Artisan Cheese Pioneers:
In Their Own Words: Paula Lambert
135, No. 31 - Friday, January 28, 2011
This is the first in a series on the pioneers of the Artisan Cheese Movement in the US, which had its beginning in the early 1980’s. While there were wonderful producers that had existed around the country for years, it was at that time that the new wave started that has led to national popularity for Artisan Cheese, some say celebrity.
In a radical change from my usual rants, I will step back and let them do the speaking, except for a few questions. The first invited guest is Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company in Dallas.
How did you find yourself falling into what has turned into a life’s work?
“I lived in Italy for five years, studying Italian and art history, then I decided to come back to the US and get married, and we moved to Dallas. At a certain point, when I was almost 40, I decided I wanted to have a business. I had never had a job except for teaching school, when I first got out of college, so I was thinking about what kind of business I could have.
Because I loved Italy and loved to cook, I thought my business should involve Italy and food, And, in the back of my mind, I thought it would be a great reason to travel to Italy on business trips.
I decided it would be a great idea to have a pasta company, because I knew people made fresh pasta in Italy. And I started dreaming about it, and thinking about where it would be, and how it would be: how people would pass by on the way out of downtown Dallas, and see it and stop and pick up pasta for dinner.
Around this time I went to a luncheon, and people asked me what I was doing, and I said I was thinking of opening a fresh pasta company. And they said, “Well, don’t you realize that one is just about to open?” And I thought, oh no!
What a disaster, if I had only started it two weeks earlier I could have been the one opening the shop
I was just devastated, and after the lunch I drove by the soon-to-open shop. So anyway, after that I dropped the idea immediately.
Not long thereafter, my husband and I were on a trip in Italy at Christmas and we were eating fresh Mozzarella for lunch the day we arrived. And I just came up with the idea, with my friend who lived there, that what I would make is fresh Mozzarella.
I knew nobody was making Mozzarella in Dallas. So I went down to a nearby cheese factory that afternoon and asked them if they would teach me how to make fresh Mozzarella.
Before opening the Mozzarella Company, I talked to a friend of mine in Dallas who was an Italian restaurateur and asked him if he was going to use fresh Mozzarella, and he said yes, so I asked him where he was going to get it, and he said from San Francisco, and I said, well, that kind of defeats the purpose of fresh Mozzarella, as it should be eaten the day it is made, and that was even before I had decided to start my business.
I was convinced, at that point, that all you had to do is pour milk into a machine like you pour flour into a pasta machine, and out would come Mozzarella balls. Anyway, I was very lucky, and I asked the right people, and they were very nice, and I extended my trip to Italy and learned how to make the cheese and figured out how I was going to do it in Dallas.
I had found out in this cheese factory in Perugia, where I had been, that it was going to be more complicated to make fresh Mozzarella than I thought; at first, you know, the first few days, I thought I would just bring one of their workers over here as they had four people making cheese, so I figured I’ll just take “that guy,” the one who is lowest on the totem pole and he could help me.
“You know, the general public had never heard of fresh Mozzarella, and so, I wasn’t able to sell very much, so I decided from the beginning to try and sell to the restaurants.”
—Paula Lambert, The Mozzarella Company
And then, by the time my tenure of several weeks ended, I realized even the owner didn’t have the knowledge I needed, as I realized that I would have to be pasteurizing the milk in the US, and they were not pasteurizing the milk in the factory in Italy. So the man who owned the cheese factory there knew about a cheese technical school nearby, so he got an appointment for me during the same trip to go up and meet the director who consulted with cheese factories all over the world.
And the man agreed to be of help
to me, and he didn’t really realize what a small enterprise I was going to build, you know, he had visions of huge factories in his head. He couldn’t make it to see the construction, and it turned out he sent a cheese professor who worked out perfectly as he had had the experience of teaching all the national cheeses of Italy in his cheese school.
It was much more involved than I thought or imagined, but it worked out, and in fact, by the following August I was making the cheese.
So I came back to Dallas, and found I had to go through everything you go through when starting a new business. I had to figure out about the zoning, how to remodel a building, the health laws, where to get equipment and supplies, and I did.
I found a really nice older man who had been a dairy equipment salesman. He thought what I was doing was fabulous, since everyone kept making things bigger and bigger, so someone going back, in the old fashioned way, was a wonderful thing. He was pivotal in the creation of my cheese factory, as he took me on as a project and introduced me to everyone that could help me and kept checking on me. His name was Rodney Lockhart.
Unfortunately he died, but he was very much help for me.
So you financed this your self with friends and family?
