The Big Cheese
Jason Sobocinski (MET’07) stars in Cooking Channel show| From Alumni Notes | By Amy Sutherland
“I believe in cheese,” says Jason Sobocinski, at the bar of Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, the restaurant and cheese shop he owns in New Haven, Conn. Photo by Melody Komyerov
Americans eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, triple the amount consumed in 1970. At the same time, the United States has become the world’s biggest cheese producer, turning out world-class rounds with poetic names like Humboldt Fog and Constant Bliss. Stacks of Brie, Gruyère, and Stilton tumble from dairy sections at our grocery stores.
So it was inevitable that we now have a TV show devoted to all things cheese. The Big Cheese, which debuted last fall on the Cooking Channel, is hosted by Jason Sobocinski (MET’07), a curly-haired cheese evangelist with a gee-whiz love of coagulated dairy.
“I believe in cheese,” says Sobocinski, seated in the bar of Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, the restaurant and cheese shop he owns in New Haven, Conn.
He can certainly talk about cheese. Ask him about Point Blue, for example, and his green eyes gaze off for a moment before he launches into a tale of Pacific breezes, coastal pastures, and a herd of Holsteins, all of which come together to create a blue cheese with a delicious saltiness. “Isn’t that amazing,” he says.
That unbridled enthusiasm for cheese made him a natural to host The Big Cheese. Producer and director Stephen Crisman says he picked Sobocinski because of his expertise and his down-to-earth personality. He’s also game to do anything, including shooting an episode on an upstate New York dairy farm in below-zero weather—in a T-shirt.
“He’s the real deal,” Crisman says. “He’s not a prima donna.”
During the first season, Sobocinski led viewers on a tour of some of the country’s best cheese makers in Vermont, New York, and California, gaining 10 pounds along the way. He milked goats and scoured the country for twists on the almighty grilled cheese sandwich. Like any cheesemonger, Sobocinski prefers artisan cheeses, but says he found himself enjoying even a visit to a cheese factory in Wisconsin. Turns out, he says, it uses milk from local dairies.
“The whole show was a high point,” he says. “The point was to try to be myself, and that wasn’t hard because I was talking about cheese.”
When the show’s not shooting, Sobocinski has plenty to keep him busy. In addition to his restaurant and cheese shop, he runs Caseus Cheese Truck, a New Haven food truck that serves tomato soup, salads, and, of course, grilled cheese sandwiches. And he has just published a cookbook, Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook (Lyons Press, 2011).
Despite all of this responsibility, there’s still something of the college student about the 33-year-old. It’s not because he favors ball caps, baggy clothes, and an ever-present 5 o’clock shadow. Rather it’s his boundless energy, which he doesn’t reserve just for cheese. He gushes about his seven-month-old son, his Great Dane, his hometown of New Haven, even the aging food truck that needs constant repairing.
Sobocinski ate his fair share of cheese growing up in a vegetarian family of Italian heritage. Long since an omnivore, Sobocinski cracked the world of cheese while taking graduate classes in gastronomy at Metropolitan College. For two years, he spent his evenings studying subjects like food ethnography and his days working at Formaggio Kitchen, one of the country’s top cheese purveyors.
His mentor at Formaggio Kitchen, Robert Aguilera, says Sobocinski may not have arrived with the most refined palate, but he was committed to learning about hundreds of cheeses, no easy task. Aguilera had Sobocinski draw the cheese so that he would be able to identify by sight the many discs, squares, and rolls. Sobocinski kept a notebook of his “cheese doodles” and spent hours on his own time studying the pedigree of each cheese. He learned how to tell a customer about a cheese without coming across as pompous, an occupational hazard of the business. That, Aguilera says, came naturally for Sobocinski.
“He’s got a love of food but he doesn’t have a snobbish attitude about it,” Aguilera says. “He likes to make it fun.”
Sobocinski says he agreed to host The Big Cheese because he wants to make cheese more accessible to people. That’s also why he wrote the cookbook and launched his food truck two years ago. The truck sells the same gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, made from an ever-changing blend of artisan cheeses and served with cornichons and a dollop of grain mustard, that he serves in his restaurant. His goal is to elevate the American standard, while making high-end cheese less intimidating.
All of this doesn’t leave much time for sleep, but Sobocinski says he needs only five hours a night. If he gets home early, say 11 p.m., he might play soccer online until about 2 a.m., and, before he hits the hay, have a snack: two fried eggs with, what else, melted cheese.
