In a matter of minutes one night last March, the identity of Cecylia Szewczyk was forever changed. Known as one of the leading food biotechnologists in Poland, and before that, one of the fastest potato peelers on the shores of the Baltic Sea (more about that later), this brainy blonde in heels with an infectious laugh became known overnight as the best cheesemaker in America.
After leaving a global cheese culture company, and spending months finding just the right place in the American cheesemaking industry, Cecylia – the lead cheesemaker of a Guggisberg Cheese team in Ohio – won the 2015 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest for a big wheel Swiss that was only three months old. Judges deemed it to be one of the best cheeses they had tasted. Ever.
“I was absolutely stunned,” Cecylia says today, four months after winning the most coveted cheese crown in America. “When I got the call, I just started shrieking. It was unbelievable.”
Unbeknownst to Cecylia, her reaction was broadcast to a crowd of several hundred people at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest evening gala. After the winner was announced, her cheesemaker friend, Kari Skibbie at Holland’s Family Farm, put Cecylia on speaker phone next to the event microphone and in front of a hushed crowd.
“While we were talking, Kari said she was going to put me on speaker, but she forgot to mention that speaker was close to the microphone and everybody in the room, including the judges were listening!” Cecylia said. “I was convinced I was speaking to a bunch of friends, so some very inappropriate words were used in this speech of mine. Thankfully, everybody was laughing with me at the end.”
Not only were people laughing and celebrating with her, but many an eye teared up that night. I remember having to dig in my purse to find a tissue after Kari said good night and hung up the phone with Cecylia. And many people around me did the same. For those of us who have known Cecylia for years, and witnessed the struggles she’s gone through, it was very much like watching Cinderella become a fairy tale princess with a crown of cheese.
That’s because Cecylia was born into Nowinka, a village of 16 people in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, where everyone ate herring and potatoes. Her parents both worked poorly-paid factory jobs and no one had very much money, but Cecylia’s family was lucky to have nearby fields of vegetables and fruits that Cecylia, her sister, brother and mother had to weed.
“We used to laugh that our hoe was our best childhood friend,” Cecylia says. “I remember envying other children, that after school they could just come back home and study. We had to weed, and if we didn’t have to weed, we were peeling potatoes – buckets and buckets of potatoes.”
Cecylia is still quite possibly the fastest potato peeler in the world. “Last weekend we went camping with some friends and I promised one kid, Skyler, fries. I took a bucket of potatoes, peeled them, cut them by hand and made fries. All of our American friends were looking at me like I was crazy, but when they tasted my fries they said these were the best fries they ever had. It’s funny how I thought what was my worst nightmare growing up now gives me so much pleasure.”
The budding master o’ potato peeling left her tiny village with a strong ambition to do well in school. In college, she studied chemical engineering for two years before switching to Food Technology and Human Nutrition with a major in Food Biotechnology at University of Warmia and Mazury in Poland. She also studied at the Technological Educational Institutions of Athens, Greece, culminating with two degrees: Engineer of Science (Technical Bachelor) and Master of Science.
“When I was graduating from my Master studies, Tetra Pak company nominated me and two other students to the best student of that year, and during the official graduation ceremony I was introduced to the sales director from CSK Food Enrichment responsible for Polish, Southern and Eastern European markets. He was looking for a Technologist to hire and he interviewed me right there. So I started working for an international ingredient supplier and got to travel to many amazing countries, visit many interesting companies from really big ones to farmstead operations producing artisanal cheeses and participate in all kinds of technological trials,” Cecylia said.
“Somehow along the way and among all other dairy products, natural cheese became my definite favorite for couple of reasons,” she says. “First of all, I think natural cheese is the most challenging from all dairy products as it requires deep understanding of milk, chemical, physical and biological processes occurring during its making. Second, I think there is something very noble about cheese making. To make a unique piece of cheese that is appreciated is like creating a piece of art that you can serve on a plate next to a grape and a glass of wine for somebody’s ultimate pleasure. I think it’s a beautiful product.”
Before joining Guggisberg Cheese just a little over one year ago, Cecylia had the chance to work with a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, including: Marieke Penterman at Holland’s Family Farm, Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, Terry Lensmire and Dan Stearns at Agropur, Rod Kregel and Fernando Vaquero at Swiss Valley Farms, Roger Larson from Maple Leaf, Gregg Palubicki and Terry Schultz at Saputo, Marc Druart at Emmi Roth, Myron Olson at Chalet Cheese, and Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Cheese, who also makes big wheel Swiss.
“Bruce really is the Workman. He wakes up every night at 1 am to make cheese and what is worse – he made me do it too!” Cecylia joked.
Along the way, she’s made many good friends, especially Brian Riesterer from Brisan Ingredients, whom Cecylia says is the “most inspiring cheese researcher” she’s ever met. It might also help that Brian traveled with his family to attend Cecylia’s wedding in Poland and brought 40 pounds of peanut butter and maple syrup that was served at the reception.
But she credits Richard Guggisberg for helping her find her place in the American cheesemaking world. For more than a year, she’s participated in a joint project between Guggisberg Cheese and Chalon Megard, a French production equipment supplier. “For Chalon Megard, it’s their very first equipment installation in U.S., and there is a lot of adjustments that have to be done towards American standards, as well as Guggisberg’s technology. I’m a connective link that helps point out the critical adjustments and improve communication between the two,” Cecylia says.
“Richard Guggisberg is probably one of the best managers, business minds and cheesemakers I’ve ever met in one person,” Cecylia adds. “Sometimes I tend to take too much on, and in the beginning, would end up overwhelmed and stressed. And then he would come to me and say: ‘Cecylia, it is supposed to be about fun, remember?’ And he is right, because it should be about fun.”
So what’s in the future for this newly-crowned champion cheesemaker? These days, Cecylia is experimenting with making all sorts of different cheeses, as she has full access to equipment that makes big wheels of cheese. She’s working on a variety of categories, but is keeping secret the specific types of cheese she’s perfecting.
“Let’s just say you’re always going to know which cheese is mine on the table,” Cecylia laughs. “It’s always going to be the biggest one.”