🧀 A Conversation with the King of Kosher Cheese
The Cheese Guy on what makes cheese kosher, his delicious products, and more!
An early drop before Shavuot, my new favorite Jewish holiday, kicks off!
I celebrated Shavuot for the first time last year and the nerd that I am was amazed that there’s a Jewish holiday dedicated to learning AND eating dairy. So you can bet your Lactaid pills I was all the more pumped for this year’s festivities.
Shavuot, Hebrew meaning “weeks," for the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Jews gather and stay up all night studying text and consume dairy-based dishes from cheesecake to blintzes. This tradition originates from the idea that when the Israelites received the Torah, they did not have the laws of kashrut so they needed time to prepare kosher meat and opted to consume dairy products instead.
This year, I’m attending an event that’s a little… less religious than last year’s. I’m excited because it’s basically one big Jewish learning extravaganza! I’m talking Israeli political discussions, a whiskey tasting, Israeli folk dancing, a silent disco, talks on antisemitism and the Book of Ruth, a Syrian cheese-making workshop, and more. We gonna party ‘til the sun comes up!
Speaking of cheese… the holiday is also a harvest festival welcoming the spring, when cows, goats and sheep give birth and it’s the season for fresh milk. With fresh milk comes fresh cheese, so it’s no surprise that Shavuot is the busiest time of year for Yonkers-based kosher cheesemaker Brent Delman, aka “The Cheese Guy.”
A year ago, I got to taste his amazing products in my Fellowship at MJE, my favorite being his goat cheddar, and I interviewed him for this week’s early drop! Enjoy and try not to get too hungry.
How did you get into cheesemaking?
When I was younger I had gone backpacking through Israel where I had my first veggie burger. I thought it was the greatest thing and that the veggie burger was going to go mainstream - it’s tasty, healthy, good for the environment. This was about 35 years ago. I came back, finished my MBA at George Washington University, and wrote my thesis on the future of the veggie burger. That was my entre (no pun intended) into the food world. Shortly after, I started my career as a food importer for a large corporation. I then branched out independently to become one of the first to import and distribute specialty items like quinoa and sun-dried tomatoes to the U.S.
After spending some time in Israel, I was inspired to start keeping kosher, knowing I wanted to own an artisanal food company someday. While distributing non-kosher cheeses at one point, I wanted to bring in new cutting-edge food products to the kosher world. Thus, “The Cheese Guy” was born. I’ve been in the specialty food business since 1990.
Can you explain what makes cheese kosher versus non-kosher?
Sure, I’ll break that down for you (pun intended). It all comes down to rennet, which is a key component in some cheese-making processes. Rennet is a complex of enzymes that causes milk proteins to coagulate and separate the milk into solid curds. Rennet is typically derived from the stomach lining of a calf or lamb that has not been slaughtered according to kosher dietary laws, making the cheese non-kosher.
To ensure cheese is considered kosher, you want to have alternative rennet sources. My cheeses are made with microbial rennet, an innovative technique that became commercially viable 25-30 years ago at a time when animal rennet was the only rennet. And I’m currently experimenting with non-traditional rennet, productions of vegetable rennet that are derived from the thistle plant, which is written about in the Talmud.
What's some of your favorite cheese you've made or have right now?
A popular product is our handmade burrata. I traveled to Northern Italy to get the recipe right, and some people who eat non-kosher burrata say our burrata is as good as or even better than burrata they’ve had! I also have five kinds of spicy cheeses, from chipotle cheddar to ghost pepper jack, the hottest of them. I like to add a chunk of that one to macaroni and cheese sauce.
Another sought-after one is our four-year aged parmesan with cheddar notes. It has the nuttiness and sweetness of a cheddar and the sharp saltiness of a parmesan.
Do you have a special connection to Shavuot?
Yes, absolutely. It’s probably the busiest time of the year for us other than the holidays. There are a lot of dairy and cheese connections to the holiday. It’s been a challenge to break into the kosher world because most kosher consumers have to choose between meat and milk at any given meal. So if it’s a festive meal like a wedding or Passover Seder, 9/10 times people are going to choose meat.
Another issue is that part of the laws of kashrut says that if you’re eating a hard cheese, you have to wait between eating milk and meat when normally you don’t have to wait. My cheese falls into that category. So if you eat my parmesan with cheddar notes, you have to wait six hours before eating meat, but if you eat cottage cheese you can rinse out your mouth and you can go and have a meat meal. People in the kosher world are hesitant to commit to eating a hard cheese because they may eat a meat meal. But Shavuot is our time to shine and showcase what we do because it’s when people eat dairy meals and are not concerned with eating a meat meal after.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wish I spent more time on farms and grading cheese but a lot of it’s inner-workings of running a business. I have 14 employees so I manage trucks and distribution and logistics and always dealing with quality control, ordering ingredients, going out to stores, and visiting customers. I take orders and go out on Sundays - we’re going to be starting in the next week or two selling at a lot of local farmers markets. I love this because it’s such a great way to get feedback directly from consumer sales, finding out what people like and what they’re looking for. It’ how I develop new cheeses - by listening to people.
I do travel. A lot of my cheese is produced on Amish farms in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. I visit dairy farms in Vermont and sometimes go to Italy. As we speak, I’m sitting in a hotel in the middle of farm country in Appleton, WI and as I was driving about 20 minutes ago, I saw a wild turkey crossing the road. I’ve grown to appreciate real artisan foods and farmers. There are disappearing family farms around the U.S. and I love being able to support them and keep them from disappearing. I appreciate the lifestyle of the farmer and their work ethic.
What are you doing in Appleton, WI?
I’m meeting with farms that don’t currently produce anything kosher and I’m going to see if there’s some synergy between their farms and what I’m looking for, maybe develop new cheese varieties. When I partner with some of these places, they supply the milk and I source the other ingredients - starter cultures, rennet, etc. Either they supply the cheese-making equipment or we find a creamery and we collaborate. I bring some of my cheese-making equipment because it has to be separate from theirs. We come up with recipes, figuring out how to age the cheese. I’m always looking for new projects.
Where can we buy your cheese?
I sell at farmers markets in Westchester, New York; Riverdale (Bronx); Long Island; Teaneck; and more; at supermarket chains, specialty stores and kosher markets like Whole Foods, Morton Williams, Shoprite, Uncle Giuseppe’s, Cedar Market, Seasons, Riverdale Kosher, Gourmet Glatt and others; or online at blockandwedge.com. For more information and to view all products, visit thecheeseguy.com.
And lastly, because this is a Shabbat-themed newsletter, what are you doing this Shabbat? (asked a couple of weeks ago)
This Shabbat is unusual - I have a monumental birthday coming up so I have a lot of family and friends coming into town. We’re going to have 30 people at Friday night dinner that my wife helped put together. There will be a lot of good food, drinks, and good conversation. And whenever I host a shabbat meal we go around ask the best part of the week.
If you learned something new or enjoyed what you read, please give this post a ‘like’ by clicking on the heart at the top, or let me know in the comments! Also check out my article I wrote about him for JewishLink here. And wish Brent a belated happy birthday! Chag Shavuot Tov, everybody.
May 28th: Enjoy some of Brent’s cheese with us in Central Park this Sunday by RSVPing here!
June 15th: Okay this is not my event, but a dear friend of mine recently joined the board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Join us to support their work by RSVPing to an awesome young professionals party! Use the name Sarah Jacobowitz as the reference.