Ask the Expert: Jason Sobocinski
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Jason Sobocinski about cheese. Here are some of those questions, along with Sobocinski’s responses.
QHow comfortable are you eating unpasteurized soft cheeses? I’ve heard they are delicious but haven’t made the leap due to germ concerns. What have your experiences been? — Courtney
AExtremely comfortable! I love all cheeses but raw milk varieties are my all-time favorite. If you’re buying from a good cheese monger, you should have no concerns in regards to germs. In fact, more cases of Listeria (the bacteria to be concerned about) are found in pasteurized apple juice and hot dogs, from what I’m told, than in raw milk cheeses. I could go on about this forever, so if you’re interested in talking more about raw vs. pasteurized come to Connecticut, have a beer at Caseus, and we’ll share a raw cheese board and hash it out.
QHave you tried any new American cheeses lately that have really excited you? And if you knew someone with a dairy farm and were trying to convince them to start making cheese, what type of cheese would you go with? (I ask for a friend.) — Jill (CAS’05)
AMost American cheeses excite me because it’s so wonderful to see the U.S. taking on more and more artisan cheese production. My all-time favorite U.S. producer is Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vt. If I were to convince a friend with a farm to make cheese, I’d opt for goats 100 percent. They are the most amazing animals, have great personalities, and make my favorite types of cheese.
QI love aged cheddar and Gouda. I’ve noticed recently that sometimes longer aging, even by experts, does not seem to equate to better flavor. I had a three-year Gouda that easily was better, IMHO, than the five-year next to it. What do you think? And, your favorite cheddar country? — Rick (SED’92)
ABecause of new discoveries with starter cultures, some cheeses are now able to be aged less and still take on big flavors, especially in regards to Goudas. But it’s all in the batch, the facilities, the air, and so many other variables, including your own personal taste, that in some ways there is no accounting for what is better or more flavorful from one wheel to the next. This is one of the great things about cheese!
As for cheddars, I don’t care for super-aged overly sharp ones. I like some of them, but over a few years just isn’t my gig. My current favorite cheddar (and it changes all the time) is Grafton Village’s Queen of Quality out of Vermont. They use Jersey cow’s milk from Springbrook Farm in Redding, Vt., while they are shut down for a few weeks and make a seriously amazing cheddar that’s sharp, nutty, mouth-filling, and grassy all at the same time. Really great with a cold pint of brown ale and some pickles!
QWhat are the cheese(s) you like best:
A. On top of a burger? Hotdog?
B. In mac and cheese?
C. In a grilled cheese sandwich?
D. As a bar snack?
E. Deep fried?
F. In a dessert?
A. Cato Corner Bridgid’s Abbey is amazing melted on hots and hams.
B. I like several here: Comte, Raclette, Gruyere, two-year Gouda, Provolone (for stretchiness), sharp cheddar, and Italian Fontina.
C. See above… but Taleggio with fig jam is also boss.
D. Comte Marcel Petit dipped in Dijon mustard.
E. Well, anything! But I’ve had great success deep frying Fiscallini cheddar with a par cooked piece of bacon wrapped around it. Then it’s all dipped in beer batter and fried in hot, hot oil. Once it comes out all crispy-melty, I serve it up with a spicy apple bacon gravy slathering.
F. VBC Coupole drizzled with some local honey makes a killer dessert and couldn’t be simpler. I’ll serve that with some day-old croissants that I’ve sliced up and baked till crisp in a low oven.
QPick a cheese for: President Obama, Lady Gaga, someone lactose intolerant, Queen Elizabeth, the Dalai Lama. — Stacy (COM'88)
AThe Prez gets to have my favorite Comte, because it’s the people’s cheese. Yes, it’s the people’s cheese of France, but it’s also the people’s cheese of the world, and he seems pretty worldly.
Lady Gaga gets Epoisse, because it stinks. (Not passing judgment on her; she’s great I’m sure. It’s just that I’m not a big fan of her music.)
The lactose-intolerant person gets a small bit of Beechers Flagship Cheddar. It’s aged enough so it shouldn’t hurt them… to badly…
For the Queen, nothing short of the king—the king of blue cheeses, that is— Neal’s Yard Dairy Colsten Basset Stilton. Best blue around right now for me.
I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama was once a vegetarian or even a vegan, (yikes!) but he now eats cheese as far as I can tell by my brief internet research on him, so I’m thinking that someone so grounded needs a crazy cheese, something with some punch to really get him going. I pick Barely Buzzed, a cheddar out of Utah that’s rubbed with French lavendar and Turkish coffee grounds to really get him rockin’!