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Norbert's Cheese Bytes
Norbert Interviews Chef John Folse - 2004
Owner of Bittersweet Plantation Dairy in Gonzales, Louisiana, Chef John Folse is all about old fashioned Southern charm, and his cheeses are a fine example of America's artisanal cheese renaissance.
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Norbert Interviews Chef John Folse - 2004
Chef John Folse has to be one of the nicest men we have ever talked to!  He is all about old fashioned Southern charm, and his cheeses, from his own Bittersweet Plantation Dairy in Gonzales, Louisiana, are a fine example of America's artisanal cheese renaissance.  Gonzales is about midway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a seemingly unlikely place to discover an artisanal cheese producer. 
**Unfortunately, in 2012 Bittersweet Plantation Diary ceased production of it's cheeses and closed down after John's Bulgarian cheesemakers retired and moved back home.  John was quoted as saying "Honoring them, the best thing I could do is close the dairy, going out on top of the game.  My passion right now is Restaurant R'evolution in New Orleans," the restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel he opened with celebrity chef Rick Tramonto.  Folse said he is keeping the dairy intact, although closed.  He said that someday he "might feel like I want to do something with it." 
We sure hope you do! And much luck with your many other culinary endeavors!

Norbert:  Tell me about yourself. I’m from New Orleans but I've only been to Gonzales once or twice.  What's it like? 

Chef John:  Well, I built my first restaurant in 1978, called Lafite's Landing, in Donaldsville, Louisiana.  It was in an old plantation house which burned to the ground.  Six months later, I opened up again in another 200 year old house and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary in 1998.  So we've been in the same area for a long time.
N:  How'd you get into cheese making? 

J:  I've written seven cookbooks on Louisiana cooking, and I'm about to publish my eighth, The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, which will coincide with my PBS Series Taste of Louisiana.  During my research, I discovered that the Europeans who settled in this area had cheese stands in the 1700s and 1800s, and I wondered what happened to this cheese industry. 
There wasn't a lot written about it, but each group of people brought their traditions to New Orleans, which became part of the culture of the city.  The French brought some French cheese making, and the Germans, too.  So, we did what they did, starting with a triple creme style like the French.  I hired an LSU graduate and we spent two years in R&D.  Then we built a small plant and made some Creole Cream Cheese.  Borden was interested in that, which gave me the cash flow to keep on researching.  I was excited about what each nation brought to the area and I thought, let's resurrect it, we'll recreate it!<

N: Well done, I might add. 

J:  I was lucky.  Now we are R&D on a cheddar, a blue, and we're about to have a goat cheese. 

N:  We are very anxious to see that. 

J:  We are waiting for our first goat milk, which should be in a month or so.  We have 200 head of goat outside Baton Rouge and it's going really well.  The Triple Cremes are taking off.  We have three cheese caves where we can age 1000 wheels at a time.  And we are experimenting with a Brie, too.

N:  What kind of a goat cheese will it be? 

J:  I think there is so much fresh chevre and flavored chevre on the market right now, who needs more?  So, I thinking of trying a triple creme or a drier aged goat, but we'll see. 

N:  Any plans for sheep's milk cheese?

J:  As much as I would love to, because there's tremendous excitement about sheep's cheeses, no one has sheep within three or four states!  A guy came to me recently about opening a goat dairy and I said what about sheep?  I've got goat.  He's got 500 acres, so he may be my man! 

N:  Sheep are the most popular cheeses in our store right now. 

J:  We would be happy to fill that niche! 

N:  So the obvious question is, when ya'll coming out to Beverly Hills? 

J:  I am coming out to the West Coast a couple of times this year, to wine country near Seattle, and to Monterey and Carmel.  It would be fun to come and do a demo in your store. 

N:  That would be great!  It's been a pleasure. I must tell you that Spago, Water Grill, and Patina have all bought the Bittersweet Triple Creme and have given it rave reviews, love the ash. 

