How one cheesemaker brings his muse to the industrial model
Rarely, if ever, do you find the words artisan and corporation in the same sentence, and almost never do you find them under the same roof. But in the case of Sartori Foods, a Wisconsin cheese company made up of six plants in two states and hundreds of employees, there’s an artisan who works side-by-side with the corporate suits to produce an array of award-winning cheeses, along the way striking that seemingly impossible balance between artistry in the vat and a mega-bottom line.
Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski wears the title of Food Technologist/Cheese Specialist, a tip-off to the corporate environment in which he works. But even though his title seems straight out of a company playbook, it does not impinge on his artful ability to transform milk. His recent honor at the Wisconsin State Fair Cheese and Butter Contest as Wisconsin’s Grand Master Cheese Maker for 2009 (read: the state’s top cheesemaker) underscores this.
In fact, Matucheski has won too many blue ribbons to count, begging the question: How does a guy like this reconcile his passion for cheesemaking and creativity with the alphabet soup of R&D and P&Ls? For him, the answer seems to lie in equal measures of integrity and inspiration.
Spending much of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Antigo, Wisconsin, Matucheski developed an appreciation for the bounty of the land, for cooking, and for gardening early on, often at the side of his grandmother. As an adult, he developed a keen enthusiasm for making beer and even became a sought-after speaker on the home-brewing circuit.
After earning a degree in history at the University of Wisconsin and working in research for a time, Matucheski ultimately made his way back to Antigo to help his family with the farm. He also started his own projects, including a stint growing herbs and flowers for a New York culinary and medicinal herb shop. The confluence of farm, family, and the Antigo Cheese Factory (coincidentally a former brewery) in his midst pointed Matucheski unknowingly and yet fatefully toward his career as a cheesemaker. So, too, did the need for a job.
A listing at the factory for a part-time cheesemaker’s helper intrigued him enough to apply for it. A long interview and a readiness to begin work led to a job as a hooper, pretty much a euphemism for manual labor. It meant scooping the wet curds into the forms, putting the forms into the presses for draining, placing the nascent cheeses into the brine tanks, and more or less anything else that was needed to make or finish the cheese, including packaging. This version of Cheesemaking 101 gave Matucheski the training he would eventually call upon when cheesemaking became more than just a means to an end. Working the second shift did, too. The dearth of workers (and bosses) milling about at night meant freedom to experiment with his budding interest.
Talk to human resources director Brad Nicholson about the process of how a Sartori cheese progresses from idea to fruition, and you’ll hear words like “ideation,” and “innovation.” But, mindful of off-putting corporate lingo and wanting to downplay the image of a big company (Nicholson will not reveal how much cheese the privately owned company makes each year), he emphasizes quality over quantity. “We focus on one wheel, one vat, and one variety at a time,” Nicholson says.
One of those varieties is BellaVitano, which loosely translates to “beautiful life.” The cheese came about in 2002 when company officials set out to create a northern-Italian-style cheese whose texture had a crystalline crunch and yet was also creamy. They also wanted to capture some of the fruity notes of Parmesan—their specialty—and add its own unique flavor characteristics. According to Nicholson, who was not at the company at the time but who has heard the story many times since, the first taste of BellaVitano brought a collective wow among company bigwigs. They were confident they’d created a hit.
“We’ve really got something here,” one official said. But, as Nicholson relates, another company official immediately followed the moment with a more sobering comment—and challenge. “Now we’ve got to repeat it.”
Enter Matucheski. Because Antigo is a brined wheel plant and BellaVitano is a brined cheese, the cheese specialists at Antigo, including Matucheski, were charged with developing it into a specialty cheese. Part of this required changing the shape of the wheel in order to expand its market beyond food service and a few retail outlets to reach specialty food stores and cheese shops. After many experiments, the version that Mike created won the day. It was christened BellaVitano Gold.
This fusion of company research and cheesemaker skill defines much of Matucheski’s job. So, too, does his independent spirit, which is fundamental to his cheese. But reconciling his spirit with the dictates of a large company necessitates the ability to continually ride out the tension between his own cheesemaking desires and the approval of his bosses to experiment.
One way he does this is by focusing on the details of his craft. When Matucheski decides to put aside his food technologist hat and bring his inner cheesemaker to the fore, he winds his way into the bowels of the former brewery, ducking almost furtively into his subterranean cheese-finishing room. This is both his lab and his escape from the hustle and bustle of the cheesemaking room. It’s in this windowless barracks that he works his magic, doing the finishing work on some of his trial cheeses and experimenting with flavors, marinades, and herbs on others.
