Elena Santogade

Photo: Andrew Hinderaker

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The Cheese-Maker: Elena Santogade
My family is from Wisconsin, so I've always liked cheese, but my interest didn't get intense until a few years ago. I felt antsy at my desk job, so I started a club: Each week a coworker would bring in a few cheeses to share. For my turn, I visited a cheesemonger in a specialty shop. We shared a piece of Appenzeller—sort of like a Gruyère—and I could taste hay and onion. He said, "Oh, the cow must've gotten into an onion patch." I was standing in this busy, fancy shop in New York City and tasting a connection to a cow in Switzerland—it blew my mind.

I started talking to other cheesemongers. They can be a grumpy group, but I'd visit again and again and ask for offbeat offerings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to try crafting simple ingredients into amazing flavors. Making cheese turned out to feel like a big brain stretch. You focus on basic things, like watching milk change, and your mind gets quiet.

My apartment is tiny, but it has become something of a workshop. A kitchen hook drains soft cheeses into the sink. Two small fridges age my wheels of Cheddar and Manchego. I make cheese every week, and I've been teaching mozzarella classes as well, so huge pots and bowls are perched on shelves. Anyone who walks in can tell who I am: I'm a cheesemaker.
—As told to Nicole Frehsee