How people come to find their life path is always a fascinating question (to me, at least!). For some, their passion has just always been there. For others, there may be a moment of epiphany or sudden revelation that leads them to a significant change. Others stumble onto their path and then figure out that’s exactly where they should have been all along. And for some, like Kiri Fisher of The Cheese School of San Francisco, the choice is out of their hands.
“Cheese chose me,” Kiri says.
Although she grew up in a family that really liked cooking and food and she had an uncle that was knowledgeable about good cheese, Kiri says she never would have foreseen her life taking this direction. Formerly employed in magazine publishing, for Kiri, getting into the cheese business was as much about leaving another life behind as it was about cheese becoming the medium for that.
“Cheese just felt so much more like I could get my head around it, it felt sensual. This is the basics of life—this is how we feed people, and the history of this goes back 10,000 years. And I also just found it to be a really interesting subject. I could get into the history, the geography or the chemistry, the flavors and the taste and the kind of sensory aspect of it.
And I also found this community of people who are just salt of the earth, really lovely people who are all very passionate about what they do and overwhelmingly very well educated and smart and doing it out of passion. It just felt like the antidote to what my previous life had been,” she said.
Kiri was in cheese for a few years, trying stints as a cheese monger and even making cheese, before she took on The Cheese School. Although she knew wanted to be in the cheese business, she didn’t want to be a cheese maker or open her own shop, so she needed another outlet for her love of cheese. Then she got involved with the California Artisan Cheese Festival. The festival introduced an educational element to her work that resonated with her, she said.
“Having a cheese shop is really a labor of love, as is making cheese,” she said. “I needed to find something else, and the festival, the part of it that was really interesting to me was the educational aspect of that. So I did programming, and I really loved it. I loved working with the instructors and coordinating sessions and really communicating.
Being in the industry, I knew the incredibly hard work and the devotion that it takes to make cheese, and they were making such beautiful products and often at a high price point, so there really is a need for education for people. I think people are willing to spend the money on it, but it’s a matter of letting them know [about] that making, that tradition. Like with any good food, it’s that transition from generic eggs to better eggs to pastured eggs, and then you’re like, ‘oh my god.’ And it’s the same with cheese—you have that experience and the story,” she said.
The Cheese School of San Francisco originally grew out of another operation, called Cheese Plus, which was located in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Cheese Plus had been a small shop that offered classes on the side. Because the cheese community is relatively small, Kiri said, she heard through the cheese wheel that the business was for sale. With a second child on the way, the owners had decided to sell the operation, and they, in turn, had heard it might be something that Kiri would be interested in, so they approached her about buying the business.
Simultaneously, they also approached another woman, Daphne Zepos, who Kiri describes as a “luminary in our little fish pond” of the cheese community. Daphne had already spent 25 years in the industry and was also at the point where she wanted to do more education.
“So we partnered up, and we bought this little company,” Kiri said. “We spent some time together figuring out if this would be a good partnership, and we decided it would be and bought a company.”
According to Kiri, “it was a rough first year.” Not only did she and Daphne discover some things they hadn’t known about the company when they bought it, about eight months in, Daphne was diagnosed with stage four terminal lung cancer.
“It was very far along by the time they discovered it,” Kiri said. “She passed away about three or four months after her diagnosis, so it was really fast. It was a huge loss to the community. At the time I didn’t know what we were going to do with the business. She was the visionary behind the business and where we were going. We had a few crises in the first year. It was rough. It was very sad, and it was rough,” she said.
Despite facing some immediate hardships. Kiri knew she wanted to continue the school, and she knew that Daphne also would have wanted the school to thrive, she said.
To bolster the business, Kiri launched more classes, including cheese making classes, and they expanded their professional programs. Daphne had started a master class series aimed at providing continuing education for cheese mongers; this has now become a series of week long classes held each year timed to coincide with the Fancy Food Show, so they can offer classes with experts and cheese mongers who aren’t normally in town.
In September 2013, The Cheese School moved to the former Saison restaurant space on Folsom in the Mission, which houses a number of small businesses including the Stable Café. After they found the new space, they discovered that the building they had been in was going to be sold any way, so it was a fortuitous move.
The school consists of two or three public classes per week. A glance at the course schedule on The Cheese School website reveals an eclectic mix of courses to fit a variety of tastes, from the Cheeses of France and classes on pairing cheeses with wine, beer and whiskey to “Curious Rinds: The Microbiology of Cheese Rinds” and “The Bold & Beautiful: Strong Cheeses & their Mates.” Most classes tend to run from approximately $70-$120, with cheese tasting classes on the low end and cheese making on the high end. Each Wednesday they host a “Cheese Makes Me Happy Hour” for $20. They’ve also held classes in making cheesy favorites such as pizza, fondue and grilled cheese sandwiches. Courses are geared toward helping people better understand what’s available on the market so they’re not overwhelmed when they go to choose a cheese at the store.
