Sunday, October 22, 2006

Laura Chenel sells to French company


According to the article, For American Chèvre, an Era Ends, Laura Chenel, 57, a pioneer of the California food movement, has sold her company to the French artisan cheese corporation, The Rians Group.
... Ms. Chenel produces a fresh goat cheese that some call the best in America. Both she and the new owners pledge that it will not change. The deal also lets her keep her entire herd of 500 goats on the property and sell their milk to the new company. It also takes good care of her 18 longtime employees, who are now employees of the French company.

Perhaps most important, the deal gives her a break. After all, one can only carry the food revolution for so long.

“My name is on every little piece of cheese that goes out,” she said. “For years I have just felt a deep responsibility. I don’t want that any more. It’s a great weight off my shoulders.”

...The French company has 1,300 employees and produces 40,000 tons of goat and cow cheese a year. It specializes in finding small family operations and buying them with the promise to keep the product and philosophy intact. The company owns about a dozen cheese-making operations, but Chenel will be its first in America.

...To understand why the sale has such impact, a short history of chèvre in the United States is in order. And it is short. No one was making goat cheese commercially in the late 1970’s, the tween years of California cuisine.

... Laura Chenel, who had grown up in a liberal Sonoma family that tried its hand at chicken and turkey farming, had turned her attention to goats, which had become the hip farm animal of the moment for back-to-the-landers. So had her friends. Among them, they had more milk than they could drink, and there was no market for selling beyond the neighborhood. To find a way to make goat-keeping pay, she tried to make cheese, but to very ill effect. Eventually, she took off to France, attending a series of apprenticeships with cheesemakers that the famed French dairy scientist Jean-Claude Le Jaouen arranged for her.

Back in Sonoma, she found a way to make pillows of soft, creamy cheese, white as chalk and with a tang that says “goat,” but quietly. She began selling it to a few shops, but waited on tables to pay the bills.

The big moment came in 1981, when Alice Waters, who had started her own little revolutionary restaurant called Chez Panisse, tasted the cheese and placed a standing order for 50 pounds of the little disks a week. It was way more than Ms. Chenel was making. She quit her day job...

Move ahead 20 years, and Ms. Chenel is selling 2 million pounds of cheese a year. It takes 18 hours to turn goat’s milk into curds and whey. From there, it’s a matter of processing and shaping. Among the Chenel products are four-pound tubs of a fresh, mild cheese called “chef’s chèvre” for restaurants, as well as popular egg-shaped, five-ounce chabis and, for Chez Panisse, the eight-ounce log, a size she also makes and labels for Trader Joe’s...

She still seems surprised that she created a viable company out of not much more than the love of a goat.

“I know that what I did made a difference in people’s lives and I feel really good about that, but it’s not like I had that as a goal,” she said. “I was trying to make something different in my own life.”...

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