Gabriela Hasbun
As a soloist, Soyoung Scanlan salts a Camembert-style cow's milk cheese she calls Legato in the serenity of her fabricating room.
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Cheese Concerto

Greg Atkinson - September 2005

When Bay Area chefs seek outstanding artisanal cheese, they call upon a Sonoma-based musician and scientist from South Korea. Chef/journalist Greg Atkinson visits Soyoung Scanlan, the remarkable woman behind the cult cheeses.

Inside the temporary headquarters of Andante Dairy, the air is a veritable chemical soup. Like a million Rumpelstiltskins spinning straw into gold, a host of microscopic fauna and flora are turning milk into cheese. And the various products of their metabolism give the air the soapy snap of a Parisian cheese shop.

I’ve come to Santa Rosa, California, to meet Soyoung Scanlan, musician, scientist, and one of the most celebrated of the new artisanal cheese makers. After years of hauling milk in the back of her station wagon and working during off-hours at other people’s dairies, she is now on the brink of moving into a new dairy built just for her at John Volpi’s goat farm in nearby Petaluma. “So,” she says, “this is where I work for now.”

As my eyes adjust from the bright Sonoma sunshine to the pail half-light inside the building, they take in a stainless-steel table in the middle of the room on which dozens of newborn cheeses are draining in tiny plastic sieves. The whey beneath the cheeses moves across the table to a drain, where it trickles down in a continuous string of sound, like the music of a sinuous stream.

“I like it here,” she says. “It’s peaceful, like hiking in the mountains, which is one of my favorite things to do.” It is quiet here, in a happy meditative way, the stillness punctuated by outdoor birdsong and the drip of whey falling into a pail. “Andante” is a musical term meaning moderately slow or walking speed. The name suits the place very well.

“This building is where Laura Chenel started making cheese,” Scanlan notes. Chenel, of course, is the pioneer American cheesemaker who introduced French cheesemaking methods to California in 1979; in 1989 she garnered the first Wine and Food Achievement Award in Food Processing from the Northern California Chapter of The American Institute of Wine & Food. “Because Chenel set it up as a dairy, the place already had concrete floors and all the systems that allowed it to meet the codes. But it was abandoned for a while before I moved in.” The building sits behind a decrepit but otherwise nondescript house located in the middle of an unassuming neighborhood. “I’ll be the last tenant, though. The owner is planning to tear everything down and put in a little development here.”

As she fills me in on the history of the dairy, I explore the racks on which a variety of intriguing cheese forms are drying and curing. Some are covered in ash or mold. Some wear the wrinkled webbing of a muskmelon. Disks, pyramids, short cylinders, and flats are arranged like so many building blocks. She shows me a tray of miniature crottins.

“These are for The French Laundry,” she says. “For Thomas Keller. He was my first customer.”

Later Keller confides, “Soyoung’s cheeses are unique because of the collaboration she invites with the chef.” But with a sense of entitlement that could come only from one who has achieved his level of success, the chef/owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in Manhattan takes this collaboration in stride. “It’s just the way things are going,” he says. “I mean, it happens in every industry. The people who provide the raw materials start to work with the people who use them to develop a product that more precisely suits their needs. Chefs have always demanded a certain level of quality, and over time, when you establish a relationship with a purveyor, the product becomes the result of this collaborative effort.”

“I think we’re going to call this one Rhapsody,” says Scanlan, holding up one of the little crottins she’s crafted for Keller. “In the summer he’ll want something fresher, and in the fall he’ll probably want something like my Acapella,” a small wrinkled disk of cheese that looks for all the world like a Saint Marcellin. “And this one,” she says, displaying a rather large cheese shaped like an old-fashioned tempo keeper, “ I call Metronome.”

Because she was an accomplished pianist (she also plays flute and violin) before she has a cheesemaker, Scanlan employs musical terms to name all her cheeses. Pianoforte (musically, soft and strong) is a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese. Rondo (a musical form in which a central theme is woven between various minor themes) is a soft ripened cheese made from a mixture of cow’s and goat’s milks. Other cheeses include the ash-dusted Nocturne (a nighttime serenade), the goat’s milk Acapella (singing without instrumental accompaniment), and an extraordinary triple cream from both goat’s and Jersey cow’s cream called Minuet (a French formal dance in triple time).

