scrubbed with an operating-room-like fervor. All other foodstuffs and tools used for food preparation must be banished from the area. No wooden spoons, either. Any one of those outsiders might sully the precious curds.

This pampering can go on for weeks. Aged cheese requires a cool — but not too cool! — environment with high humidity. Mold-ripened, bloomy cheeses like to be sprayed down to develop their speckled white complexions and require regular flipping to ensure that their outer skins, or rinds, are uniformly beautiful. If you fail at any one of those tasks, among many others, cheese can turn on you. And if you’ve really mistreated it, cheese might even make you sick.

Is it any wonder that chefs, those kitchen leaders not known for suffering prima donnas, leave cheesemaking to the professionals? Why go through so much grief when skilled artisans already turn out superior products? “We make the things we can make well,” says Eric Ziebold, chef at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental. “There are people who do [cheese] a lot better than I do.”

That attitude, by and large, dominates Washington kitchens, where chefs defer to the veterans of the cheese craft, whether in France or Pennsylvania. If you can find house-made cheeses at restaurants, they tend to be fresh, not aged, such as the paneer at Passage to India in Bethesda or the fromage blanc at Marcel’s in Foggy Bottom. “It’s time-consuming,” says Marcel’s chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier, “but it’s fun to do.”

Fun is probably overstating the issue for the small collection of chefs who have launched their own artisan cheese programs, including Johnny Monis at Komi and pastry chef Brenton Balika at Bourbon Steak. As he stands in the second-floor kitchen at Liberty Tavern in Clarendon, chef Liam LaCivita admits that cheese does not offer the instant gratification of daily savory cooking. Even fresh cheese, he notes, takes time and patience, which is no doubt why LaCivita has handed the job to one of his loyal line cooks.

“I get bored easily. I like to move on to the next project,” says LaCivita, which is, in part, his reason for exploring the world of cheese and for relying on line cook Ricardo Duval to do much of the dirty work.

Duval is definitely the right man for the job. He exudes a Zenlike stoicism as he stands over a pot of heated goat’s milk, slowly stirring the liquid with a metal spoon to prevent scorching while dipping a digital thermometer into the milk with the other hand. Duval is waiting for the temperature to reach 195 degrees, which is when he will add cider vinegar to acidify the milk and create the fresh, fluffy ricotta-like curds that will eventually be served atop Liberty’s spaghetti di gragnano with lamb-shoulder confit. It’s the simplest of LaCivita’s approximately 10 cheeses at the three establishments he oversees: Liberty, Lyon Hall and coffee-and-wine haunt Northside Social, all in Clarendon.

The most complex is LaCivita’s smoked ricotta salata, served as part of the cheese plate at Northside Social. It’s an unorthodox recipe in that the kitchen does not reheat whey from sheep’s milk to form the curds. Instead, cooks acidify the milk, whether cow’s or goat’s milk, with a cider vinegar, press the resulting curds for two days, salt the cheese for at least seven days and then age the formed curds in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled “cave.” (The cave, incidentally, is a converted wine closet in Lyon Hall’s basement.) After about four weeks of aging, the ricotta salata is cold-smoked for an hour over juniper and hickory.

LaCivita has a knack for layering flavors with his regular dishes, a skill that he carries over into his cheese program. The chef, for example, soaks chestnut leaves in Maker’s Mark bourbon and wraps them around fresh chevre, which he will then age for a week in the walk-in. LaCivita also makes a cognac-brushed chevre mixed with herbes de Provence and pink peppercorns.

And yet: No matter how elaborate his recipes, LaCivita knows that what gives his cheese its distinction is the main ingredient: the milk. He buys from a cooperative in Pennsylvania that delivers pasteurized goat’s milk to his door about 24 hours after it has been milked from the animals. “It’s so fresh that [the cheese] will be better,” LaCivita says.

Over at Bourbon Steak, pastry chef Balika buys his goat’s and cow’s milk from Trickling Springs Creamery, another cooperative in Pennsylvania, which peddles milk from grass-fed animals only. Even in winter the animals eat a steady supply of stored grasses, an employee at the creamery told me. These naturally grazing cows provide milk that’s easily identifiable, even after it has been curdled, pressed, salted and aged in Balika’s ambitious cheese program, which launches today at the Michael Mina-branded restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. The cheese wheels sport a yellowish tint, a sure sign of a cow on a grass diet.

Since he was hired away from RM Seafood in Las Vegas, Balika has offered little flashes of his cheese program on fellow RM alum and executive chef Adam Sobel’s savory and special-event menus. Balika’s fresh cheese shares the bill in an asparagus and warm ricotta tart, while his signature creation assumes a name-above-the-title role in Le Brenton Blugeres, which are gougeres filled with the pastry chef’s whipped blue cheese.

