Artisanal cheesemaking and science may appear to have little in common. “Not so!” according to Cecilia Garmendia who has translated her Ph.D. to cheesemaking and business ownership.
Cecilia opened Lamp Post Cheese in Lebanon, Ohio in 2018. Her unique artisanal natural rind cheeses are already getting noticed locally including a feature in Ohio Magazine as one of the “Ohio Urban Creameries We Love.” Cecilia trained as a scientist, studying microbiology and yeast genetics during her Ph.D. and postdocs before realizing she wanted to do something radically different; make cheese. She came to this realization after taking a day-long short course in cheesemaking and hasn’t looked back.
Q: “How did you learn to make cheese?”
A: “There was no long training period. After the workshop, I studied and read a lot of scientific papers. I researched a lot at the beginning before I made cheese on my own at home. Then I followed protocols, just like I had been trained to do in the laboratory, but this time to make cheese. The cheeses weren’t perfect at the beginning, but it was never so bad that I couldn’t eat it.”
Q: “How does your scientific training influence your approach to cheesemaking?”
A: “I didn’t know that I could do all the things I’ve been doing with business and cheesemaking with my Ph.D. training. At first, I thought I only knew things like how to use a microscope or grow yeast. Now I see that I benefit from being trained to think critically. I think that scientists are more detail-oriented. My skills have been very transferrable to cheesemaking.”
Cecilia told me there were challenges to making cheese and starting her own creamery. However they weren’t anything that she couldn’t overcome, especially with the help of her husband Ryan who is an engineer. She has frequently relied on one important skill she learned as a scientist: hit the books and do the research first. Cecilia also embraces experiential learning like conducting small pilot experiments in cheesemaking. In this way, her business began with experiments in her kitchen and has expanded over the years, from rented kitchen spaces to her own creamery.
Cecilia’s training influences her willingness to experiment when making cheese. Her creamery itself is novel with its urban setting in downtown Lebanon. When you visit her storefront, where she sells her growing number of cheeses and other local foods, you can also watch her make cheese. Peering through the large windows into her make room, you will see her and her team hard at work. At Lamp Post they also try to celebrate and support local farmers by sourcing their milk from southwest Ohio. She told me that she still loves to experiment, methodically changing one variable at a time as she makes cheese. “I like cheesemaking because the experiments generally work and taste good. When I was in academia I used to fail at 9/10 times in the lab, which is normal. However, it wasn’t as rewarding.”
Cecilia’s cheeses made with spent brewers grains (left) and paprika and olive oil (right).
Q: “How do you experiment with cheesemaking?”
A: “I approach it very scientifically. I think about bacteria, chemistry, and physics while I’m making cheese. Other people may think about it like cooking, but to me it’s science. My equipment is rudimentary, so I’ve learned how to tweak things to get the product I want by doing it. Every new cheesemaker does that, but maybe I’m more methodical I don’t know… I experiment with the rinds. Like when I try using spent brewing grains from a local distillery, that’s me thinking about what microorganisms are present there and that they may be helpful to my cheese.”
Q: “How do you combine your experience and personality when making cheese?”
A: “Artisan cheese is unique because there’s variability with small batches. When you invest time and energy, you want it to be personal. I hope that my cheese is different, that’s a strength especially as a small business. I’ve discovered that people want something new and different. My experiences living in Spain and France influence me. I still research what other cheesemakers here and internationally are doing because it’s inspiring.”
Lamp Post Cheese is a unique business both urban and artisan. It’s taking cues from European traditions and then experimentally tweaks them in a very American way. They aim to produce something new, unique, local and delicious.
For more information on Cecilia Garmendia and Lamp Post Cheese check out www.lamppostcheese.com
Post written by Megan Biango-Daniels. All photos from www.lamppostcheese.com.