J:  That's fantastic to know. It's our most popular!
Norbert's Cheese Bytes
Norbert Interviews Chef Jennifer Naylor - 2000
We use a lot of Parmigiano Reggiano for example on antipasto and pasta dishes. I have a Four Cheese Pansotti with Robiola, Pecorino, Parmesan, and Ricotta Buffala. That's one of my signature dishes.
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Norbert Interviews Chef Jennifer Naylor - 2000
Norbert: Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Jennifer Naylor:  I was born and raised in Los Angeles.  I am the third generation in a restaurant family also from LA.  My grandfather was Tiny Naylor and started the Tiny Naylor's restaurant chain, one of California's original family-style restaurants.  I've been cooking for 16 years, the last 11 under Wolfgang Puck.  I spent a year in Italy cooking in Umbria at Vissanni under the most famous chef in Italy right now, Vissanni, and then in Lombardia at Dal Pascatore with Nadia Santini.  I am currently the Chef at Granita in Malibu where I cook California Mediterranean with an Italian influence. 

N:  How do you work cheese into your menu and what are some of your favorites? 

J:  We use a lot of Parmigiano Reggiano for example on antipasto and pasta dishes.  I have a Four Cheese Pansotti with Robiola, Pecorino, Parmesan, and Ricotta Buffala.  That's one of my signature dishes.  Also, we use a lot of the Tuscan Pecorino, shaved and grated over the pastas and risottos.  I like it better than the Romano.  It's sweeter and nuttier and not as aggressive. 

N:  Are you using more cheese now than 10 years ago for example when you opened? 

J:  Yes, because of my Italian influence.  And in the winter months especially. 

N:  Do you find that people are eating more cheese as a cheese course for example? 

J:  I think people are more accepting of how lovely that can be instead of or before dessert. 

N:  Do you think that is because people are traveling more? 

J:  I think it is because chefs are traveling more really.  You see cheese courses on the menus at Spago and Melisse for example.  And, yes, people are traveling more. 

N:  How receptive are people to new foods on menus?  More open?  J:  At Granita, I have a lot of regulars, and I like to send out new things for them to try.  They might order it the next time they come in.  Sweetbreads, cheeses, whatever it is. 

N:  If you are relaxing at home with a glass of wine, what kind of cheese would you have? 

J:  Well, right now I have a wonderful piece of Cargnavecchio that a customer brought me back from Italy.  I like to have shavings of that with a glass of wine.  In the wintertime, I like to buy the Fontina Val d'Aosta to make the Fonduta with the shaved white truffles.  When they are in season, we like to do a special truffle dinner every year. 

N:  Do you see the concept of truffle dinners and truffle season becoming more popular?
J:  Yes, people are understanding the seasonality and the perishability of it.  It is a fleeting thing, and they want to partake of that.  We did a salad with Pomegranates, Black Walnuts and shaved Truffle Pecorino over the salad.  It was a nice wintry dish.  I had Wolfgang going around and shaving truffles table to table. It was very exciting!
Norbert's Cheese Bytes
Norbert Interviews Chef Giacomino Drago - 2004
Giacomino is involved with multiple restaurants, and has his own line of authentic Sicilian products including pasta sauce and olive oil.
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Norbert Interviews Chef Giacomino Drago - 2004
Norbert interviews Giacomino Drago, partner in Il Pastaio, Piccolo Paradiso and Il Buco restaurants in Los Angeles. The youngest member of the renowned Drago restaurant family, Giacomino is now launching his own line of authentic Sicilian products including pasta sauce and olive oil. Norbert is currently working with Giacomino to put together his Fall cheese course.

N: What inspired you to create your own pasta sauce?

G: At my restaurants, I received such a demand for my sauce that I decided to bottle it. I also created a box with exactly the right amount of pasta to sell with the sauce.

N: I carry your sauce at The Cheese Store and it's very popular with my customers. You also have a very fine olive oil.

G: My goal is to introduce authentic Sicilian products to the American consumer. The secret of good Sicilian cooking is to keep everything very simple, using only the freshest ingredients. The flavors should be balanced and the seasoning should enhance, not mask the natural essence of the ingredients.