What usually emerges are cheeses that bear the stamp of their maker, a craftsman whose imagination has no bounds but whose palate remains discriminating in the face of the often-disparaged flavored-cheese category.
“There are some pretty horrible things out there,” Matucheski readily admits when the discussion turns to flavored cheese. But his goal is not to disguise a cheese with added flavors. “I’m trying to create a memorable experience, but I’m also trying to bring a lot of balance and complexity,” he explains.
Ideas to Market
Given Matucheski’s zealous enthusiasm for beer, it’s almost a given that this cheese specialist’s first flavor embellishment for the BellaVitano Gold, (which, along with the company’s flagship Parmesan cheese SarVecchio and several others, falls under the Sartori Reserve label), would be a magical mix of brewed yeast and grains. The Raspberry Tart beer made by Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Company reminded him of a similar Belgian-style brew he’d tasted on one of his many bicycle trips through Europe. He figured the beer’s fruity quality would complement the similar characteristic in the cheese while contrasting its salty, nutty nature. Also informing his decision was the beer’s color. He and a former company marketing executive had closely examined the appearance of the hundreds of cheeses at the American Cheese Society’s annual Festival of Cheese and noted that many of the entries looked alike. He wanted to differentiate his cheese with color as well as flavor. The reddish-pink beer answered the call and Raspberry BellaVitano was created.
At the same time, Matucheski decided to add a wine cheese to his repertoire, choosing merlot for Bella’s soak. What emerged was the aptly named Merlot BellaVitano, whose wine flavor is apparent but nuanced enough to maintain balance with the flavors of the cheese itself. He’s since added other flavors to the line, such as black pepper, balsamic, and espresso. The latter is still in the development stage.
Somewhere along the way Matucheski might get the chance to weigh in on the names of his cheeses as well as some of the marketing and packaging decisions. More times than not, though, these are left up to the folks at company headquarters and sometimes to the lawyers. (Contrast this with the small artisan producers who name their own cheeses and quite possibly design their packaging and labels on their home PC. For better or worse, the big-company artisan has a more specialized mandate.)
Ask Matucheski for details about how BellaVitano Gold or any of his other cheeses is made, and you’ll witness a split-second transformation from craftsman to company man. His lips are (mostly) sealed. What Matucheski will say about BellaVitano Gold is that the (proprietary) cultures are added to the milk followed by vegetarian rennet. Once set, the curds are cut and cooked, the whey is drained, and the curds are hooped, pressed, brined, and cured. Finally, the cheese is transferred to the aging shelves, where it will stay for eight to ten months. This process sounds similar to that of a lot of cheeses, and that’s pretty much all he’ll say.
Then again, while the recipe details are important, they may not matter as much as the man at the vat. In one email correspondence, Matucheski summed up his own cheesemaking philosophy by passing along a tidbit from Sara-Kate Lynch’s book, Blessed Are the Cheesemakers. “Remember, despite all the rules, there really are no rules. Some of the best cheeses in the world have only been discovered by the cheesemaker making a ballyhays of something else. Now they call it diversifying, but in the old days it was just trying not to get the blame for plain old fecking it up.” He concurs with characteristic brevity: “Exactly!”
Beyond the Blue Suits
Luckily for cheese lovers, this ostensibly quiet guy can be very persuasive. Matucheski has been able to shepherd his new combination sheep and cow’s milk cheese, called Pastoral Blend, taking it beyond experimentation and into a few stores. It is this cheese that not only earned the 2009 Wisconsin State Fair Governor’s Champion award but also brought Matucheski his state’s best cheesemaker honor for 2009. And if that weren’t enough, Pastoral Blend also garnered first place in the American-Made/International Style mixed-milk category at the American Cheese Society competition held in August 2009. Not bad for a brand-new cheese.
While Matucheski isn’t the only artisan within the ranks of Sartori—indeed there are several, all of whom bring their own gifts to the job—his special blend of innate talent and a steady vision certainly distinguishes him. And although many cheeses he works on might be dictated by research, Mike says there’s also time for what he calls “structured playtime,” in which he’s able to act on his own hunches to create a cheese. Whether or not that cheese will make it to store shelves is determined by the company’s long and winding road from idea to market. HR director Nicholson emphasizes that a new cheese passes over the palates of many people long before it is added to the company line.
Even in the face of occasional creative constraints, Matucheski proves his adeptness at asserting ingenuity while toeing the company line—and title. Despite being called a technologist, he asserts, “I am a cheesemaker first and foremost.” Though it clearly goes without saying, given his achievements, Matucheski repeats the claim emphatically and proudly: “I am a cheesemaker first.”
Written by Laura Werlin
Photography by David Nevala