Valley Shepherd's home base in Morris County, N.J., is one of the few so-called farmstead cheese operations in the country. Owner Eran Wajswol, an engineer and high-rise developer who carved his own cheese cave into a hillside to get the proper temperature and humidity, explains the uncompromising premise: "Any screw-up, there's nobody else to blame - from the minute the animal is born, is fed, raised, and milked till the day the customer gets that half a pound of cheese."
Valley Shepherd makes 25 cheeses, yogurt, and drinking yogurt, selling them at its farm in Long Valley, N.J., at its shop in Brooklyn, and at 26 farmer's markets in the New York metro area. Since Wajswol does not think cow's milk travels well, at Reading Terminal he uses raw milk from two local farms; the rest of the milk comes from the 600 sheep and 100 goats that gambol about the farm he owns with his wife, Debra Van Sickle.
Valley Shepherd will start production here with four cheeses: a clothbound Cheddar-style called Reading or Not; a strong Stiltonlike cheese called Blue Me Away; a simple farmer's cheese called Phresh; and a mozzarella called MozzaRTM (say it "mozar-tee-em").
Besides the sandwich counter (dubbed MeltKraft and overseen by Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Rebecca Foxman), Wajswol also plans cheese classes where the public can not only learn about cheese but make their own and age it in Valley Shepherd's "cave" under Reading Terminal. Zeke Ferguson, previously a manager at Di Bruno Bros.' Italian Market store, runs the cheese counter.
Wajswol, who spent his childhood shuttling between Belgium and Israel before moving to the States at age 13 and achieving an engineering degree, had long wanted to go the agricultural route. Fifteen years ago, he began trying his hand at it.
"I build high-rises and make good money, but you end up being very removed from the consumer," Wajswol said. Had he chosen to be an artisan cheesemaker - buying milk from others - "your artisanship is completely lost. You might as well be on Wall Street, where the object is money. Here the object is a great, great cheese. The money is secondary to us. . . . That's the other difference between us and cheesemongers. They worry about margins. Businesswise, I don't think it's the wisest way to operate.
"To be a farmer today, unfortunately you are at the mercy of commodities," he said. "Coming from the financial/real estate world, the last thing I was going to do was jump into another commodity world. It had to be an artisan craft. The problem with cheese is you can easily get sucked into the distribution network and then be back in the commodity business."
He sells everything directly to the customer. "I don't have a distributor buying a hundred pounds and putting it into his warehouse and shipping it to a store and saying, 'This looks like [expletive],' " he said.
At 56, working 18-hour days, and living in TriBeCa, New Jersey, and Florida, he wonders how much longer he can or will keep at it. His children succeeding him? Not a chance.
"They're going to school to be a doctor and lawyer," he said. "They're laughing at me."
The menu for MeltKraft, the sandwich counter, is here (PDF).
Contact Michael Klein at firstname.lastname@example.org.