From Oaxaca to Milwaukee: Cesar Luis & Family Bring Mexican Cheeses to Local Palates
It’s another day, another tour at Sassy Cow Creamery, set in a bucolic patch near Columbus.
A school bus has deposited a crowd of kids who are noisily browsing gift shop trinkets and gulping down ice cream samples. Most are entirely oblivious to the scene in the large viewing window on the far wall.
Behind the glass, four Hispanic workers are busy cutting, sorting and packing glistening globes of fresh cheese. A typical sight in America’s food industry: Mexicans in the background, serving up what we all eat. Why should anyone notice?
But above the din, a Sassy Cow staffer directs the kids’ attention to what makes this scene unique:
“Look guys, there’s Cesar and his family making cheese,” she says.
Indeed, Cesar Luis, his wife Heydi, and their son, “Little” Cesar, 14, and daughter, Damaris Magali, 11, are crafting cheese that will be sold across the region, opening eyes and palates to a rich tradition of Mexican cheese making.
The success of the family operation, Cesar’s Cheese, has been cemented by a slew of awards, including the Blue Ribbon Best of Class Award at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition for his Queso Oaxaca, a handmade string cheese, and in contests at the World Dairy Expo and even the World Cheese Championships.
The tradition is one Luis was born into in his tiny Oaxacan pueblo, where as a child he learned cheese making under the tutelage of his grandmother. With extensive Spanish and Italian immigration, Mexico has a long history of taking in cheese-making expertise, he said.
In brutally poor conditions, with no sophisticated equipment, refrigeration or distribution beyond the local market, Luis learned the range of Mexican cheeses, from the basics of Queso Fresco (“fresh cheese,” the Mexican farmer’s cheese), to the more complex stretching and braiding of 50-foot Queso Oaxaca string cheese ropes.
They made cheese to eat, and extra to trade. Vegetables, tortillas, and even a couple of chickens would swap hands.
“We had to do whatever we could to make a living,” Luis said.
The boy tended to a small herd of dairy cows that never numbered more than a dozen. But the milk they produced left distinct memories.
“If you can get it right warm from the cow that’s excellent, that’s the best,” Luis says. “That’s the perfect time to make cheese.”
Cesar’s Cheese got its official start in 2008, when Luis earned his cheesemaking license and began selling in the fall.
But how Luis traveled from Oaxaca to the podium of the World Cheese Championship is a tale that borders on odyssey.
As a teenager he headed for El Norte, taking on a range of grueling jobs, including tobacco trimming in North Carolina. Then a friend suggested moving to the Midwest, where he’d heard of a construction job.
“My friend said, ‘Let’s go to Wisconsin. It might snow a little bit,’” Luis said. “We didn’t know it would be that cold.”
So it was at age 18 that Luis found himself in Milwaukee, flipping tacos at a taqueria named El Campesino (“The Peasant”), wondering how he would ever shed his peasant-level identity.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to make tacos the rest of my life; I want something else,’” he said. “I saw more opportunities, but I also saw I needed to do some things first.”
Learning English, for one. Luis started by buying a textbook at a gas station for a few bucks. Soon he was studying four hours a day, five days a week at MATC.
“I have friends who’ve been here five years, they don’t even know how to order a burger,” Luis said. “That’s sad. That’s not right.”
He cycled through more jobs, including auto mechanic, back of the house at a Greek restaurant, then Olive Garden as a dishwasher, where a manager asked him if he wanted to train as a prep cook—his first position handling food.
But the breakthrough for Luis finally came when he started working at Pleasant View Dairy Farms, in Port Washington.
Noticing all the leftover milk that would be thrown out at the end of each shift, Luis one day asked owner Lee Schlenvogt if he could use it to make cheese. He’d grown up doing that, he reassured her, and so earned her approval.
At first he made enough for him and his wife, Heydi, and a few friends. Word got out. He had to make more. When the cheese started disappearing seemingly faster than he could make it, an idea bloomed: why not do this for a living?
As crazy as it sounded—how, exactly, would he become a cheese maker?—Heydi wasn’t skeptical.
“She’s the kind of person who, if I have an idea, she’s not going to turn it down,” Luis said. “She says, ‘Ok, let’s try it.’”
His training would take years, all part-time, with endless commutes and piles of money for gas and tuition, as he wended his way through a byzantine set of requirements. But by 2008 he had earned his license—and the respect of his peers.
“Cesar is possibly the hardest working cheese maker that I know,” said Chris Roelli, of Roelli Cheese Co.
Norm Monsen, market development specialist for the state, said Luis may appear unique, but in fact has much in common with successful peers.
“By that I mean there are many who have brought Old World techniques and procedures to their cheese crafting,” Monsen said.
Other than Tony and Julie Hook, of Hook’s Cheese Company, Monsen said he can’t recall another husband and wife team like Cesar and Heydi in the state.
But the cheese maker’s devotion to the process extends far beyond the cheese itself.
At one end of the equation, Luis, a self-taught welder, has welded his own cheese cutters to fit his precise product needs.
On the other end, as an amateur photographer, he attends to the visual presentation of his product. He also travels extensively with Heydi to offer samples and demos in outlets throughout the region.
At each venue he patiently answers questions and explains that, yes, he’s Mexican and yes, he’s also the cheese maker.
“When I started selling to the stores, people didn’t believe I can make cheese,” Luis said.
In addition to the famous Oaxacan string cheese and Queso Fresco, Cesar’s expanded lineup includes Queso Quesadilla (a cheese for melting), and even mozzarella and fresh cheddar curds. Among the local vendors offering Cesar’s Cheese are Glorioso’s Italian Market, Larry’s Market in Brown Deer, Sendik’s Food Markets, and the Outpost Natural Foods. Major chains such as Metcalfe’s Markets and Hy-Vee have also picked up the product.
“I see his marketing savvy,” Monsen said. “The number one priority for that is you have to have passion for the product. And boy does he have passion for his cheese. Like all our best cheese makers, with Cesar there’s no compromise in making cheese that’s great—and safe—to eat.”
Indeed, Luis says he won’t compromise, not even when he sees competitors cutting corners.
“There’s a lot of Queso Oaxaca on the market, but it’s not even close to the traditional queso,” Luis said, adding that almost none are hand-stretched, a process where extreme care must be taken to stretch in one direction, to achieve the correct texture. Some of his competitors even use powdered milk, he said.
“If you’re gonna eat cheese, you’d better get the real thing,” he said. “If not…”
His voice trails away. But the meaning is clear.
The real thing is always better.