“I name the cheese for music,” explains Scanlan, “but chefs are my muses. Whenever I start to work with a new chef, I show them a lot of cheeses, and we talk about their differences. Then I ask them to tell me what kind of cheese they want so I can make something just for them. But some chefs have no vocabulary to talk about cheese, so I have to teach them.”

In addition to making an selling her own cheeses, Scanlan represents three affineurs (ripeners): French importer Hervé Mons (winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France Fromager Affineur 2000), Swiss cheese affineur Rolf Beeler, and Guffanti, the Italian company named for the late Luigi Guffanti, based in Milan. “I work with the chefs and help them train the staff how to handle the cheeses and describe them to their customers in ways that make sense.”

At Gary Danko in San Francisco, for instance, Scanlan spent a full day showing the staff how to store and serve the individual cheeses on a cart that showcases as many as 20, including at least one produced by her. Several times a week, she works with the chefs to revise and replenish their supplies. The night I was there, I tasted a bouncy nettle-wrapped cow’s milk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery called St. Patrick; a remarkable Brescianella from the Piedmont region of Italy; a dry Asiago-style Serena from Three Sisters Dairy in Tulare, California (one of the best cheeses in California, according to Scanlan); and a classic French Bleu d’Causses from the Auvergne region.

For Daniel Humm, executive chef at Campton Place in San Francisco, Scanlan crafts a selection of cheeses heavy on the Alpine characteristics the Swiss born chef understands best. But she also provides him with a regular stream of her own cheeses. “I started adding ash to the Acapella because Daniel wanted that,” she says. When I ate there, Humm’s incredible selection of Lilliputian hors d’oeuvres included Scanlan’s most innocent fresh white cheese layered in a kind of napoleon between precisely squared tiles of Parmesan crisps. And one of the desserts was a tiny Scanlan crottin sprinkled with Maldon sea salt in a splash of pink pepper-spiked olive oil.

Long before she became the cheesemaker darling adored by the Bay Area’s most prestigious chefs, Scanlan, 38, was a scientist in her native South Korea. Awarded a degree in microbiology from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology when she was 20, she had hoped that a career in the life sciences might enable her “to understand something about the essence of life.”

“All sorts of advances were being made in genetic engineering at the time,” she recalls. “It was a very hot field.” But instead of touching the essence of life, Scanlan found herself working in a sterile biotech lab, synthesizing proteins so infinitesimal that she couldn’t see them, touch them, or otherwise sense their presence without the aid of scientific instruments. “I was very unhappy,” she recalls. So she sought solace in music and divided her time between the laboratory and the concert halls. “The first thing I did when I came to the United States [in 1993],” she says, “was to subscribe to the symphony.” And it was at the concert hall that she met her husband, James Scanlan, who at the time worked as an engineer for the manufacturer Bose stereo systems.

“When we had been together for a few months, he said to me, ‘You are so unhappy in your work. I want you to do something you love.’ He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Just stop what you’re doing and think about what you really want to do. Take as long as you like. I’ll take care of you. You’re a small person. You don’t eat much. You don’t take up much room. Just let me take care of you until you know what you want to do.’”

“All I knew at that point,” she says, “was that I no longer wanted to pursue my career in science. So I became a housewife. I read books. I cooked and baked, and gradually I came to realize that I wanted to do something with my hands and with food.

“At the same time, I was becoming more and more aware of social issues. I thought about the farmers who gave up their farmland in Korea to developers and ended up in the city as poor laborers. And I saw the same thing happening her. Whenever farming becomes a corporate concern instead of a family concern, the level of brutality increase—not just for the people, but for the animals and for the land. So even though I was a city girl, raised in the world of academia, I was thinking about the animals an the land.”

Then came an epiphany. “Suddenly it was as if a light turned on, and I knew I would make cheese. I didn’t know how or where or what kind of cheese, but it was perfectly clear.”

That a Korean woman, steeped in a culture without any dairy tradition whatsoever, would suddenly develop a passion for cheese seems incongruous. But Scanlan spells it out very simply. Growing up in Seoul, where myriad forms of fermented vegetables constitute the national family of dishes known as kimchi, she was already familiar with the process of fermentation. “My mother always made her own soy sauce, and I was always fascinated with that process,” she says. “But there is more to it. Maybe it’s because I am Asian. But personally, even though I like to work and spend time alone, I have never felt like an individual as much as I have felt like a part of a larger social system. And the micro flora and fauna that transform milk into cheese are that way, too. They are not so much individual organisms as they are parts of systems working together.”

