Dueling Chefs & Cowboy Cheesemakers

Last weekend marked the 10th annual Madison Food & Wine Show, an annual shindig that brings about 6,000 people to town to sample local foods and spirits from 150 different vendors.

I am eternally lucky that show organizers ask me to be a guest judge at the show’s yearly Dueling Chef competition, pitting seven of Madison’s best chefs against each other in dual 30-minute cooking competitions over the course of three days. The competition has become quite fierce with impressive bragging rights, so chefs take it incredibly seriously, practicing extensively beforehand, and bringing in their best sous chef and special equipment to gain an edge over the competition.

My assigned dueling chefs were David Heide of Liliana’s and Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, two amazingly talented guys running great restaurants. The mystery ingredient – always unveiled with a flourish at the very beginning – was this time a “Breakfast Box,” containing boxes of Captain Crunch and Bisquick, a carton of eggs, a container of grits, bottles of maple syrup and buttermilk, as well as packages of English muffins and Black Earth Meats sausage. Oh, and a pineapple, apparently thrown in just for fun.

Both judges and chefs are used to a single mystery ingredient – think mushrooms, or swordfish, or pork belly – so a box of random mystery breakfast items threw everyone for a loop. The chefs, however rallied quickly while we judges started drinking wine to prepare for what we could only imagine would be breakfast dishes, and in just 30 minutes, each chef produced two innovative dishes highlighting both their talents and the mystery ingredients.

My favorite dish was a trio of breakfast appetizers (pictured at the top of this post), prepared by Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, which included a round of goat chevre, rolled in Captain Crunch and flash fried, served on half of a toasted English muffin drowned in maple syrup. That dish may have put him in the lead, as 43 North edged out Liliana’s by just two points out of 200 to win the round. Nicholas and his 43 North went on to the next round only to be beaten by the battle’s eventual winner, Jesse Matz of Bunky’s, (pictured at left with son Kaden and restaurant owner Teresa Pullara), who with sous chef Peter Lidstrom, pulled an upset and beat reigning champion chef Bee Khang of Sushi Muramoto in a final battle of exotic fruits.

After the Dueling chef competition, with my stomach full of non-traditional breakfast food and a half bottle of red wine (did I mention it was barely noon?), I went in search of new cheeses at the show. Lo and behold, I ran into sixth generation dairy farmer Jay Noble, a cowboy cheesemaker sampling his brand new Jalapeno Juustoleipa.

With a never-ending line of hungry show-goers waiting in line to taste his toasted cheese, I snagged a bite, snapped a quick photo and waved an enthusiastic hello. It was awesome to see Jay in action, as the last time I’d chatted with him – six months ago on a seven-hour bus ride between Ann Arbor and Madison — he was just starting his cheese business.

I call Jay a cowboy cheesemaker, because even though he wears a baseball cap (not a cowboy hat), he is the kind of man, who when he puts his mind to it, accomplishes the impossible, such as building a dairy farm from scratch, renovating a shed into a licensed dairy plant, and rigging a giant pizza oven into a state-approved cheese baking oven.

His venture is called Noble View Creamery, and his cheese of choice is Juustoleipa, a cheese native to Finland that translates into “bread cheese.” The Finnish like to eat it for breakfast with toast and jam. It’s a unique cheese, finished by baking a crust on it just before shipping, which helps it keep its shape and not melt when heated. It’s best served warm to bring out a buttery flavor and squeaky texture.

The story of how Noble View Creamery cheese came into being is a long and windy tale of which I learned on the afore-mentioned seven-hour bus ride. So try and keep up – and keep in mind this is the REALLY short version.

2000 — Jay buys into the family dairy farm.
2001 — Jay gets married to a woman whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, but whom I can only imagine is a lovely and patient woman.
2003 — Jay starts his own dairy venture with said lovely and patient wife, raising dairy heifers.
2004 — Jay buys a 500-cow dairy in Fredonia, Wis., on a foreclosure sale. He starts milking cows.
2006 — A “guy from California” knocks on Jay’s door and wants to buy Jay’s farm. The next day, Jay’s dad calls and says: “I’m retiring. Do you want to buy me out?” Jay says yes to all of the above.
2007 — Jay builds a new dairy in the middle of a farm field that’s been in the family since 1842. Once again, he starts milking his own cows.

Which brings us to present time: with six employees and his own trucking company, Jay is now milking 400 cows, but because milk prices are so unstable, he decides to explore a “value-added” venture for his dairy farm. He settles on cheese – Juustoleipa in particular – and somehow talks super busy Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese into making it for him. Jay then trucks the cheese to his newly renovated and licensed dairy plant in Union Grove, bakes it in an oversized pizza oven, and then packages and ships it for sale. 

Boom. Mission accomplished.

In addition to Juustoleipa, Jay’s also making and selling a line of Hispanic cheeses under his Alqueria label. Queso Tostado is a ready to heat and eat Queso Blanco, while his Queso Quesadilla is a smooth, soft and mild cheese, suited for snacking and melting. All cheeses are available through Noble View Creamery, which I can only guess will soon be coming to a cheese store near you. And knowing Jay, that day will come sooner rather than later.