I can think of few simple combinations that go together as well as meat and cheese–philly cheesesteaks, charcuterie and cheese boards, chicken parmigiano, heck, even the simple breakfast sandwich combines the super powers of a sausage patty and melted cheese. So it made sense when Brenton Balika, the executive pastry chef at Bourbon Steak, started a cheese program at the meat-centric restaurant in Georgetown.
The cheese program, which was officially launched in May of this year, has opened up a whole menu featuring eight to 10 cheeses at any given time. While the cheeses can take anywhere from a few hours to a few months to complete, depending on the type, the restaurant typically goes through an average of 200 wheels of cheese per week and 169 gallons of milk, according to Balika.
I met with Brent to learn more about Bourbon Steak’s cheese program and to find out what goes into making cheese.
As I stepped into the small walk-in refrigerator, otherwise referred to only as “the cave,” the pungent, musty smell from aging cheese stung my nose. For Brent, cheese making is about the tradition, replicating a process that chefs have been doing for thousands of years. His mid-western background has also played a part in his interest in cheese. In addition to experimenting with different washes and flavors, Brent has been researching cheese on his own for approximately ten years, he says.
Listening to Brent talk about the cheese, there were two types that stood out right away: Le Brenton Blu and the bourbon bath cheese. Le Brenton Blu, named after the pastry chef, is a robust bleu cheese. The second type is run through a “bullet bath” of bourbon in honor of the restaurant’s name, allowing a specific type of red bacteria to grow. Brent explains that the bacteria for this cheese isn’t killed off by salt or alcohol, which gives this cheese its own flavor.
I asked Brent what he considers the most important factors in making good cheese. “The quality of milk, the right cultures for the right cheese. And patience,” he laughs. Even making mozzarella, which only takes a few hours (PS – DC, this is the stuff. Forget that rubbery ball of cheese you find in the super market), requires patience for letting the milk come to a certain temperature, allowing the rennet to work, pulling and stretching the mozzarella until it’s the right consistency. “It’s really satisfying to make the bleu cheese since they can take up to three months to age. They get speckled and they have a nice flavor profile,” Balika says. “In a profession where chaos thrives, it’s nice to get away from the kitchen for a bit and work in this quiet process.”
The hardest part of the whole process is the aging of the cheese, says Balika. Working with the salt levels, humidity, draining times and physically rotating the cheeses, all play a part in how the final product turns out. “It’s a small, artisanal program so there are different variations every time,” says Balika. Balika runs through a the types of cheeses he’s been working on: feta, semi-firm cheeses, bleu cheeses, wash rind, hard rind, chevre, gouda, aged cheddar–the list goes on.
Looking ahead to the autumn, Brent says he’s looking forward to using chestnuts and dried fruits with the cheeses, as well as beginning to make types of cheese with sheep’s milk. Next time you’re chowing down on a filet at Bourbon Steak, go for the cheese plate, the tasty sidekick to meat.