Hyperbole is, admittedly, the fuel of food media—an odd world where, to be spoken of, things must be the hottest, the most exciting, the easiest, the quickest, the most star-powered. And so it can seem a little silly to train those sights on the patient, quiet world of the cheesemaker.
To be sure, cheesemaking has its stars, but one of its brightest, Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy, demurs. Her cheeses are beloved by just a handful of world-class chefs who can get them, but her relationships with those chefs are too personal, too real for her to trade on. She prefers to talk as if she was a tailor, simply interested in making something well-suited for a client. She speaks in pure poetry, her words rich with wisdom and curiosity, but she is famously reticent to give interviews and shies from the business of her work. As she says, “When I make enough money to buy next week’s milk, I feel like the richest person in the world.”
Gilt Taste is proud to be able to carry one of her cheeses, but just as proud to talk with her. In a frank, heartbreakingly wonderful conversation, we talked about becoming a cheesemaker while growing up in a culture that didn’t have cheese, how the scientist in her is frustrated by the artisanal food scene, and on the power—and risk—of falling in love.
In stories written about you, one of the first things people say is that you are a biochemist and musician, that your cheese reflects your background in both art and science. How do you see your past experience informing your work now?
Well, both are true, but sometimes I feel like [the emphasis on that means] just being a cheesemaker is not enough.
I’m just a part of the artisan cheese movement in America. When I started making cheese 13 years ago, it was done by old ladies who love goats. There wasn’t really a [widespread] idea of being a cheesemaker with a business plan—it sounds like an old story, but I’m talking about 10 years ago. So, in that landscape, coming to this as a scientist and naming my cheeses after music, possibly writers thought there was an interesting angle.
By nature I’m a very private person. I’m not shy or reclusive, but well, I’m Asian – Korean – so I have that kind of a sensibility. In the traditional setup, chefs are behind the restaurant, artisans are behind the product; this whole personal attention thing is quite new.
But frankly, compared to the amount of cheese I make, the amount of recognition I get… I feel very lucky.
There are lots of foods that require a sense of craft and patience and understanding, like bread. Why were you inspired to make cheese, in particular?
I seriously thought about being a baker! For the first five years of my career, I thought I was a better baker than cheesemaker.
I didn’t grow up with cheese. In Korea, my experience was Kraft singles on top of a hamburger and funny stories from my father, who worked for the government and traveled a lot in Europe and had a very hard time. Mold-covered and goats’ milk cheese were so foreign! So it wasn’t that I loved cheese—it was a lot more intellectual. I came here to pursue my PhD, but wanted to work with my hands, doing something I could smell or touch. I wanted to be surrounded by all my senses.
The amazing thing is that you see thousands of kinds of cheese, but it’s all just four ingredients: milk, salt, rennet, and some starter culture. There is something almost magical that milk can be transformed into totally different textures, flavors, looks. When I first looked at cheese in France, I was intellectually fascinated, so I wanted to understand milk—I went to my second graduate school to study dairy science. I went to the library and read all the cheese books, 19th century histories, physics books about colloidal structure. I couldn’t say I loved to eat cheese when I started; I was curious.
But you grew to love it?
Over the years, cheese has brought so many things into my life. It’s more than a tasty food to me now; it has so many meanings…
You talk about your cheesemaking as being “a part of nature.” What do you mean by that?
For me, cheesemaking is similar to making music. You read the scores, the notes, you practice it. First, it’s not really making music; that’s learning how to play. It’s a discipline. But at the end, when you make the music, you are transforming those notes. You have a visual language, like a code, and from that you are making something in the air that will disappear. But it captures people’s minds, and gives them a sense of beauty. Over the years, when the musician builds his career, every time he plays a piece, it’s a little different, but it’s still his.
Making cheese is like that. I’m looking for that. I’m a less occupied about making something the same every time. I control my environment a lot less than other people. Yes, I have machines and refrigeration, but I do not control my humidity and temperature by number. I walk around, feel the feeling outside, and I try to register those feelings in my brain and my skin. Then I come in and modify a little bit.
As a scientist, I think there is so much pseudoscience in artisan food making. Let’s say you read that the best condition is 85 percent humidity. So you invest in a regulator, turn the dial, and go, “Ok, this is constant.” But it’s not just humidity and temperature you can see on a screen. It’s air movement. It’s other things. When making cheese, everything counts. When the rain pounds the dirt outside, everything smells different. The microflora changes in the air. Do I want to put in a sterile air filter to avoid a “problem”? How much can you actually manipulate? Big factories need that; I don’t need that. And I never had that much money to invest in sterile air!
People have too much eagerness to control things. They are using the so-called scientific data, which was developed for mass production. [Traditionally] cheesemakers are very humble, unlike wine makers. Nothing is ever very fancy. We’re also different from chocolate makers.
Ha, ha, so tell me again why you didn’t become a baker?
Cheese was…newer for me. When I first came here 18 years ago… In Korea, the society was very rigid and traditional. When I came here, I felt a freedom to do what I want. That was possibly the first time I truly asked myself what I truly want to do. Even falling in love with my husband was difficult—it was very natural, but there were consequences to marrying a foreign man. So there was a period of my life when I let myself feel what was new, what was fascinating.
Cheese came around that time. In Korea, I might have said, “Oh cheese, the French love it.” But my mind was so open at that time that I thought I should jump in. It was falling in love and letting myself go. It was an intense time in my life, but I’m glad for it. When you fall in love, there’s passion. But how to develop that love, how to live with it—that’s a lot of work.