Parent & Child: When did you know you wanted to be a cheesemaker?
Hooper: I had worked on a farm in France when I was in college, and it was a summer job that I could get without having any work [experience]. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and did some other things that I realized that I wanted to go back to that farm and make cheese in France. When I came back to the United States, I started doing that.
P&C: Have you always liked cheese? Or is this just another food affair?
Hooper: I always ate cheese as a kid, but it wasn’t until I lived in France, where there are so many different kinds of cheese, and French people eat cheese every day. It’s a big part of their diet. That was how I discovered all the different kinds of cheese and the possibilities of introducing them to the U.S. market.
P&C: What is the most challenging thing about being a cheesemaker? The most exciting?
Hooper: It’s a lot of work—long hours and not a lot of days off, because we do something to the cheese every day. Something has to happen all the time, and the animals milk every day of the year, so they don’t take Christmas or Thanksgiving off. When you make a product that is natural and a fermented food, there’s a lot of science that goes into it and some creativity. You have to try to make the cheese as consistently as possible so that the person who buys it knows what they’re going to get every time they buy it. In terms of the most exciting, you get to see and interact with a lot of people behind the scenes. We buy our milk from farmers, who are connected to agriculture and the land. We also have wonderful customers who are chefs and cheese retailers, so we get to sell our cheese to wonderful restaurants around the country.
P&C: What is your favorite kind of cheese?
Hooper: I guess I’d have to say I’m a little partial to goat cheese. It is what we make.
P&C: Have your kids expressed interest in the cheesemaking business?
Hooper: Not until recently. My oldest son is just getting home from two months in Ghana working on a sustainable farm. He was intrigued with the idea of making cheese there because there are goats and livestock around. He thought that would be a great idea and got involved with the organization Projects Abroad.
P&C: You organized a cheesemaker’s festival—what inspired you to do so?
Hooper: In 1996, my partner Bob Reese and I won a business award in Vermont, and we had a cheese festival at Shelburne Farms. We paired 19 cheesemakers with 19 chefs and had about 600 people come, and they all were surprised by how many cheesemakers there were in Vermont. That inspired us to form a cheese council, an association of cheesemakers. Thirteen years later, it is our 25th anniversary of our company, and we wanted to do something really big and fun locally in Vermont, so we decided to organize this festival. We felt that there were still a lot of people in Vermont and the Northeast who would love to come to this type of event and taste all these cheeses and have an opportunity to buy them in one place.
P&C: What about your involvement in local, sustainable food distribution? Are there opportunities or organizations like these for kids who want to learn more?
Hooper: In Vermont, when we started here, there were other people doing Cheddar cheese, but there were also other people doing some small-scale agriculture. Basically, the sustainable food movement started with people producing a special product—whether it be a vegetable or a dairy product like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. There developed a following with people who liked their food. There was an interesting opportunity for farmers to make something that’s a little bit more different and organic. When they’re all clustered together in Vermont, which is a relatively agricultural state, that improves their opportunity to distribute [their products] and educate their customers. We have things like farmers’ markets all across the state that sell these foods and even artisan-produced crafts.
P&C: Do you have any words of advice for an aspiring child who also loves food?
Hooper: If a child has an interest in food production, he/she should spend time working on a farm. They should find a mentor and work with them. It’s always important to work with somebody first and help them before you get into the business. We live near a large dairy farm in Vermont, and each summer one of my sons helps them with milking, feeding calves, fencing, and all kinds of stuff. It’s great exposure and helps kids think about what kind of work they like to do. Do they like to work outside or be with animals or work long hours and get dirty?
P&C: What are some of the more unusual ways we use cheese?
Hooper: Most of the cheese that is produced in this country is put on pizza. Now we have cheese that goes into salads, like goat cheese and chèvre. That’s probably the second biggest use. We even use it in desserts. We can make cheesecake out of goat cheese and even out of blue cheese. It’s really strong, but you can sweeten it and it’s really good. One of the things that artisan cheese producers do is that they serve cheese after the meal, not as an appetizer, and you pair cheese with walnuts, honey, fruit paste, raisins, or dates. Trying them all with these different foods is good.
P&C: Do you have any fun cheese trivia for our readers?
Hooper: It takes about 10 pounds of milk to produce a pound of cheese, and a cow produces 8 to 10 gallons of milk a day. A goat will produce about a gallon of milk a day. [A gallon of milk weighs about 8.6 pounds.]
P&C: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers? Parenting tips, a joke, anything at all?
Hooper: Cheese is a great food to explore, and people should try any type of cheese that they’re offered. Sometimes people are picky about cheese, but they should try all different kinds.