The Big Cheese himself: Caseus owner launches Cooking Channel series

Sobocinski's macaroni and cheese recipe calls for at least six different cheeses.

Jason Sobocinski's face lights up when he talks about it. He can't wipe the smile off his face while describing the rich, incredibly varied flavors, the textures, the shapes, the alluring history.

Besides his wife and infant son, it's the love of his life, the passion that drives this successful young entrepreneur.

In a word, it's cheese.

Sobocinski is the owner of Caseus in New Haven, which sells more than 100 professionally aged artisan cheeses and other gourmet goods in its retail space and serves critically-acclaimed, cheese-starring lunches and dinners in its intimate bistro. He's just published "Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook" featuring recipes from his gastro pub, and is launching "The Big Cheese," a series premiering Nov. 3 on the Cooking Channel.

Sobocinski learned from some fellow restaurateurs that the Food Network was looking for cheese professionals for a new show-in response to the fact that the U.S. can now claim to be the world's biggest cheese producer with more than 350 high quality, award-winning cheeses.

"They asked me to come do a little cheese spiel," Sobocinski says. "I came in with a cooler full of cheese and beer.

"I think what they liked about me was I kept it really fun," he says. "I don't like to be so serious. It's food, it's fun."

Along with producer/director Stephen Crisman and cameraman Gordy Waterman, Sobocinski spent just under a year touring the nation's top cheesemaking operations and cooking alongside celebrated local chefs to film the first six episodes.

"We collaborated to create the format of the show-and even lack of format," Sobocinski says. "I met a lot of the people that I'd been ordering cheese from on the phone. How cool is that? I learned a lot about where the cheese comes from and the people working their (tails) off to produce the cheese."

A New Haven native, who now lives in Hamden, Sobocinski hails from a long line of Italian food merchants and a food-loving family. After graduating from Providence College, he earned his master's degree in gastronomy at Boston University. Before opening Caseus three years ago, he trained at the renowned Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge.

Sobocinski dislikes being called a cheese expert, a cheese gastronome-even though he knows more about the delectable edible than most mortals. He prefers to call himself a cheese enthusiast.

He also dislikes the snobbery around cheese, the intimidation factor-and wants to make cheese consumption a fun, fantastic experience for both his patrons-he offers classes, seminars, and tastings-and for the viewers of his new show.

The concept of "The Big Cheese," he says, is to "entertain people with cheese-introduce someone who doesn't know anything about cheese to something different."

"I love cooking with cheese, too," he adds, "and breaking down some of the bourgeoisie stigma of cheese. People are apprehensive about (artisan) cheese because it's expensive. But used in small doses, it really lifts a dish up, makes it extraordinary."

Sobocinski had "clearance" to offer a sneak preview of the first four episodes.

In the first episode, "Mac and Cheese" (Nov. 3), he dresses up as Professor Mac Cheese and gives a little history lesson on the roots of the American classic, while cooking the popular version for which Caseus is known. He travels the country sampling everything from mac-and-cheese pancakes to an ultra-cheesy macaroni pizza, which he says is surprisingly delicious.

Episode Two (Nov. 10), "Homecoming," takes Sobocinski back to his educational roots.

"It's a homecoming for me, going back to where I learned it all," he says.

He visits his mentor, Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen, travels to Vermont, where, while interning at Twig Farm, he learned about rearing goats and making cheese. Viewers will vicariously enjoy a goat barbeque, and Turkish pizza cooked by Cambridge chef, Steve Johnson.

Sobocinski returns to his roots once again-this time familial-in the third episode, "Italiano" (Nov. 17). He explores why Italian cheeses are so popular in the U.S. He finds the finest milk to make mozzarella in Wisconsin; is shown the secret of a terrific tiramisu in Vermont; and goes from farm to table in California to uncover unparalled ricotta cheese, sheep's milk yogurt, and fromage blanc.

The fourth episode, on Thanksgiving night, informs viewers about sheep cheeses, which are relatively uncommon in the U.S., despite their thousands year old history.

"People don't even realize you can milk a sheep," Sobocinski notes.

He "milks, curdles, and cooks" his way from upstate New York, to Vermont, to his home kitchen in Hamden, aiming to educate the nation about the sensational flavors of sheep cheese.

Sobocinski points out that Connecticut is no amateur when it comes to cheesemaking. In fact, the three producers he gets Caseus's cheeses from are all in New London County: Beltane Farm in Lebanon (goat); Cato Corner Farms in Colchester (cow); and Beaver Brook Farm in Old Lyme (sheep). He also gets fresh mozzarella from Calabro Cheese Corp. in East Haven.

In the end, Sobocinski says his love affair with cheese comes down to its story.

"It has a story and I love telling a story," he says. "I just love cheese-tasting it, thinking about it, talking about it, sharing it. Eating alone is sacrilege."

"The Big Cheese" can be viewed on the Cooking Channel on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. "Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook" by Jason Sabocinski (Lyons Press, Guilford) is $24.95, hardover. Caseus is located at 93 Whitney Ave., New Haven. Call (203) 624-3373 or visit www.caseusnewhaven.com for more info. Reservations are strongly recommended as the bistro is booking two to three weeks in advance.

Jason Sobocinski is pictured with Reading Raclette cheese at the top of the world’s biggest fire pit at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vt.
Jason Sobocinski is pictured with Reading Raclette cheese at the top of the world’s biggest fire pit at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, Vt.

THE MAC 'N' CHEESE

Recipe by Jason Sobocinski; "Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook."

Feeds: 6 to 10 people

1 pound orecchiette pasta

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 small loaf brioche or other enriched bread

1/3 cup unsalted butter

1/3 cup flour

1/4 pound chevre

2/3 pound extra-sharp Vermont cheddar

2/3 pound 2-year-aged Gouda

2/3 pound 12-month-aged Comte

2/3 pound Raclette, French or Swiss will do

1/4 pound provolone

Any bits, ends, or leftover nubs of cheese you have kicking around in your fridge

1 quart milk

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add a good handful of salt to water. Boil orecchiette until slightly undercooked, just before al dente stage. Drain. Toss cooked pasta in a bowl with olive oil and set aside.

Slice brioche thin and place on a cooking sheet. Toast in oven for 20 minutes or until dry but not overly brown. Remove, let cool, and crumble into small pieces. This will yield more bread crumbs than you need, but making them from scratch makes all the difference.

Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Melt butter in small pan. Whisk in flour until completely incorporated (no lumps). This is called a roux.

Crumble chevre into small pieces and grate all the other cheese.

In a small sauce pot, bring milk to boil, stirring occasionally. Add the roux, whisking constantly, until mixture returns to boil. The mixture will thicken. Turn off heat. You now have a bechamel sauce.

Add three-quarters of the cheese, whisking until melted and incorporated. Add nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add sauce to cooked pasta and toss to coat. Place in ovenproof dish, top with remaining cheese, and bake for 25 minutes or until bubbling hot.

Top with bread crumbs and continue to bake for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from oven when dish becomes very oozy, bubbly, and GBD-golden brown and delicious.

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