In addition to their public and professional classes, The Cheese School also caters and holds private events, including corporate team building courses. Their latest catered offering is cheese “wedding cakes,” consisting of “tiered” cheese wheels. The school sources its cheese from a number of different places, including distributors, retailers and some directly from cheese makers.
Kiri says making mozzarella, burrata and ricotta is “far and away the most popular” class they offer. “We could do one of those classes once a week and make a living,” she said. “It’s really popular.”
“I think cheese making overall seems kind of magical or highly technical, whereas mozzarella, I think you have some idea that you’re pulling a curd, and I think it’s something a bit like the appeal of learning to throw a pizza dough. There’s something about it that seems like more of skill than a chemistry class. People are really into mozzarella, and it’s a surprisingly difficult cheese to make correctly,” she said. “So I think we get a lot of people who tried it at home and were like, ‘this didn’t turn out at all, I thought it was going to be easy.’”
In addition to their mozzarella classes, Kiri says courses in making other basic cheeses such as paneer, mascarpone, chèvre and fromage blanc are also very popular. The school also offers more difficult courses a few times a year, such as making washed rind cheeses or cheddar or Camembert. “Something that you have to take it home and it’s like a little pet for a few weeks, and you can’t forget to flip it or rub it or whatever it is that you’re doing to it,” she said.
The Cheese School also brings in high-level cheese makers and experts from places such as Vermont or Harvard, to teach classes. Thrice-yearly professional classes are geared toward cheese mongers, lasting about three days. Professional classes are geared toward both those who want to learn more about cheese and how to care for it and those who want to pursue their own small shop.
Kiri notes some interesting differences between cheese makers and cheese mongers and the kind of person who is attracted to each type of work.
“For cheese makers, there’s a number who really like the solitude of it and because it’s repetitive work, I think there’s some meditative qualities to it. You create something and then you wait to see how it develops, sometimes over a very long period of time. And you do iteration after iteration after iteration. So it requires a lot of both patience and a sense of inquiry about how to make things better over a long period of time,” she said.
“Cheese mongers, on the other hand, I think are social animals, who want to be talking and sharing information and the story of this cheese maker. They get to be around lots of different cheeses and lots of different cheese makers and talk to lots of different kinds of people, so it’s two different kind of personality types,” she said.
Most people who want to become cheese makers tend to intern with other cheese makers and work on farms in order to learn the ropes. Kiri says there are more people now coming out of college with Food Science degrees and that there are some schools such as the College of Marin or Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that offer some cheese classes. Other people wanting to become cheese makers just buy their own animals and start on their own.
“Mainly, you’re probably just begging a cheese maker to let you help them,” she said.
And that’s exactly what Kiri did when she first started in the business. Before getting interested in cheese, Kiri had published a monthly magazine called Todo, a San Francisco publication distributed at local hotels, retailers and even via taxis. When the ad market tanked during the recession of 2008, “it was like suddenly we’d entered a vacuum,” she said. So she sold off part of the magazine and shut down the rest.
“I was ready to do that anyway, I was very young and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was a good lesson. It’s a good thing at a young age to learn how to put on what I call your ‘big girl pants’ and figure out how to do your job,” she said.
Advertising and sales had never been her forte anyway, she said. “It wasn’t for me, it was just so painful.” She says that she was never able to get the kind of detachment from the reader that would have allowed her to feel better about selling ads. And in magazines, she said, you have to be able to serve those two masters—the reader and the advertisers.
After selling the magazine, she “wanted to do something that was the exact opposite of that,” she said.
“The only thing that was kid of calming to me in the midst of shutting this down and feeling disappointed and feeling like it didn’t work out was [the thought of] ‘I’m just going to go out in a field and hang out with sheep and make cheese,’” she said. “That was my calming image.”
So she typed “cheese maker” into Craig’s List and found someone in Point Reyes who was looking for a cheese maker. After begging for an interview, she said, she spoke to the cheese makers and told them “this is what I really want to do.” They suggested she go learn about cheese first if she really wanted to pursue it. Then they put her in touch with the cheese director at The Pasta Shop at Market Hall in Oakland, Juliana Uruburu.
“Having made the decision to do something in cheese, it was like 36 hours, and I had a job at a cheese counter. And [The Pasta Shop is] really one of the best in the country and the best training programs. And Juliana, to this day, is one of my mentors,” she said.
After working at The Pasta Shop, she interned at some farms, did some work for a cheese maker in Oregon, took short courses on cheese and then got involved in the California Artisan Cheese Festival. Then the cheese school opportunity presented itself.
“I liked the physicality of the work. I liked that you go to work and you’re outside or out of an office,” she said.