N: As a member of the Drago family, you must have literally grown up with food.

G: In Sicily where I was raised, my family owned a restaurant in the mountains. After school I worked in the restaurant and learned a lot about the business.

N: Do you have any formal culinary training?

G: After 8th grade, I decided to go to cooking school. In Italy, you have the option of going to a trade school instead of a traditional high school. During that time, I continued to work in the family restaurant for another year. Then I decided I wanted to go to America.

N: What made you decide to come here?

G: My brother Celestino had already established his restaurant, Celestino, in Beverly Hills. I was only 15 when I arrived, but I had already finished my schooling in Italy and was ready to work. After two years, Celestino opened up Drago and I became the pasta chef.

N: How long did you stay at Drago?

G: I worked with my brother 2 years and then I got drafted in the Italian army.

N: What did you do when you returned to Los Angeles?

G: Celestino opened up Il Pastaio and turned it over to me. After four years, I found a location on Robertson and Wilshire and opened Il Buco, which is a cozy little New York style trattoria. Then in January 2002, I started Piccolo Paradiso in Beverly Hills.

N: Now that we’re moving into fall, are you planning on doing any special menus?

G: Well Norbert, as you know, it's truffle season and I plan on using them in many dishes. I make a homemade tagliatelle with fresh white truffles and a poached egg on top. Of course, truffle oil can be drizzled on everything. And for you Norbert, I will create a special truffle fondue!
Norbert's Cheese Bytes
Norbert Interviews Susan Spicer - 2007
In this edition of Cheese Bytes, Norbert interviews Susan Spicer about cooking in New Orleans, her new book and her restaurants.
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Norbert Interviews Susan Spicer - 2007
Norbert: Hi, we’re upstairs at The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills and we have Susan Spicer with us. Hello Susan.

Susan: Hello Norbert. It’s been many, many years.

Norbert: How many years?...

Susan: We decided we wouldn’t say.

Norbert: Susan is here signing books. She now has a new one called “Crescent City Cooking.” Tell us a little bit about it.

Susan: Ok. Well, "Crescent City Cooking, Unforgettable Recipes From Susan Spicer’s New Orleans" is sort of the culmination of my 29 years of cooking professionally, and it contains family recipes, it contains the signature recipes of my two restaurants, Bayona and Herbsaint in New Orleans, as well as other things I learned along the way cooking with other people and at some of the other restaurants I worked at while I was learning.

Norbert: What are some of those influences?

Susan: Well I am a product of a father from Georgia, and a mother from Denmark, so we grew up eating a lot so different kinds of food in my household. My mom is a great cook. Right before we moved to New Orleans, we lived in Holland, so she learned some of the indigenous dishes that were popular over there, and I trained with French chefs, and grew up in New Orleans. So it’s New Orleans from a global perspective I suppose you would say.

Norbert: Well, New Orleans is sort of a global perspective…

Susan: It is. The Creole cuisine is a blend of French, Spanish, West Indian and all that, and we have a big Vietnamese population in New Orleans now, so really there are a lot of influences and factors, and of course, that’s all on top of having the great seafood: oysters, crawfish, shrimp, and all that. My style is probably using traditional ingredients in non-traditional ways.

Norbert: Susan and I actually grew up together in New Orleans, went to school at LSUNO. You know that I have to say that New Orleans has the best kitchens, the best restaurants in the United States. Hate to say that, being here in LA…

Susan: Well, it’s a very strong and indigenous cuisine.

Norbert: Right.. And the influences are incredible: the Italian, the Spanish, the French, and its own sort of Creole thing. What are some of your favorite dishes in the book?

Susan: Well…

Norbert: Signature dishes...

