First Person Singular: Cheesemaker Paul Stephan

Paul Stephans, Owner of Blue Ridge Dairy Company at his Cheesemaking facility
Paul Stephan, owner and cheesemaker, Blue Ridge Dairy Co. (Benjamin C. Tankersley)
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Halfway through culinary school, I realized I am not crazy enough to get my ass kicked every single night on the line like they do in the real world. So I went to hospitality school. Once I graduated, I climbed the ladder quickly. I was the general manager of a steakhouse on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but I pissed a lot of people off. I'm a quality-driven maniac, and I turned a joke of a restaurant into a moneymaking machine, but I am not a people person. Not exactly a good thing in the hospitality business. I had 16 employees, and I just did not care about their problems; I didn't care about them. I was 29 and burnt out.

I was lost. I went to Italy with my mother and stepfather. I'm half-Italian, on my mother's side. I became obsessed with that culture, the food, the people, everything. I needed something to be passionate about. That's when I tasted my first buffalo mozzarella. Nothing had ever tasted like that. I said, "Why can't we do this in the United States?"

I came back and bought a farm in Virginia and five water buffalo. I had never milked anything. Never been on a farm. We quickly learned the very hard, expensive way that the buffalo were not the milking kind. I didn't know how to handle those animals any more than I knew how to handle those restaurant employees.

My wife said, "Buy a cow." I'd always thought that was too plain, too bourgeoisie. But I had a $300,000 farm, a family and no career, so we bought Betty. We kept buying more cows. I was burning myself out. We had two autistic boys and needed to be surrounded by more people, more structure. We needed the suburbs.

We got rid of the farm, got rid of the animals and decided to just have the creamery. I feel like I'm the one in the family who has to carry something from Italy on. I love making cheese, not milking cows or raising buffalo, so that's what I'm going to do. This turned out to be the winning formula: milk, cheese, hard work and just a few employees who want to work. As long as they have a pulse and a smile, I don't go much deeper than that. You can control cheese, or at least you can keep tweaking and tweaking, trying to get it just right, but you can't control people.

Interview by Amanda Long


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