Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Last summer, you might have come across a guy with a folding table and platefuls of cheeses set up outside The Root’s front door some sunny Saturday. That guy was Kent Walker, and those cheeses are the culmination of a mid-level computer science career, a summer in an Oregon winery and a bad economy.
For Walker, it started as a hobby. An Arkansas native and UALR grad, he left a Denver, Colo., job designing websites for Lockheed Martin to marry a Little Rock girl. High tech jobs were hard to come buy, so he picked up a handful of foodie jobs — a natural fit, since his parents have always been in the food business. One of those jobs was helping with summer harvest at Montinore, a winery near Portland, where he met an amateur cheese-maker who showed him the basics. That was four years ago.
Back in Little Rock, Walker began making cheeses in his home kitchen, trying all sorts of milk, cultures and processes to discover the varieties he liked best. He made his first press out of Cool Whip tubs and aged the cheeses in his vegetable crisper for two to eight months. And he got back into the computer science business.
“I was working with a friend, handling his business accounts, and he decided to get out of it. The accounts were mine if I wanted them. That’s when I realized that I’d be essentially starting my own business,” Walker said. “So I decided if I was going to start my own business, why not do something I’m passionate about?”
He passed on the accounts and drafted a business plan. Soon he had found a handful of distributors to carry his cheeses. In the summer of 2011, Kent Walker Artisan Cheeses was born. And his home kitchen was too small to contain it. “One gallon of milk makes one pound of cheese,” Walker said. “At this point, I’m making about 110 pounds of cheese a week.”
He moved his operations to the empty industrial kitchen at the Cathedral School at Trinity Episcopal, spawning a new life for the kitchen as a community kitchen incubator. “They were looking for someone to use the space,” Walker said. “So they just donated it to me. Other people heard and asked to use it when I wasn’t using it, and now it’s become a community incubator, where small businesses can rent it for a day fee.”
He built a traditional Dutch press and replicated French cave conditions (52 degrees, high humidity) in two huge refrigerators, so that his cheeses could age somewhere other than the family vegetable crisper. And he began to focus on a few key cheeses — a habanero Cheddar, a feta, a Leicester, a garlic Montasio and a goat cheese gouda.
Walker gets his ingredients from local farms. The goats' milk comes from Bluff Top farm in Dover, and the cows' milk comes from Little Rock's Coleman Dairy. In the tradition of great cheeses, his feta is called Bluff Top Feta — named after the region where it was developed, much like Cheddar comes from Cheddar, England, and Brie comes from Brie, France.
“You can make any cheese from any milk. It’s the cultures and the processes of cooking and aging that distinguish one type of cheese from the next,” said Walker. “Some cheese is traditionally made from certain milks, like Pecorino is made from sheeps’ milk, but you can replicate the flavor with cow or goats' milk. And that’s how you get regional variances, because there aren’t a lot of sheep in Arkansas.”
But there is a lot of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese in Arkansas, and that figure is steadily rising. Currently, Walker’s cheeses are used by The Root, Ferneau and Salut Bistro, and they can be purchased from The Green Corner Store, Hillcrest Artisan Meats, Little Rock Athletic Club, Argenta Market and Boulevard Bread Co. (Heights location).
Walker’s also offering a three-day cheese-making workshop June 1-3, in conjunction with Vermont’s Three Shepherds Cheese classes. The workshop will be held in the Cathedral School kitchen, and will cover all the home cheese-making basics. (For more info, check out the Kent Walker Artisan Cheese facebook page.)