Other A-listers, such as Balika’s triple-cream mold-ripened cheese and two kinds of feta, are just starting to hit the stage now. They include a bloomy rind Camembert-style wheel that Balika produces by inoculating a combination of whole cow’s milk and cream. In the narrow kitchen at Bourbon, near the wood-burning grill and the butter-poaching station for steaks, Balika shows off a callow wheel of Camembert, just three weeks into its affinage, or aging process. He takes a knife and slices open the wheel to reveal its still-chalky interior; the microorganisms clearly haven’t finished breaking down the inner paste into the thick, luscious, straw-colored goop that, in part, defines this earthy cheese. The wheel will need further aging in a covered Lexan container.

The Lexans have been playing an important role for Balika. For weeks, until the Four Seasons opened a special affinage room for Balika this past weekend, the pastry chef had to age his cheeses in the restaurant’s wine cellar, where the temperature was ideal but the humidity was not. That was where the Lexans came in. They trap the cheeses’ natural moisture, Balika says, to provide the optimal conditions for growing molds and aging wheels.

If Balika’s “humidifier” has been decidedly low-tech, his machines for heating milk are not. The chef’s modern tools give him an advantage that the cheesemakers of previous generations can only envy. Water circulators and induction burners regulate heat to the exact degree, which eliminates the stress of watching over the milk to make sure it reaches the proper temperature for adding the coagulating and flavor-generating cultures. Plus, induction burners don’t scorch milk.

The tools, of course, go only so far. They won’t transform Balika — or LaCivita, who also employs a water circulator for his milks — into skilled Normandy cheesemakers overnight. Which suits Balika fine. He’s not aiming to make a wheel worthy of the Camembert Museum. He wants to employ classic techniques to make cheese that smacks of the Mid-Atlantic. You could claim that Balika is just another chef trying to push a locavore agenda, but his message is more subtle than that. Cheese, like wine, has always been about terroir; it’s just a taste of a particular region as filtered through the milk of a ruminant animal.

“What I really want to do,” says Balika, “is produce something that speaks of us, that speaks of the area that we’re from.”

At this stage in his cheesemaking career, Justin Owens has not yet adopted the language of the locavore, which makes sense. He’s still just learning the craft. Like LaCivita and Balika, Owens taught himself how to make cheese, but unlike the other two men, both trained chefs, Owens had a weaker foundation to build on. He’s a former firefighter who left behind the unpredictability of the combustible world for the more controlled flames of the kitchen.

Actually, Owens started out in the dining room. Three years ago, Cathal Armstrong hired him as a server at Restaurant Eve, but the new employee had a wandering eye and noticed that the kitchen occasionally made its own cheese. “I was interested in how it was created,” Owens says. “I started experimenting at home, and I sort of got bit by the bug.”

With a firefighter’s fearlessness, Owens fast-forwarded right past the simple fresh cheeses and promptly started his education with a Monterey jack made with Trickling Springs milk, which he bought at a local bodega. He aged his first cheese in a wine refrigerator, a suitable substitute for a cave. “Even if it wasn’t Monterey jack, which I hoped it was, it was still good,” Owens says. “I was happy that it didn’t make anybody sick.”

Owens has since experimented with a wider variety of cheeses. He even made his own Camembert at home, then asked Armstrong to sample it one day at Eve. “It ended up on the menu,” Owens recalls. “I was just floored.”

It’s fair to say that Owens is the Great White-Milk Hope for Cathal and wife Meshelle Armstrong as they pull together Society Fair, their European-style market that will feature a butcher shop, bakery, wine shop, prepared food section and, yes, a cheese counter. Set to open in October, Society Fair will be the Armstrongs’ own Eataly, minus the Italian accent and scaled more toward an Alexandria market. Owens is primed to make a number of the cheeses for both the market and Restaurant Eve. As part of Owens’s preparation, Armstrong secured an internship for the upstart at Murray’s in Manhattan, where the 28-year-old has been learning the art of affinage in the famous cheese shop’s caves.

“It’s a rare and very lucky person who finds their niche, and when you do, going to work is not like going to work anymore,” Armstrong says about his cheese protege. “He’s like a little kid on Christmas Day.”

Still, Armstrong understands that Owens must come to grips with the fickle nature of cheese. The key for Owens will be to develop a program that turns out consistently high-quality cheeses. That, of course, will mean lots of practice.

“We’re not experimenting on our guests,” Armstrong says. “We’re experimenting on ourselves.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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