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.