To her knowledge, The Cheese School is the only school of its kind in the country geared toward teaching both the public and professionals about cheese. Places like Murray’s Cheese Bar or Artisanal in New York have similar offerings such as happy hours and catered events, but are geared more toward a restaurant focused on cheese and shop combo.
Interestingly, much of the California cheese scene, at least, seems to be dominated by women (think Point Reyes’ famous Cowgirl Creamery). Kiri says California does have a strong group of female cheese makers, which she attributes, in part, to the heritage of California women pushing healthier food alternatives.
“Part of that is in our history in the United States in the kind of renaissance of cheese making in the 1970s and 80s in cheese making, and some of that was driven by back-to-the-lander movement hippy sensibilities that wanted a better milk supply. Some of that was for their children, some of that was for philosophical reasons and so some of that was driven by women. There are lots of women who also grew up on family farms and they end up taking over. Sometimes they’re dairy farms struggling and they need a value-added product.
I’m not really sure why women are so well represented [in the cheese industry],” she said. “It’s probably 50/50. But still the fact that it’s 50/50 seems interesting.”
Although teaching people how to choose the best cheese is a far cry from magazine publishing, there is a common thread in that Kiri has maintained her role as a storyteller—now she just tells the stories of cheese makers and the lives of their cheeses rather than tales of the city.
“Our mission really is to represent the cheese maker as best we can and tell the story of what they do and the hard work and passion that they put into it and really get people to buy better cheese,” Kiri said.
What drew you to food?
I think it really is that [it is]—I keep saying essential, but it’s tactile, it’s essential, it’s just very easy for me to wrap my head around. Here it is, I can taste it, I can touch it, it’ll keep me alive. I just felt like I needed to return to something that felt more basic.
Why cheese or a cheese school?
Juliana, my mentor in cheese, likes to say ‘cheese chose me,’ or cheese chose her, in her case. And I really do feel like that’s what it is when people fall in love with a particular [thing], whether it’s wine or beer [or whatever]. Most people I talk to do not have that story or sometimes I think that people are manufacturing it like ‘my uncle always gave me a swig of his beer.’
Sometimes a product chooses you, something chooses you. And it just really resonated. The fact that I could learn about the history or the chemistry and it was a good excuse to travel and meet these people and go to beautiful farms and taste things. I think it just kind of satisfied all those aspects, all those sensory aspects. It was intellectually stimulating, it was physically pleasurable, it’s all of those things.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Well, two places. One is, we go and we visit a farm and we meet the cheese maker and that’s always inspiring because the work they’re doing—even on a day where I just worked thirteen hours and I’m tired and we’ve been working 10 days or 14 days straight and we’ve been really busy—we go and I meet a cheese maker and I think ‘oh my god, you are working so much harder than I am.’ And they do. At least for me, I can look at the calendar and think, ‘oh, I’ve got this weekend free,’ but for cheese makers, it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year. And what they’re doing, the energy they have for it is remarkable, so that’s inspiring.
Then from there, we’re doing a lot more catering, so that has really been a wonderful creative outlet for me, and I think also for the folks who work here. Making it as beautiful, as attractive [as you can], so you really want to eat this thing. There’s a lot of just putting some cheese on a plate out there, and I think our goal is really to make it visually appealing, to communicate it’s flavor visually.
I had some advice that a friend of mine heard at a talk that was, basically, don’t have anyone on your team that you wouldn’t fight for if they were to say they were leaving. That has been really been very clarifying for me. I think you can have the best idea in the world, and you don’t have a team that when you walk in the room, you have confidence in them and you look forward to going to going to work and you feel good knowing that they’re handling this part of the business and they are doing things that you are not good at and they’re great at them, and they can run with things—I think that’s so important. That’s everything.
It’s sometimes hard to be a manager. You have to figure out what motivates different people, and they have different motivations, they have different needs, but it’s really about keeping those important people who you would fight for happy and satisfied with their work, knowing that they’re not going to be satisfied everyday, but overall they need to know that they’re work is as meaningful an extension for them as it is for you. So I think that’s important.
One thing that I found to be really helpful for us that I think is part of keeping people happy and fulfilled is we do a visioning session once a year where everybody comes with their vision of their personal life and their professional life for the company and we really spend a day offsite trying to get on the same page. And it’s really important because, 1) people really need to hear from me, what’s the vision of the company because otherwise what direction are they working in? And 2) it’s important for me to understand if somebody wants to [for example] move back to Nebraska next year or I might be thinking I’m going to promote this person and they’re thinking actually I’m going to take some time off and have a baby or I have a strong urge to travel next year, and that’s fine, but I need to know and that doesn’t necessarily come up. And sometimes people don’t even voice that to themselves until we do this session. So it’s been really helpful for us. The person who’s a big proponent of this and writes about it is Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s Deli in Michigan. He’s written a number of books on business, and he also does workshops they own a company called ZingTrain and they do a lot of this kind of work, which has been really helpful.
