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Cheese Wiz

Raymond Hook champions the art of artisan cheese

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In early 2000, Hook heard about a woman in South Georgia making goat cheese by hand, and he gave her a call. At the time, Desiree Wehner was just making cheese as a hobby, trying to master the basic process. Encouraged by Hook, who was thrilled that someone in Georgia was attempting artisan cheese, she began to visit him in Atlanta, bringing samples of her cheese. Since then, Wehner and her family, whose company is Sweet Grass Dairy, have become award-winning cheesemakers producing 14 varieties of cow and goat cheese.

On the way down to Thomasville to visit the Wehners' operation, Hook waxed enthusiastic on the future of cheesemaking in this country. "Americans, when given the correct energy, time and focus, generally do stuff better than other people," he said. "Twenty years ago a California Cabernet created a big ol' stir when it was rated better than a French wine. You need great grapes to make great wine. The same goes for cheese: Basically, you take great milk and try not to fuck it up."

As we walked into the stark-white cheese plant, Wehner's son-in-law Jeremy Little had just finished salting large, pale rounds of curd for aging into Thomasville Tomme, a semi-firm variety with a mellow buttery taste that, I'm told, makes transcendental macaroni and cheese. Little has been working with Wehner for less than a year, but he has turned out to be an almost preternaturally capable student. Hook later tells me, "When we were at the American Cheese Society Conference last month, two cheeses that Jeremy is largely responsible for making each won first-place ribbons. A veteran cheesemaker walked over to congratulate him. 'How long have you been making cheese?' she asked. 'Seven months, ma'am,' Jeremy replied. The woman looked at him blankly for a moment and then sighed, 'I'm quitting.'"

Wehner donned a plastic cap like cafeteria ladies wear, and she and Little started a batch of their newest creation, a rich double creme called Velvet Rose. Hook peered over one of the metal pasteurization vats as it slowly filled with golden milk from the Wehners' cow farm, which is 30 minutes away. The room suddenly smelled like freshly whipped cream. Hook stared, mesmerized for a few moments by the gushing milk, then looked up. "That's why their cheese is so great, right there," he said. "Look how rich that milk is."

Wehner's husband, Al, drove us to see the dairy farm where their cows lounged in the sun. The grazing land on the farm is designed in a circular pattern, based on a style of rotational grazing from New Zealand that Al read about in the early '90s. The cows live outside all year long, and that day were lounging under a long irrigation device that misted them with water.

"Most cows live in cramped pens on concrete floors," Al told us. "They're fed growth hormones and made to milk for 15 months straight. We had a farm like that for 12 years, but after a while, it just didn't feel right. We took a risk setting this system up -- no one else in the Southeast that I know of has a similar system -- but we're doing OK."

"If I were a cow," said Hook, "this is where I'd like to live."

The Wehners' daughter, Jessica Little, recently spent a few weeks tagging along with Hook on his rounds to his regular wholesale customers, comprised largely of chefs and cheesemongers who sell and serve artisan cheeses, so she could improve her sales technique for Sweet Grass Dairy. "When we showed up at restaurants with cheese to sell, the chefs would just stop whatever they were doing to come see what Raymond was bringing them," said Little. "Most chefs don't stop for anything! They knew whatever he had, it would be great."

In addition to helping restaurants and markets select the best cheese for their needs, Hook offers them advice on handling and storage. "Cheese is a living, breathing thing," he's fond of saying. "Don't smother it." Hook also teaches classes at Cook's Warehouse ("I want people to understand that cheese is fun, you know?") and is chairman of the advisory board for Atlanta's Table, a project of the Atlanta Community Food Bank that delivers excess prepared food from restaurants and hotels to nonprofit hunger relief agencies.

At Woodfire Grill, Hook focuses on training staff before dinner service starts and preparing cheese courses for guests. "First time I met him at Star Provisions, we talked about cheese for over an hour before I even introduced myself," remembers Chef Michael Tuohy. "The guy is an incredible resource, even beyond cheese. He helped me select olive oil for the restaurant and even knew the number for a courier who would pick up my shipment of Petaluma chickens from the airport!"

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