It was nearly seven years ago that I was elbow deep in a three bay sink of suds, washing pots and pans for the esteemed and successful banquet department of the Radisson, Kalamazoo. Since my ‘days of detergent’ with Lionel Richie on repeat, I’ve worked hard and have learned from experiences and other people to shape the cook I’ve become. In January of 2014, I was offered a chance to attend the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy, and had the opportunity to shape the chef I wanted to be. With many long-winded arrangements, months of espresso driven planning, fun with obtaining visas and several successful months at Webster’s, my wife and I were ready to fly out a short week after our wedding.
This blog could go in any direction at this point. I could talk about my amazing mother, whom none of this would happen without. I should acknowledge the support of our chef and team, who all had to work harder to make this experience even possible. I want to shine light on our closest friend and the ‘goddess’ of our lives, whom put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our happiness. I might transition into the incredible tutelage of Chef John Nocita, and how the hardest thing to leave was all of the friends we made in school from around the world. I could write for hours on charcuterie, conserves and pasta making. Instead I am going to focus on my favorite technique I learned in Italy: cheese making.
I was never a cheese addict. I’m not the guy at the party who jumps in excitement when somebody pulls out the Colby Jack cubes. I’m not sure why I latched onto cheese so much, maybe it was foreign, different and something I had never pursued to learn how to make before. It could have been arriving at the sheep farm far before dawn, and tasting the warm ricotta made from the whey of the pecorino only a couple hours after the sheep were milked. It could have been eating loads of grilled camoscio, a soft cheese like brie, with fresh honey, black truffles and valeriana greens. Whatever it was that turned on my formaggio ‘switch’, I am forever a lover of all things cheese.
In school, we had the privilege of learning how to make several types of cheese. Our chef didn’t hold back when it came to beautiful ingredients, as we got to work with fresh milks, rennet, and cultures that were created by the chef himself from years of his own cheese making. Most of the cheese we made was not ready for consumption by the time the program was over, so we had the honor of tasting the cheese made from graduating classes before us. These weren’t your average blocks of cheese. We made curds that were pulled into mozzarella, pasteurized sheep milk that were cut into large curds to age pecorino with black truffles and saffron, and even extracted culture from gorgonzola to create our own. I ran to the closest internet connection we could find after class that day to email Stefan about finding sheep milk in Michigan. My wife and I started planning how we could turn our wine cooler at home into a cheese aging case. I was online ready to start filling up my cart on Amazon with cheese baskets and equipment we would need. This was an inspiring lesson and I was hungry for more.
The class continued with several new types of artisanal cheese like caciotta, ricotta salata, taleggio, pecorino con peperoncino, provola, caciocavallo, camoscio, robiola: just to name a few. We even had a day of learning techniques and recipes that utilize leftover whey, milk and other ingredients from cheese making, our favorite being sheep milk gelato. I highly encourage looking up the Italian Culinary Institute and Chef Nocita’s work, a true master of his craft. They even hold small sessions throughout the year for a quick but full immersion into regional Italian cuisine.
I hope to not only be making cheese at home, but to feature some house made cheese on Webster’s menu one day. Until then, we are going to keep sourcing some of the best cheese we can find from not only Italy, but all around the world. The mozzarella di bufala from Campania we are featuring right now is delicious, and impossible to find at any store in Kalamazoo. Cheese making was just one small part of our amazing journey to Calabria, Italy. I look forward to sharing more of our experiences at the Italian Culinary Institute in future blogs. Check back soon for my newfound knowledge and appreciation of conserves, and what we are conserving at Webster’s right now.
*Special thanks to ICI alumni and friend Michael Reale for sharing his ‘Cheese Week’ photos with us.
All other photos taken by my beautiful wife!
Webster’s Prime – Sous Chef