Susan: Well signature for the restaurant. One of the ones I like the most is a goat cheese crouton with mushrooms and Madeira cream. I use a fresh goat cheese, mixed with a tiny bit of butter, spread on a piece of multigrain bread and we trim the crust on that, pop it into the broiler at the last minute till it’s really bubbly and brown. I serve that with oysters and shiitake mushrooms, and when I can get some chanterelles we throw those in too...but the mushrooms are sautéed until they are sort of crispy and a nice rich brown. Then we put garlic, shallots, Madeira, kind of a medium dry Madeira, in a pan, the Madeira sort of reduces and the mushrooms absorb it, and you hit it with a little bit of cream at the last minute. Then pour that over the toasted goat cheese, and it’s one that you can prepare in a lot of different stages. You can prepare almost all of it ahead of time, then put it all together at the last minute, so it’s great for entertaining.

Norbert: Sounds great. What did you make for us here today? That was incredible.

Susan: Thank you. That was a little goat cheese mixed with some fresh herbs and garlic confit, and then spread on a crouton with a little roasted tomato compote.

Norbert: Where are you getting your goat cheese from?

Susan: We buy Judy Schad’s Capriole goat cheese that’s from right outside Louisville, Kentucky. She’s actually in Indiana. So we buy her fresh goat cheese. We use that for several different dishes, and we buy some of her aged goat cheese like the Wabash Cannonball and her old Kentucky Tomme.
Norbert's Cheese Bytes
Norbert Interviews Celestino Drago - 2004
Renowned restaurateur Celestino Drago (Drago, Il Pastaio, Celestino's) has a line of artisanal breads made at his new Dolce Forno bakery.
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Norbert Interviews Celestino Drago - 2004
Renowned restaurateur Celestino Drago (Drago, Il Pastaio, Celestino's) has a line of artisanal breads made at his new Dolce Forno bakery. After baking for his own restaurants for four years, he recently acquired a 6000 square foot bakery in Culver City, producing an extensive selection of Italian breads for the wholesale trade. Recognized by Food & Wine magazine as one of "The 10 Best Chefs" in the country, Celestino's new bakery will be a welcome contribution to our culinary community. We prefer to carry breads by small bakeries such as Dolce Forno, which offers us exclusive selections including olive bread, foccacia, ciabatta, filoncino baguette, and brioche. Norbert: Celestino, we are so excited about carrying your breads in the store. With all of your wonderful restaurants, what inspired you to start selling breads?

Celestino: Bread is very important to the success of any meal, it's a very important element in our daily diet. You can usually tell a good restaurant by their bread...that's why I watch very closely the quality of my breads for every restaurant, so I represent them in the best way possible.

N: When did you start making breads here?

C: When I opened Drago, I began baking breads just for Drago: Ciabatta, Focaccia, and breadsticks. When I opened the Steakhouse in West Hollywood, I was able to have a larger oven and then bought the best oven possible on the market for baking bread. The result was ten times better than what I had been able to make at Drago. Little by little, by word of mouth, the bread got attention by other restaurateurs, caterers, and hotels. We did what we could from the Steakhouse, but in order to keep up I needed to find a larger place. That's when we opened Dolce Forno.

N: What makes your breads so distinctive?

C: We try to create the best breads from all the regions in Italy: Carta De Musica from Sardinia, Semolina breads from Sicily, and of course, our best seller, Ciabatta. I come up with my own specialty recipes like the Caramelized Garlic Balsamic Vinegar Loaf, and I’m developing one with Dominico's Pomodori Secchi for The Cheese Store. It's still in development, but it's coming soon!

N: Do you do the baking yourself?

C: I've been very lucky to have a great lead baker for the past 5 years, who has worked at some of the best bakeries in the area. Also, my dear friend Sandro Comacchia comes over twice a year from Sicily to consult for a month and check the quality of the breads.

N: Where is the new bakery located? Can customers shop there?

C: Dolce Forno is in Culver City. It's 6000 sq. ft so we can do a lot of production. Very soon we will be offering retail and "will call" for our customers.

N: Any other exciting news going on?

C: Yes, I am opening Enoteca Drago at the end of June on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills (where La Scala used to be.) It will be a wine bar and pizzeria with a small retail storefront for the bakery. We'll be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so you can try our breads at any time of the day!

N: Thank you Celestino!