White Coats and Rubber Boots
Hours before the sun rises, while the rest of us are tucked in bed dreaming of our favorite fromage, cheesemakers across Wisconsin are putting on their white coats and rubber boots, turning on the factory lights, and getting to work.
The insanely early hours are just the beginning of the challenges a cheesemaker faces every day, from hard labor over the vat to problem-solving in the lab.
But Master Cheesemaker Tom Dahmen wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There's something to it that I think transcends just a regular job,” says the 50-year industry veteran. “You don't just punch in and punch out.”
Like many of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers, Tom was born into the business. He learned the craft from his father, and went on to cut his teeth at cheese factories around the state, bringing with him a passion for the hard work that goes into the cheese life.
Something of an Honor
“You do whatever you need to do to solve a problem,” Tom says. “And you get the calls 24/7, whether you own the place or not.”
Today, he spends his days in Browntown, Wisconsin, as plant manager at V&V Supremo’s Chula Vista Cheese Company. Founded in 1964 by Gilberto Villaseñor Sr. and his brother-in-law Ignacio Villaseñor, V&V Supremo is the oldest Hispanic-owned cheese manufacturer in the country.
“They’ve always been known for high quality, traditional Hispanic cheeses,” says Tom. “And to be able to maintain and possibly even improve on that has been something of an honor.”
A Master in queso quesadilla and Oaxaca cheese, Tom loves to get playful with V&V’s classic Mexican creations.
On a recent visit, he let us break into his final batch of 5-year aged Jalapeño queso quesadilla – a creamy, piquant take on the traditionally mild cheese studded with fiery peppers. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
“I'll just flat tell you: you'll never see another cheese like that,” Tom says.
Carrying On The Legacy
The fleeting magic of his aged Jalapeño queso quesadilla is just one example of the many delicious experiments Tom’s got tucked away in a fridge he calls his “playpen.”
He says once he’s perfected a cheese, he doesn’t rest on his laurels. “What's next? Give me another cheese.”
Though he’s proud to help maintain the Villaseñor family legacy at V&V, there’s another legacy Tom is even prouder to carry on: his dad’s.
“What he imparted to me was incredible,” Tom says of his late father, whom he credits with inspiring him to become a cheesemaker in the first place. “My dad always said, ‘Never memorize anything. Understand your process.’”
Tom took that advice to heart when he got his first Master Cheesemaker certification.
A Deeper Understanding of Cheese Wizardry
“The program has been amazing,” Tom says of the Master program, a three-year crash course that gives cheesemakers with a decade of experience or more a deeper understanding of the history, science and art of cheese wizardry. “I think it’s absolutely worth its weight in gold. And the application of what you've studied is really cool to put it into real life.”
Now, with the highest level of education and a lifetime of experience under his belt, Tom is passionate about keeping the soul of cheesemaking alive.
As he watches the industry grow and change, he reminds newcomers what it truly takes to be a cheesemaker.
“I ask one question: Did you ever turn the lights on?” Tom says. “It seems like a huge responsibility when you walk in the door and turn on the lights – it just hits you.”
Imagine it for a minute – walking into the cheese factory alone at 3 AM, flipping the switch, and watching the entire operation come to life. Looking out at the vats, the milk tanks, the aging room, and knowing every step on the way to making great cheese is under your care.
It’s a big responsibility – the hard work that makes Wisconsin great. So, to the ones bold enough to turn the lights on every morning: we salute you!