Meet the Masters: Ken Kane
June 13, 2022
Master Cheesemaker Ken Kane took a roundabout path to the coveted title, but some might say it’s in his blood. Ken was named for his grandfather who owned a dairy farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a fact he didn’t find out until he was already years into his experience at Sartori®.
Once he set his sights on becoming a master, however, the rest was history. We sat down with Ken to discuss his journey and getting starstruck by the rockstars of cheese.
How did you get started in the business?
I’m originally from upper Michigan, but I ended up moving to Florida for a couple of years. I had a friend who worked with Sartori®, and I was missing home. My friend invited me to come back and work with him.
I was relatively creative, and I liked to see how things work. I loved science when I was in school, but I didn’t pursue it. But the cheesemaking process was super intriguing to me.
I interviewed and started a week later at the West Main Creamery, where they made their first vat of Asiago back in 1939. I developed a great relationship with a gentleman named Mark Gustafson, who ended up being my mentor for the master cheesemaker program.
That’s where I got my start, and I've been at West Main my entire career, almost 17 years now.
When people find out you’re a Master Cheesemaker, what’s the first question they usually ask?
Usually “What is that?” Hah!
I don’t feel wholly comfortable telling people I'm a Master Cheesemaker at this point. It’s hard not to compare yourself to the people that came before, the Steve Stettlers and others like him, who I’ve always looked up to. I really geek out when I see them. I almost asked Steve for his autograph at my acceptance speech but settled for a Master Cheesemaker ring fist bump instead.
When people ask what a Master Cheesemaker is, I just say I'm essentially a doctor of cheesemaking. There aren’t many of us, but we make really, really good cheese that we provide to the entire world and we're responsible for leading and educating the next generation of cheesemakers. It’s a brother and sisterhood that that I'm lucky to be a part of.
What's the process to become a Master Cheesemaker?
Becoming a Master Cheesemaker takes a lot of time and a strong commitment.
To just become a licensed cheesemaker, you've got to apprentice for 18 months, go through learning the trade, understanding the trade. At the end of that period in Wisconsin, you are eligible to take an exam that's proctored by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. The exam covers everything about cheesemaking from craft to regulations.
Once you pass the exam, that starts the clock to become a Master Cheesemaker. You must be holding your license continuously for ten years to be eligible for the program. And you must be working with the type of cheese you’re going for your certification in for minimum of five years and taking prerequisite classes through the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and UW-Madison.
For me, I got my start through my apprenticeship back in late 2006. I just wanted to absorb as much cheesemaking knowledge as I possibly could and dialogue with those industry experts.
After applying, everyone has to go through an oral exam. My oral exam was with Marianne Smukowski and Terry Lensmeyer, other Master Cheesemakers here in Wisconsin. We went through a plant tour, talked about our food safety programs, talked about quality defects, milk quality regulation, it really covers a lot. But it has to; you have to be versatile and knowledgeable.
So, they take it back to the to the board and after two months of waiting anxiously, I was accepted. Then you do three consecutive years of sampling for the cheese that you're certified in. For example, send in four samples of my parmesan, four samples of my romano. It's got to pass the literal smell test, it’s got to be great quality cheese and meet the standard identity for those that have a standard identity.
I did the three consecutive years of sampling, then the next big hurdle is the final exam. I remember getting this huge box of books, and it's a lengthy exam that covers everything up to that point, from the texts to your own practical knowledge.
I was blessed to be working for Sartori® that they actively encouraged that and supported it. It was a lot of work, though. 15 years of work alongside my day job. It’s like a thesis, a doctorate in cheesemaking.
What’s the Center for Dairy Research and what is your relationship with them?
Center for Dairy Research is a fantastic resource right in our own backyard. They're an extension of the University of Wisconsin system, located on campus within the food science program.
We've done a lot of research and development down there, running small scale trials which can’t really happen in a plant like ours. We utilize them as resources, get their feedback, and really try to optimize what we're trying to accomplish.
It takes skill and science to diagnose cheese, to eliminate or reduce defects. They research the impacts of cheese aging, of temperature running. They’re an encyclopedia of knowledge. The people there, like Mark Johnson, Dean Sommer, and John Jaeggi, have a super depth of knowledge. They’re like the rock stars of the cheese world. It’s a dream to see them and hear them talk, dialogue with them and solicit feedback.
The center provides that service for the entire dairy industry in Wisconsin and even outside of Wisconsin. They're a world-renowned resource and we're lucky to have them so close.
How do you and Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson divide the workload at Sartori®?
It's always collaborative between Pam and myself. But her knowledge is astounding. She's responsible for a lot of my training.
She's technically in research and development and I’m in operations, but there’s such a blurred line between those departments at Sartori® that it’s tough to even differentiate. Any cheese that Pam is looking to develop or test, we bring it to scale at West Main. So, there's always a dialogue when we're looking at tweaks to recipes or anything like that.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments at Sartori®?
Everything is a team effort when I talk about cheesemaking, I don’t ever feel like it’s my individual accomplishment. But in terms of cheeses I’m proud of, we pride ourselves on what we call Sartori® Originals. We built a lot of different flavors from different parmesan styles within our plant.
We also broke into the cheddar market more recently, and I’ve been trying to get certified in that, as well. That'll be the next master mark that I intend to go for.
Cheddar is very finicky, you've got to nurture it. Where I have a lot of confidence in making a parmesan or a romano, well, that kind of confidence I’m still developing for cheddar. But the team makes everything fun. I’ve been so proud to develop and nurture a team that aligns creatively, that’s been my biggest accomplishment.
What’s something you’d like more people to know about cheese?
We'll take tours through the creamery and we'll talk about the milk that comes from our great family farms, about our education, the depth of knowledge from our cheesemakers, and we'll show them the curd. We'll talk about how it gets to be curds and whey. We'll let them feel the curd when it's young so they can understand the whole process from unsalted, to salted, to starting to infuse some flavor and further craft into it.
I think it’s really important to understand where your food comes from. I love to introduce the folks in the plant, here’s Mark making cheese, Luis running the tables. It helps so much to appreciate the journey from farm to us to your fork. The effort the team puts in, it’s really something special and you can taste it in the result.
What do you say to those that want to get into cheesemaking and follow your path?
We've got a lot of longevity in some of our newer cheesemakers that are really looking to build careers, I love that. Cheese is an art form and it fosters a culture of creativity.
My former jobs, I was building pools and selling auto paint. Most jobs are volatile jobs dependent on a lot of factors. But cheese, especially in Wisconsin, you can do it for a lifetime.
If you're mechanically inclined, but want to be creative, it’s an amazing career for that. We're creating something that everyone around the world can truly enjoy, talk about, and love. That’s a special thing. You don’t get that level of intimacy with a lot of things outside food.
Keep exploring to learn more about Ken and his team, learn the long history of Sartori® fine cheese, and more.