In the development of his 2004 revision of his classic work On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee consulted Scanlan to help him with the section of his book devoted to fermented vegetables. He also asked for her input on the cheese chapter. Eventually she pored over the entire manuscript, providing an invaluable exchange on the broad sweep of subject matter that covers a world of food science.

“She was my ideal reader,” says McGee, who in his book’s dedication wrote, “To Soyoung and to my family.”

“The way Soyoung feels about cheese inspired me. It’s not just her technical understanding, although that is a part of it. It’s also the obsession or passion she feels for it. Sometimes, I’ll call her and ask her how she’s doing, and she’ll say, ‘My cheeses are unhappy,’ the way a gardener might say, ‘My lettuces need rain.’ What makes her cheeses unique is their refinement and their delicacy. The refinement comes from the awareness of things along the way; when things to well with her cheeses, she knows why. The delicacy is a choice. It’s her style.”

At the dairy, Scanlan holds a small disk of cheese and with the fingers of her other hand gently touches its rippled surface. “You see how the Geotrichum forms an almost slippery texture on the surface. It’s neutralizing the acid, forming a foundation on which the penicillium mold will grow.” Geotrichum is a yeast found worldwide in soil, water, air, and sewage, as well as in plants, cereals, and dairy products. It’s also native to human skin, and it smells hauntingly familiar, something like a baby’s head.

“Cheese,” writes McGee, with uncharacteristic hyperbole, “is one of the great achievements of humankind.” At its very bear, it’s the result of a marvelous and intricate dance between milk, human beings, and the myriad other agents employed to simultaneously decompose the milk and re-form it into a solid that preserves its essential nutrients. The process renders milk capable of sustaining us in places far removed from its place of origin. Cheese has been made in one form or another for at least 5,000 years.

So, most cheesemakers have traditionally relied on methods understood only in the broadest terms. As long as they made the same cheeses in the same place, subject to the effects of the same microbes, that worked. California—indeed, the United States—lack the fromages de terroir that could inspire a neophyte, so when Scanlan decided she would make cheese, she attended the California Polytechnical Institute to study food engineering. “I got a very nice scholarship and started learning everything I could about milk.” Once again, though, the academic world left her feeling out of touch with what had attracted her to the discipline to begin with. “Instead of teaching us to make artisanal cheeses, the programs were focused on mass-producing low-fat cheese. It was all about processing and manufacturing, nothing about farmers or animals.”

By this time, Scanlan’s husband had begun to travel for his new job. “We made several trips to France, and while we were there, I studied the cheese. Cheese was so new to me.” Instead of apprenticing herself to another cheesemaker, though, Scanlan took a unique, albeit scientific, approach. “Every day, I would try seven cheeses and I would write imaginary recipes for how I thought they might have been made. Then I found the real recipe and compared my notes to the actual process to see how close I had come. I was trying to develop an instinct for cheese.”

By the time Scanlan actually started making cheese to sell, the artisanal movement was well under way and many small-scale cheesemakers all over North America were working to recapture the Old World flavors of traditional cheese. But the level of understanding and the degree of attention that Scanlan is willing and able to pay to her cheeses, combined with her determination to work in collaboration with chefs to provide them with cheeses that precisely meet their needs, is something quite new.

“I like to think I’m an innovative traditionalist,” she says. “Sometimes people make new cheeses just to create a sensation. I just like to find new ways of re-creating the flavors and textures that have always made sense.” And her commitment to social justice and preserving farmlands is still very much intact. Thanks to her paying a premium for their milk, the farms she supports are more stable entities, less susceptible to be converted into suburban developments.

Back at the dairy, Scanlan is showing me how to release the soft, barely formed cheeses from their molds, to turn them gently upside down and slip them back in. The whey continues to trickle off the table in its sing-song way. “What do you do with the whey?” I ask.

“For now, I throw it away,” she replies. “But when I move to my new headquarters, I’ll give it tot he pigs.”