Some meal memories never fade — I can still taste the milk dinner prepared by Philadelphia Chef Chris Kearse of Will BYOB four years ago on my birthday. A milk dinner. (Sigh.) Can anything be more beautiful?
That’s why I am thrilled to be giving away two tickets to the pop-up dinner Kearse will roll out on March 5, 2015 as part of Dinner Lab.
What is Dinner Lab?
One part laboratory, two parts social experiment, Dinner Lab provides unorthodox dining experiences for its members. Membership costs $125 (see discount link below for MF readers), which gives you access to a calendar of pop-ups around the country (Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago…most recently Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Each pop-up costs around $65.
I met the company’s CFO, Bryson Aust, a few weeks ago to learn more about his vision: to elevate up-and-coming chefs through underground dining experiences around the country.
Aust explained how he and his partners (fellow MBA-ers at Tulane) developed the concept out of necessity — when they moved to New Orleans, they surfed the pop-up scene but learned how taxing it was for chefs to organize. “No one made any money,” Aust said. So, he and his peers focused on building a sustainable platform. The company handles ticketing, location scouting, staffing, and even food sourcing. And yes, chefs get paid. This is not about free labor.
Curious about Dinner Lab? Win a 1-year membership + 2 tickets to the Chris Kearse dinner in Philadelphia by leaving a comment about your most memorable meal in the comment box below. The giveaway ends at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.
Also, the folks at Dinner Lab have been kind enough to offer discounted membership to MF readers. Click here to receive a membership discount ($75 instead of $125).
Hope to see you at the dinner!
Note: the location of this dinner will be unveiled the night before. (See menu below.)
Dinner Lab presents Chris Kearse …
Cuisine : Classique Moderne | Reverence for tradition, respect for progress
Location: to be released a day before
About Chef Chris Kearse
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Menu Concept: This menu focuses on its season, respecting French traditions along with classic and modern techniques to build a dining experience that evokes excitement and emotion.
Current Gig: Chef/Owner, Will BYOB
Work History: Tru (Chicago) | Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel (Philadelphia) | Pumpkin (Philadelphia) | Blackfish (Conshohocken, PA)
Education: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College
Menu for March 5, 2015
1 Pistachio Soup : puffed grains | king crab | burnt cream
2 Grilled Bay Scallop : beech mushroom | green tea | meyer lemon & espelette emulsion
3 Okinawa Potato & Foie Gras Tortellini : oxtail marmalade | chestnut | oxalis
4 Duck Cassoulet : lentils & pumpkin | fennel crème
5 Spiced Guinness Cake : red wine caramel | miso & brown butter ice cream | pear
Photo credits: Jeff Thibodeau, Ryan Green, Aaron Lyles. Photos courtesy of Dinner Lab.
Some cheeses inspire you the moment you unwrap them. Their freshness beckons, their rinds beg you to run your fingers across them. Surfaces speak: ripples call to mind tide pools, ridges suggest barnacles.
I am speaking about Lakins Gorges Cheese from Rockport, Maine. When I opened the box from their maker, Alison Lakin, I was struck by how sturdy they looked, like a crew of weathered mariners. Solid. Salty. Stoic. Even the ricotta held its basket curve.
Last Sunday, Erin, who is interning with me this spring, helped me gather a basket of props for our photo shoot. We tasked ourselves with expressing the personality of these rounds, and so we collected husky things – shells, wool, wood.
We wanted you to be able to taste these cheeses in your mind.
Imagine eating them with dark preserves – Allison Lakin likes to serve them with blueberry chutney, which we approximated with some ridiculously juicy pickled plums put up my friend Marisa McClellan.
We recorded our notes and starred our favorites.
Lakin’s Gorges Cheese Notes
Light, fluffy, immaculate, sweet. This ricotta retains the shape of its basket mold, such a nice touch. You can taste the quality organic milk here, from the 8th generation dairy (yes, that’s right) where Allison sources her milk.
Soft and creamy, like a peppermint patty with mushroomy notes. It’s the perfect size to pack on a winter picnic. Allison Lakin says this year’s Allagash Fluxus is an ideal bunk mate.
Prix de Diane*
Supple and oozy, delicate and mild. This luxurious cake is made for jam – it’s named for Allison’s godmother who encouraged her to become a cheesemaker (earlier in life, Allison worked as an anthropologist and a stage hand.)
Here’s the rugged scalawag of the bunch, all onion breath and a little bitter. Opus 42 smells and tastes like scallions just pulled from wet earth, like damp moccasins. It needs dark bread, marmalade, a side of pemmican. Not for the meek.
Earthy and salty, with a compact flaky texture and lovely sour cream and mushroom aftertaste – a drizzle of honey (try pine honey) is fitting for this stern bob named after a wooden whaling ship. What’s a stern bob? Well, just imagine. Incidentally, Morgan likes a nip off a flask of gin.
About Lakins Gorges Cheeses
“I’ve worked as a stage hand, and I studied anthropology,” Allison told me on the phone, a few days after she sent her samples. No wonder her cheeses live somewhere between the museum world (crustaceous) and the stage world (theatrical).