One more piece of advice. I also have a mentor—a business mentor. It’s through a local organization, but there are lots of them. That has been, it’s very helpful, to have to meet with somebody and share your numbers and talk about your business and confront your problems. Because sometimes the day to day overwhelms your perspective or sometimes things aren’t going as well as you’d like and you can ignore those problems, and I think that those will undermine your business unless you confront them. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s like when you go to the acupuncturist and you’ve had a bunch of chocolate cake and you’re like ‘oh they’re going to know,’ it’s like I’ve gotta show this person this part of my business, myself. If you own a business, it really feels like an extension of yourself, so it’s like sharing your triumphs but also your dirty laundry and it’s just very, very helpful.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
The biggest challenge is recognizing when it’s time to make changes and actually making those changes. So achieving that kind of clarity about what your business is and who needs to be a part of it and what direction you’re going in and actually making that happen. Sometimes it’s just hard to see it and then sometimes when you do see it, it’s hard to realize that things need to change and you need to be the driver of it. Again, it’s that putting on your big girl pants thing and going to work and being, OK, I have to be the steward of this.
What’s the best thing you’re doing for a living?
I feel like I have control over my destiny, which is nice. It’s also the hardest part—feeling very responsible for my life and my livelihood and for that of others. I also get to eat really well. I also really love the very genuine, interesting, smart people who are in my business and in the industry.
I usually teach our Cheese 101 or our Cheese and Wine 101, and I really like the Cheese 101 because I like clarifying this confusing big world of cheese and just adding a little bit of clarity to it so that people feel like, ‘oh, I can branch out, I can try new things, I can feel comfortable.’ You come to any class and you can learn a lot, but sometimes those classes where somebody provides some structure to this giant topic is such a relief. And I think cheese is this thing that is so mysterious to so many people. Cheese 101—a lot of times I teach that and people are like ‘Ohhhh, great!’ or ‘Oh, that’s what that means’ and I can see by their reaction, that they have an energy behind them that says, ‘I get it.’ And that’s our mission, to get cheese and eat better cheese and to give them some clarity.
What other local artisans do you admire and why?
There’s this woman that I went through a short course at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with, Seana Doughty. She owns a company called Bleating Heart, they make sheep’s milk cheeses. We were just up visiting her and she as such a fire under her butt. She is so driven. She is doing the hardest thing, which is staring a cheese company from scratch, not having grown up on a farm, or not having inherited land or not having just a pile of cash. It’s really a small, tiny operation, her and her husband and she’s smart, she has a lot of clarity, she’s scrappy and she just works her tail off, and she’s producing great cheese. She’s very interested in being a better cheese maker and a better business person.
And I just think she’s very smart.
The other person who’s a lot like that is Dee Harley. She’s down in Pescadero at Harley Farms. We actually do a tour down there. And Dee, similarly, is just both creating a wonderful product and taking excellent care of her animals and her land, and beyond that she’s just a very smart business person. I think a lot of people go into business—and certainly cheese makers are some of those people—that are driven by wanting to make cheese or, for me, when I started that magazine, I wanted to have a magazine as a creative outlet and I didn’t understand that it’s a business, but it’s a business. And there’s some aspect of that that’s going to be that creative outlet, but much more of it is going to be about running a business and I think both Dee and Seana really think about it as a business and think about how to make it a good business so that they can enjoy it more.
My thinking now is the whole foundation, the whole structure is that this is a business. And you don’t get to enjoy your beautiful living room or your beautiful kitchen or your wonderful bathroom, until you’ve done that. And they really seem to understand that, and I really admire that. They’re really operating at a really high level.
If you had to choose your last cheese, what would it be?
It depends on the season. Right now, when the sun comes out–I think it’s because I’ve been dreaming of Greece lately, that’s my fantasy vacation, a trip to Greece—it’s this really simple cheese, it’s this marinated feta called Meredith, I think it’s from Australia, and I just want to be drinking rosé or a nice crisp wine and smothering that cheese all over the place and sitting out in the sunshine. And if I went right after that, I’d be OK!
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Because I’m now in cheese and don’t earn a lot of money and I have a baby and that means I don’t go out, when I do get out and spend money, I actually really like to go to a place where I feel like I know I’m going to have a great meal and a great experience. So oftentimes it’s someplace that’s kind of classic like Zuni Café or Chez Panisse, somewhere where I know it’s not exciting and it’s not trendy or anything like that, but it’s so solid and they’ve been doing it for so long that they still operate at such a high level that it just seems worth every penny to me.
The Cheese School of San Francisco
Photos courtesy of The Cheese School of San Francisco and Sophie de Lignerolles.