“Yes, I found two friends who wanted to invest. When I started I didn’t realize about distributors. We started selling to little shops in Dallas. Fortunately, in Dallas, in the early eighties, there was beginning to be a lot of interest in food, so there were, you know, little gourmet shops and little this and that, and I would sell to those places
You know, the general public had never heard of fresh Mozzarella, and so, I wasn’t able to sell very much, so I decided from the beginning to try and sell to the restaurants. I felt the chefs in the restaurants would know what to do with it, and people would learn more about it after eating it in a restaurant, and if they did, they would buy it and take it home from a store.
I was lucky in that there were a few good Italian restaurants in town, and of course, they were looking for fresh Mozzarella. And the best restaurant in Dallas, The Mansion on Turtle Creek, became one of my first accounts.
If a restaurant would call and order 40 pounds of cheese we’ll go to the dairy and get the milk, and spend the whole day making cheese just for them. We started out three days a week making only 100 pounds a week and I made all the deliveries Currently we make cheese four days a week, but there is a whole lot of maintenance that goes on.
At first I didn’t get paid. We couldn’t sell enough to make our overhead, so the Mozzarella Company couldn’t actually pay me so I converted my unpaid salary to stock for several years.
After a year and a half, all we were making was the fresh Mozzarella, and the company was not financially successful. So I decided I had to learn to make other cheeses. Laura (Chenel) had started at the same time in Santa Rosa, but I didn’t really know anyone else making cheese in the US, so I decided to go back to Italy. In the meanwhile I met this man that Macy’s had brought down from New York and he had this food from Italy I had never heard of, and I had lived in Italy, and never heard of it, so i started talking to him; the food was sun-dried tomatoes.
Well, we started chatting and I asked where the sun-dried tomatoes came from, and he said Genoa, and I asked and what kind of cheese do they make in Genoa. And then I told him I wanted to make goat cheese and as we chatted he mentioned they sold a goat cheese from Italy in his shop in New York.
Anyways, his name was Giorgio De Luca. He set it up so I could go and learn to make this goat cheese in Italy. I figured if I knew how to make another goat cheese I could make two sales at a time. So anyway, he set it up. We went back and forth many times. It was even before there was a fax, so we were using telex’s and telegrams and all this, to talk to these people, and they said yes.
I got to Italy. The cheese professor called for me to confirm, and I got there and all there was was just this empty dark cheese factory. You know how it gets darker in the winter, it was January. It was cold and it started to snow outside, and so I walked in and they weren’t making cheese and I said why aren’t you all making cheese, will you be making it tomorrow and he said, ‘ well lady, don’t you know that goats don’t give milk in the winter’?
So I had gone all the way to Italy to learn to make this goat cheese and they weren’t even making it. And so I asked if he would tell me how to make it and he said “no”. And he was the only person in all these years who would never help me. He said if I show you how to make the cheese, then I’ll lose my account with Dean and Deluca.
So I just left, and that was really lucky, because I remembered some friends that were a few hours from there and I drove and met them, and then I asked them if they could get me some introductions to some cheese makers near where they lived. It was very lucky that they introduced me to a very successful man who told me that ‘he was happy to repay his debt to America’ by letting me go into his plant with his general manager and work for a few days. I learned a whole lot there.
The trip turned out to be pivotal as I also went all around Umbria and was taken to many different cheese factories plus I was able to visit with a professor at the Cheese School. I learned how to make many new cheeses and I saw Burrata, which no one had seen in the US, and this was in 1984.
And so I came back and then I started meeting with the new wave of chefs like Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearin, and others. When I made deliveries I would just go and talk to them and see all of these new ingredients they were using, and asked them if they would be interested in a cheese with these ingredients, so that’s how I got into all the chilies, like ancho chili, and herbs, like the Mexican marigold, that’s how I got going on those cheeses, through those chefs.
Did you envision cheese would grow to what it is today?
If you look back, most people would be devastated by what happened in Italy, but you turned it into an opportunity, what is your secret?
Well, I am just very tenacious and also very positive. You know you can get just devastated by certain things then you can’t keep going, and you are not going to succeed.
It’s just that it was very slow and hard in the beginning as people didn’t know what fresh Mozzarella was. I think one of the things that helped change it slowly was that Dallas started to grow, and people moving in had been in more sophisticated food cities, then the availability of so many more imported foods, and then people started to travel more, and they would come back, and then there was the proliferation of the Food Network, and stores opening up, and at least people are liking to cook, and the stores are just incredible now.
Now there is this whole local movement, and sustainability and all of these things are changing the complexity, and now New York is doing these food halls…there are like three or four of them.
How long was it that you could really say with confidence the business side would make it.
I think a couple of years. I was really worried and didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want my friends who had invested in our company to lose their money, so I went to Italy to expand the product line, and then when I incorporated the new ingredients like the chilies into the cheese and expanded my product line, it really turned around. It was about two to three years. r
Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions,
a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food
make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter.
Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.
Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter
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