CF Chef Evan Topel began his career at the American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, eventually becoming the sous chef at the resort’s Cucina Italian Restaurant.
“I then discovered I had a passion for cheese and began working on cheese carvings at retail events for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and developing recipes and consulting for a variety of cheese companies,” he says.
Today, he’s the corporate executive chef for Emmi Roth cheese. We recently talked with Topel about cooking with his (and let’s be real, with everybody’s) favorite ingredient.
What’s unique about cheese compared to other ingredients?
ET: Cheese is unique for a number of reasons, but the thing that really separates it from other ingredients is its versatility in flavor and functionality.
While the steps to make cheese are relatively standardized, slight variations in a recipe can lead to very different flavor profiles. Cheese has a real regionality to it and each cheesemaker brings his or her own expertise and eccentricity to the craft.
In terms of functionality, cheese can be used in just about every application on a menu. It can be used like a spice to finish a dish or to add texture. For instance, in a main dish, havarti can give something a creamy texture without actually using cream.
What are your favorite cheeses
to use? Why?
ET: I love traditional aged Wisconsin cheddars and some of Wisconsin’s farmstead cheeses, but in terms of really versatile cheeses, I like Roth Grand Cru or Emmi Le Gruyére AOP. Depending on the age of the cheese, the flavor profile varies. For example, Roth Grand Cru is aged for a minimum of four months. It has a bit of earthiness, and it browns really well, making it perfect for dishes like casseroles or anything you want to make cheesier. Le Gruyére AOP, on the other hand, is aged longer (up to nine months) so it crumbles, adding a lot of flavor with only a small application.
Any quick tips on pairing cheese with other foods or with beverages?
ET: My personal take on pairings is that it’s a lot of personal preference. Different regions also have different perceptions of what pairs well. For example, when I work with our team from Switzerland I like to pair Roth Grand Cru Reserve with coffee-infused dark chocolate and a glass of Madera for a mix of earthy richness, a hint of chocolatey bitterness, and a sweet finish.
That same pairing, however, doesn’t resonate as well with our team here in the U.S. Instead, they prefer something fruitier and more acidic like Roth Grand Cru Reserve with apricots and a glass of Sauvignon blanc. Regionality and personal preference really puts perspective on how pairings are developed.
What are some things that can surprise cooks when working with cheese?
ET: Cheese can separate and burn very quickly. It goes from not brown, to beautifully brown, to burnt in a matter of minutes.
Separating is something to watch for especially when making a sauce or a soup. Too much acid or too much water can quickly cause a cheese to separate and return to a mixture of curds and whey.
What surprises me most is how unfamiliar the general public is with cheese. Many times people don’t understand the terms we use to describe cheese (earthy, umami, etc.) and are intimidated by specific spices or flavors. Roth Horseradish Havarti is one example. I’ve had people be hesitant to even try it because of the horseradish, but then they fall in love with its creamy freshness once they do.
What should young chefs look for when selecting a cheese to use in a recipe? Is there anything they should stay away from?
ET: Selecting cheese really depends on how it is going to be used. Do you need it to be creamy and mild or dry, crumbly and full of flavor? I make a grilled herb salmon flatbread that features Roth Dill Havarti. I chose havarti because it’s buttery, creamy and melts well — similar to a savory cream cheese. Normally, however, we think of havarti in cold applications, like on a sandwich or in a wrap. In this case, its flavor and functionality under heat is really fantastic.
On the other hand, if you are looking to make a crispy cheesy crust you would want a cheese with less milk fat and more age, like an aged cheddar or Roth Grand Cru. Both are excellent in au gratin potatoes.
The only thing I would recommend young chefs be cautious of are where cheeses are produced. Food safety is extremely important so be mindful of where the product comes from, the type of milk used, and how long it has been aged.
Can you impart any lesser-known wisdom on cooking with cheese that you’ve learned over the years?
ET: The cheese curriculum is improving, but we don’t have a vast curriculum for it like we do for French cuisine or breaking down a pig or a lamb.
That said, it’s important to think of cheese as a versatile ingredient that can be used in any dish whether it’s your focus, a condiment or a seasoning.
Why do you think people love cheese so much?
ET: No two cheeses are the same. I think that variety in flavor and the fact that it can be used in so many ways really makes people love cheese. Whether you have a relatively young palate, or an experienced one, you can appreciate the texture and flavor that cheese adds to any dish.
Anything else you think culinary students should know?
ET: Be adventurous. There are so many types of cheese in the world and just because you like one Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t mean you won’t end up discovering a locally made hard cheese you like more. Stay open, educate yourself on the different varieties, and you’ll quickly see how incredibly unique they all are.