Allison’s operation is a one-woman show. She purchases organic milk from an 8th generation family farm and uses organic vegetarian rennet, making cheese in a rented space two days a week. On other days, she salts and ships. Most of her cheeses go out the door to wholesale accounts to co-ops and restaurants. She also sells them on her website.
If you live in Philadelphia, look for Lakin’s Gorges cheeses at Talula’s Daily next week.
And, of course, invite your friends to a snow picnic.
Curious about Maine cheeses? Check out the Maine Cheese Guild.
Few things make me happier than discovering a new cheese. Or a fabulous new cheesemaker. Imagine the bright fever that overcame me when I found a new Pennsylvania triple creme in the cooler at Greensgrow, my local urban farm, several months ago. It was so lush, I began stalking the cheesemaker on Instagram (@milkhousecheese), which led to a coffee date, which led to a creamery visit, all of which leads you and me to this…
On Friday, March 13, I’ll be at Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood for a special tasting with cheesemaker Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse. We’ll enjoy her line of glorious French-style cheeses and pair them with local libations, including hard cider from Philadelphia Brewing Co. and gin from Rowhouse Spirits — both distilleries are practically within a few blocks of the farm. If you’ve never sipped gin with cheese, prepare thyself. Flavors of juniper and chamomile love extra luxe dairy. Rowhouse distiller Dean Browne will join us, too, for some incredible pairing geekery!
This special tasting is designed to reel in spring — we’ll feast in Greenshgrow’s greenhouse beneath twinkle lights and hanging baskets, and dip into some of the preserves that staffers put up before winter. Come join us for a special evening of local dairy and hootch! It’s sure to be one of the most memorable events of the year. Click here for tickets.
About Valley Milkhouse: In its first year of operation, this one-woman creamery transforms local sheep’s milk and organic pasture-based cow’s milk to produce a variety of French cheese styles at a historic milkhouse in Oley, PA. You can recognize these cheeses around Philly because they are all named after wild plants: Lamb’s Ear, Thistle, Witchgrass, Blue Bell. Look for them in cases at Greensgrow, Di Bruno Bros., Fair Food Farmstand, and Talula’s Daily. Valley Milkhouse is also a new vendor at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market.
More Cheese Events…
Come find me at the Di Bruno Bros. table and meet Anna Juhl of Cheese Journeys — we can tell you about the Cheddar Odyssey coming up this fall! Plus, there’s a cheese and beer cave, and a private tasting with cheese expert Max McCalman.
Hang out and pair wines and cheeses with these two cheese impresarios. This event is a private tasting at Di Bruno Bros. 9th St. Tickets $90.
Check out the incredible line-up of local cheeses. This is a master class, followed by a special dinner. Tickets $85.
Back in December, I trekked out to Shellbark Hollow Farm with a television crew from WHYY, my local PBS affiliate. The producer, Monica Rogozinski, wanted to shoot an episode of her popular “Art of Food” segment about the Philadelphia cheese scene. I wrote this post to coincide with the show’s airing, this week on WHYY Friday Arts. In case you missed it, click here to watch The Art of Food segment on Madame Fromage!
When I moved to Philadelphia a decade ago, the first local goat cheese I tasted was a creamy flavor bomb called Shellbark Sharp II. Most soft goat cheeses are grassy little things, bright and tangy, but not what you’d call assertive. Shellbark Sharp II is a bruiser, “a chèvre with attitude,” as its maker, Pete Demchur, likes to say.
Pete’s a legend in the Philadelphia cheese scene, an industrial machinast who makes cheese by night. He welds all of his own equipment and operates out of his bachelor pad — a cozy cabin surrounded by sprawl — just outside the city. In a land of swing sets and patio furniture, Pete milks goats, fixes old cars, and mans his cheese cave which is made out of a jiggered Pepsi fridge.
It’s the life of a successful DIY cheesemaker.
Since I first tasted Pete’s cheese, I’ve been curious to see his operation. Visiting his closet-sized cheese room reminded me that a little entrepreneurial elbow grease and a willingness to work with limited space can produce something rather exquisite.
Pete’s hobby began with a pair of goats named Natalie and Nelly — a father’s day gift. Nearly twenty years later, his hand-made hunks appear all over the city, from Talula’s Daily and Metropolitan Bakery to Di Bruno Bros. and the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market.
Two things from our interview with Pete stand out: 60-70% of what he earns from selling cheese get spent on labor and feed. (He employs helpers at the farm and at farmers’ markets, and he buys locally grown western alfalfa — quality feed equals quality cheese). Also, I’ve never heard anyone speak so lovingly about buck genetics.
“Cold Comfort Lafayette,” Pete kept saying, referring to a favorite buck. All I could think of was how great that name was — hopefully, Pete will name a cheese after him.
One of my favorite pairings: Shellbark Sharp II crostini with dried figs, walnuts, fresh thyme, and a drizzle of buckwheat honey.
