Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski and master-cheesemaker-in-training Erin Radtke on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
What happens when a master cheesemaker responsible for creating some of the most awarded Wisconsin original cheeses starts thinking about retiring? Well, he finds and mentors a replacement. I’m talking about Sartori’s Master Cheesemaker (and current U.S. Champion) Mike Matucheski, who in a state full of third and fourth generation cheesemakers – the vast majority of whom are men – is mentoring a 34-year old woman to replace him.
Five years ago, when I first visited the Sartori plant in Antigo, Wisconsin, Mike told me he was beginning to plan his retirement, and that he was adamant a woman should replace him. At the time, I was surprised. The Wisconsin dairy industry is dominated by men – most cheesemakers, milk haulers, veterinarians, farm workers and even cheesemongers – are men.
I wondered if he would be successful in his quest. So earlier this summer, I visited the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo again to get the scoop on whether Mike had found a new wizard behind the Sartori cheese curtain to replace him.
Mike first started working at what is now the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo 24 years ago, making Parmesan, Asiago and Romano for the company that then owned the cheese factory: Kraft Cheese. Two months after he started, Kraft decided to close the plant. Governor Tommy Thompson intervened, the state provided some seed money to do a feasibility study, and the employees ended up buying the plant and reopening as Antigo Cheese.
Fast forward to 2006, when Sartori Cheese purchased the plant. That launched a successful period of innovation for Mike and his team, including introducing a full line of flavored BellaVitano cheeses, including BellaVitano Black Pepper, which won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in March.
But nobody, not even Mike Matucheski, can make cheese forever. He’s planning to retire in three years, and in preparation, recently handpicked his successor. She’s a 34-year-old woman named Erin Radtke. She’s already got several years of cheesemaking experience to her name, and is looking forward to starting her master cheesemaking training in a few years.
Erin grew up in the Antigo area and started working at Antigo Cheese in 2004. She had worked with Mike off and on over the years, and of course knew who he was, but it wasn’t until she was promoted to the cheese making room where she knew she had found her calling. “I was always striving to make things better,” she says. That caught Mike’s attention. Soon, Erin started taking cheesemaking courses at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin and kept working hard.
Since then, she’s taken every course at CDR and will be eligible to start the Master Cheesemaker program in four years. She plans to become certified in Parmesan and mixed milk cheese.
By then of course, Mike will be retired. And Erin will be one of literally a handful of women master cheesemakers in the state. I asked her what that might mean to her.
“I feel like it is important. Just working in the milk and cheese industry in general is not easy for women. If you go to any dairy plant, I can guarantee you’re at ratio of three to one or two to one of men to women. Becoming a cheesemaker, and someday a master cheesemaker as a woman, will be a real accomplishment. It’s telling other women: you can do it, too.”
Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.