Tal Ronnen, the goateed chef behind Kite Hill, quivers with humiliation as he recalls the beginning of his three-year quest to create the world's best vegan cheese.
"Steve Wynn had just gone vegan," Ronnen says, referring to the Las Vegas casino magnate. "In 2009, he hired me to develop vegan menus for 12 of his restaurants." Ronnen was well known for having designed Oprah Winfrey's 21-day vegan cleanse. Nevertheless, he felt intimidated by the task of creating vegan menus for a half-dozen cuisines at once. So he was already nervous when he brought Wynn's chefs together for a tasting of vegan alternatives to staples like eggs, butter and milk.
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"I brought in a vegan cheese that I thought was a decent product, and one of Wynn's chefs spit it out in front of everybody," Ronnen says, still palpably mortified. "It was so embarrassing."
The story of what happened next— Ronnen's journey through old-world cheesemaking, 21st-century biotech and Silicon Valley venture capital—perfectly expresses the newest wave in culinary entrepreneurialism: an exquisitely Californian combination of environmentalist and vegan ethics, earnest commitment to flavor and pleasure and confidence that money and technology can make the world a better place.
Even more intriguing, Ronnen also represents a trend of curious chefs opening their own research-and-development studios to chase their most out-there inspirations. In Copenhagen, chef René Redzepi's Nordic Food Lab recently received a six-figure grant from a Danish nonprofit to fund experiments in "insect gastronomy" as part of a United Nations push to get humans eating a more environmentally sustainable diet. And Momofuku chef David Chang's New York City lab is a hive of microbial projects, as his R&D team creates umami-rich, miso-style pastes out of pistachios, sweet potatoes and chickpeas. For some chefs, these labs are mostly about inventing new dishes for their own kitchens, but for others, like Chang and Ronnen, they hold the promise of reaching a far bigger audience.
Ronnen, who didn't have a lab of his own, started by touring the cheese-making rooms at Le Cordon Bleu Boston, where he met veteran instructor Monte Casino. He explained his mission: to make vegan cheeses worthy of a great chef. "I had no clue how we were going to do it," says Casino, a small and wiry former chef with big, intense eyes, "but I started messing around in my lab after hours."
Cheesemaking, at its most elemental, involves acidifying milk—souring it, really—and then adding the enzyme rennet to thicken the proteins and fat. Casino wasn't the first to realize that nut milk has the same four basic components as dairy milk—sugar, protein, fat and water—and should, hypothetically, thicken in the same way.
A friend of Ronnen's, Stanford University biochemist Dr. Patrick Brown, already had a private side project developing ultra-pure nut milks for vegan cheesemaking. Casino began tinkering with samples of Brown's almond- and macadamia-nut milks. Casino put the nut milk into a double-boiler with a PolyScience immersion circulator, a device embraced by chefs for sous vide cooking to control the temperature of a water bath. Then he added a bacterial starter culture, the industry standard in dairy cheesemaking, with a vegetable rennet to thicken it. "Absolutely nothing happened," Casino says.
Brown thought that the rennet might be the problem—so he shipped Casino a sample of a new enzyme he'd discovered, one that occurs naturally in plants and microbes, to help thicken the cheese. The morning after adding the enzyme (Kite Hill won't release its exact name for proprietary reasons) to a batch of nut milk, Casino arrived at the lab and put his spatula into the milk. It emerged with "curds all over it." Since the curds slipped through a traditional perforated cheese mold, Casino went out and bought some panty hose. "We washed them real good, lined the interior of the perforated mold, and it was brilliant!"
Days later, Ronnen was in Boston promising to put his life savings into the project. He and Brown convinced Casino to move to California and lined up investment from Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm specializing in green technology. Jean Prevot, director of operations for Laura Chenel's Chèvre, also joined Kite Hill to help them design and build a production facility in Hayward, California, just a few hundred yards from the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
Pushing open the front door at Kite Hill headquarters on a recent Monday morning, I entered a large office space indistinguishable from countless Bay Area startups, with too much room for too few employees. Then I donned a white lab coat, sterile shoe covers and a hair cover and followed Prevot and Casino through a double set of doors into a pressurized room. Stainless steel vats and metal tubing coursed across ceilings in a high-tech facility converting Californian almonds and Hawaiian macadamia nuts into nut milk. (It took a team of researchers to find the best variety of almond to use—they tested 27 different samples, creating one-kilogram test cheeses from each one.)
Casino disappeared briefly behind the unmarked door blocking entry to the top-secret Kite Hill R&D lab, a sterile, pressurized room cluttered with cheese-aging chambers, temperature control boxes and a pasteurizer for ongoing experiments with both a Roquefort-style blue and—Casino's current dream project—a sunflower-based Parmesan.
Back in the office space, I sat at a conference table to try the four Kite Hill cheeses already in full production. The Cassucio (falling into the same "soft fresh" category as ricotta and most chèvre) is tangy and light, with a mild, delicate flavor that would make it ideal for a tomato-cucumber salad. (It also comes in a truffle, dill and chive flavor.) The White Alder, a so-called "soft-ripened" cheese in the same category as Brie and Camembert, has enough complexity to pair with a good white wine. Costanoa is a semisoft cheese similar to Havarti and comes dusted with paprika and fennel pollen.
Cathy Strange, the global cheese buyer for Whole Foods Market, tasted the Kite Hill lineup earlier this year. "I loved it instantly," she says. "I could taste the culture, the rind. I've never, ever seen this kind of texture in an alternative milk product." As a result of that tasting, Kite Hill reached a deal to retail exclusively through Whole Foods. Kite Hill has also begun making a nut-based ricotta for the Whole Foods prepared-food counters that genuinely knocked me out, especially when I used it one night in a zucchini-corn succotash.
Ronnen himself now uses all of the Kite Hill cheeses at his vegan Mediterranean restaurant, Crossroads, in Los Angeles. Best of all, in a recent tasting of Kite Hill cheeses back at the Wynn, he says, "That same chef, the one who spit out the cheese three years ago, loved mine so much, he asked if he could take some home to his wife."
Daniel Duane wrote about the late-night menu at Chez Panisse in F&W's October 2013 issue.