A big thanks to Monica Rogozinski of WHHY for taking interest in Pennsylvania cheese. And to Pete Demchur for taking a day off work to participate in this filming.
Over the last year, illustrator Johanna Kindvall and I have collaborated on a series of posts devoted to seasonal cheeses. “Winter Blues” is the last of our 4-part project (links below to the other three posts). To celebrate, we designed a blue-cheese pairing party. We hope it inspires you to lower the lights, fire up the turntable, and invite a few cheese-loving friends over for soulful nibbling.
Cheers! — Madame Fromage & Johanna Kindvall
Winter Blues: A Pairing Party
by Madame Fromage
Late winter is an ideal time to host an Around the World with Blue Cheese party. In the cold months, who doesn’t dream of traveling abroad? Since so many countries make iconic blues, it’s delightful to take one’s taste buds on a cruise from Stilton to Roquefort, then home again for a taste of artisan American funk.
Blues vary widely in taste and texture. Some swing savory with notes of creamed spinach, fresh herbs, or even pine — while others deliver a sweet song to the tongue. Gorgonzola Dolce tastes like ice cream (try it with cherry jam and graham crackers), and Valdéon can deliver notes of grape and white chocolate. Other blues make me think of oysters – all minerals and brine. Exquisite.
Here’s what to do if you want to host a blue cheese pairing party:
1) Pick a wide range of blues, like the ones listed below – aim for five or six hunks, you’ll need ¼ or ½ pound each.
2) Invite 8 to 12 friends, and tell each person to bring an after-dinner drink: stout, barley wine, Scotch/whiskey, or a fortified wine (like Port, Madeira, or Sherry).
Then, set out all of your cheeses – let them come to room temperature before serving, and use notecards to label them – and garnish them with some grapes, dates or apricots, walnuts, berry jam, honey, and dark chocolate.
At your tasting party, let the blues talk. Try them one at a time with a variety of beverages. You’ll go through every glass in your cupboard. Between bites, you can eat grapes or baguette slices to cleanse your palate. At the end of the night, snap photos of your favorite pairings. If you forget, don’t worry – everyone will remember the night they came to your house for a blue cheese initiation.
Note: if you don’t want to mix too many kinds of alcohol, just pick dessert wines or stout/barleywines.
Five Iconic Blue Cheeses
Britain’s iconic blue is savory with hints of tobacco and leather. It’s sold in wheels with a cigar-colored rind, making its whole disposition rather grandfatherly. Think of it as a craggy, cozy old character – ideally suited for slushy days and a back-drop of scratchy folk records. “Potted Stilton” is sold in crocks – a sort of holiday treat. It’s soft and pungent, delicious with chutney and a plate of oaty biscuits. For a much-loved pairing, sip a glass of Port (or even Scotch). Stilton also loves stout.
Spain’s most famous blue is a “granny” cheese, sweet and a little salty with a shawl made of Sycamore leaves. Lean in and you’ll smell a damp cottage with a front walkway made of slate and violets sticking up between the cracks. Lovely for dessert, try serving it with a spot of dark chocolate – it has a hint of white chocolate on the finish, which is lovely to play off. Walnuts and honey are a fine pairing, too. Sherry and barleywine make especially good matches.
Italy produces a pair of twin blue cheeses, dolce (sweet) and piccante (sharp). Piccante loves pasta and is terrific shmeared on steak or stirred into white bean soup. Dolce loves a light clear honey and a crack of black pepper, alongside some pears – it’s so gooey, you can spoon it up like mousse. Try pairing it with a fruity lambic (Kriek) or barleywine.
Really good French Roquefort tastes like a cheese from the sea – salty and mineral bright. Its indigo veins shimmer, and its paste is the consistency of melting butter, thanks to sheep’s milk. Roquefort gains its extraordinary combination of flavors from aging in seaside caves that are famous for their “fleurines” – fissures that allow the damp air to circulate. Quality Roquefort (I like Carles), served with a chilled glass of Sauternes, will leave you speechless.
Rogue River Smokey
One of the great American artisan blues, RRS tastes like bacon in the form of cheese. It loves camping, pancakes, and long walks on the beach. Rogue Creamery, in Oregon, makes a dozen different blues, each one subtly different. This selection is gently smoked over hazelnut shells, making for a nutty, buttery rogue. Pair it with an achingly dark stout or a Manhattan.
Wondering how blue cheeses get their dark veins? They’re pierced with long needles. The piercings allow air to flow through the wheels, and that promotes “blue-ing.” Many people think that blue mold is injected into the cheese, but that’s not so. The “blue” develops naturally, thanks to a special culture (Penicillium Roqueforti) that cheesemakers stir into the curds. That said, “blue” likes to wander, so you’ll want to store your blue cheeses away from other cheeses in your fridge.
Earlier Posts in this Series…
Your Spring Goat Cheese Primer (part 1)
Late Summer Cheese Picnic (part 2)
Smoke and Funk: A Fall Cheese Board (part 3)