Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009


Physicist Mohamed Diagne ´97 follows in the footsteps of retiring Professor Arlan Mantz. Photo by Ron Cowie

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Cheese Wiz

Cheese Wiz
Allison Reisner Hooper ´81. Photo by Art Durity ´84.

Allison Reisner Hooper ´81 has been making cheese since studying abroad in France

By Beth Brosnan

"I like the feeling of making something,” says Allison Reisner Hooper ´81, co-founder and co-owner of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. “Milk is this fabulous raw material, and you can make so many different things out of it. You can separate it and make crème fraiche or butter. You can make fresh cheese. You can make aged cheese. And they´re all delicious.”

Hooper has been making delicious cultured butters and artisan cheeses ever since her junior year abroad in France, part of which she spent working as an apprentice on a small family farm in Brittany. There, she helped care for a herd of 40 dairy goats and learned the fundamentals of fresh chèvre.

But over the past 25 years, she and business partner Bob Reese have made something else as well: a highly regarded, highly successful company whose award-winning cheeses are now sold throughout the country at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe´s and served in top New York restaurants like Le Bernardin. And as a co-founder of the Vermont Cheese Council, an organization she launched in 1996 to help promote the state´s dozens of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers, she helped put Vermont on the map as “the Napa Valley of cheese.”

According to food writer Laura Werlin, author of “The New American Cheese” and “The All American Cheese and Wine Book,” Hooper has managed to do a lot of important things without a trace of self-importance. “Allison is a born leader,” says Werlin, who got to know Hooper well during Hooper´s three-year tenure as president of the American Cheese Society. “She´s very big-picture-oriented, and she has a visceral understanding that what´s good for American cheeses as a whole will also be good for her own company.”

Today, Hooper lives on a 60-acre farm in central Vermont with her husband, Don, a former secretary of state of Vermont, and their three teenage sons. But she grew up in the suburbs, in Morris County, N.J., and traces her interest in food to her mother, “a great cook” who introduced her to seminal works like “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Gourmet magazine and The New York Times´ “60-Minute Gourmet.” At Connecticut College, Hooper loved the experience of living in Abbey House, where residents cooked their own meals and ate together.

But most of all, she loved what she found working on that small farm in Brittany: “caring for the animals, working outdoors, and making something that people love and consider so special.” She moved to Vermont and got a job with the state agriculture department, where Reese was then director of marketing. In 1984, with just $2,400 in startup funds between them, they decided to go into the cheesemaking business together.

What they lacked in funds, they more than made up for in sweat equity. While Reese handled marketing, distribution and finance, Hooper would drive all over Vermont, collecting milk from small goat farms, then head back to the tiny cheese plant they had set up at a friend´s dairy farm and set to work making cheese. “It was the only thing I did, seven days a week,” she recalls with a laugh. “But I was young, I didn´t have a mortgage, I wasn´t married. It was just me and the business, and that allowed me to be sort of maniacal about it.”

That sunup-to-sundown focus paid off. Within a few years, Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. had attracted the attention of New York chefs and specialty food shops, and in 1989 Hooper and Reese moved into their own cheesemaking plant in Websterville, Vt. Today, their staff numbers 29, and their 2008 sales figures totaled $10 million — figures that, despite the economic downturn, have continued to climb this year, Hooper says. Their cheeses have won dozens of awards from the American Cheese Society, and their entire product line won top honors at the 2008 New York Fancy Food Show.

Hooper´s butters and cheeses inspire audible sighs of pleasure in the food world. In her memoir “Cheese Chronicles,” Liz Thorpe, vice president of the well-known New York emporium Murray´s Cheese, singles out the company´s European-style cultured butters. Thorpe has a particular weakness for the version that comes “liberally sprinkled with coarse, briny sea salt, (which) is like dipping cool churned butter in the ocean.” Another Thorpe favorite: the aged bonne bouche goat cheese, whose complex flavor “recedes at the perfect moment, leaving a glaze of tangy ice cream and mown grass.”

Twenty-five years into the business, Hooper keeps making bigger and bigger things. In August, to celebrate their company´s silver anniversary, she and Reese organized the first Vermont Cheese Festival, which brought more than 50 artisan cheesemakers, dozens of well-known chefs and food writers, and thousands of foodies to Vermont´s historic Shelburne Farms. And this fall marks the publication of Hooper´s first cookbook, “In a Cheesemaker´s Kitchen” (The Countryman Press, $19.95), with recipes from luminaries like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin and Michel Richard of Citronelle.

“Now that we have a healthy balance sheet, we´re having fun,” Hooper says. “We´re getting out of the cheese plant and teaching people how to prepare and enjoy our products.”

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