Laurie Chenel, a Nanny to a Herd of Goats, Makes Her Whey into the Cheese Business
Laurie Chenel bought a pair of goats for the backyard of her Napa Valley home in 1974 because she liked their milk—and because they’re cute. “They are really sweet animals,” she says. “You can become attached to them very easily.” By the next spring her goats begat two more goats, and she was becoming attached to a miniherd. She was also “swimming in milk,” and had to do something with it besides drink it. So she started making cheese.
Today Chenel, 33, is California’s first producer of fromage de chèvre—the soft and creamy king of goat cheese. Hers is served in Los Angeles’ Ma Mai-son and L’Orangerie; Berkeley’s haute cuisine Chez Panisse stuffs it into tangy calzone, and Brooklyn’s River Cafe orders 200 cheeses a week for salads and sauces.
Learning to make chèvre got Chenel’s goat more than once. Her first attempts failed, so she bought a French book on goat cheese. Then she changed her major at Sonoma State University from anthropology to French so she could read it. Finally, in 1980, Chenel went to France to meet Jean Claude le Jouen, author of the book, who sent her to learn from several master cheesemakers.
Duly inspired, Chenel set up shop in a house in Sebastopol, Calif. Alas, while the cellar temperature and humidity were perfect for the finicky cheese, wild strains of bacteria in the air turned the milk into gassy, curdled sponges. “I mean, it was bacteriological battle down there,” she recalls with a shudder. Last September she moved to a Santa Rosa, Calif. building (previously occupied by a snail-freezing factory) and went to work perfecting her product with partner Neal VanDegrift, a chemist and bacteriologist.
One of the first to serve their chèvre was nearby Vast’s Restaurant, owned by Fred and Silvie Vast, Laurie’s parents (Chenel is her married name). With cheese shops and fancy eateries now lining up as customers, Laurie has increased weekly production to 1,500 5-to-8-ounce chunks of chèvre (selling for $3 to $5.50 each) and expects to start making a profit sometime this year. She has no plans, however, to become the Kraft Foods of goat cheese. “People generally have goats because they like goats, not for the money,” she notes. “It takes a certain marginal personality.” Chenel now keeps her herd of 10 at nearby farms and thinks of the goats as family. Divorced in 1977 after a three-year marriage to a cement mason, she has no children but says happily: “Each spring I have a lot of kids.”