The old cheese plant across from the high school had a distinctive, shall we say, aroma. “It stunk,” says Mike Matucheski, who passed it every day as a boy growing up in Antigo, Wisconsin. He never dreamed he would find himself working there one day.
“Making cheese for a living was nothing anyone would encourage you to do back then,” says the ’81 History grad, who remembers his grandparents and family friends making simple cheeses in their farm kitchens. “It was hard work and didn’t seem to get you anywhere.”
More than 40 years later, Matucheski is one of two master artisanal cheesemakers at the plant, now owned by Sartori Cheese Company. He has an apprentice, Erin Radtke, shadowing him to learn his craft. And in 2017, his Black Pepper BellaVitano won best cheese in the 2017 World Championship Cheese Contest, an annual competition that drew more than 3,400 entries from around the planet. And this is just the latest of Matucheski’s award-winning Wisconsin original cheeses to be recognized.
How did a boy who dreamed of “getting away” — who was the first in his family to go to college — find his calling as a world-champion cheesemaker a scant 10 miles from the small town in northern Wisconsin where he grew up?
A spirit of adventure took him out in the world. Matucheski remembers how a vista of opportunities opened up at UW-Madison. “I was interested in archaeology, anthropology, journalism, and then decided to be a history major,” he says. “I studied abroad junior year. I had no fear, I liked to explore.”
But family brought him home. Matucheski’s grandparents needed help on the farm. So he came back to Antigo, and started experimenting.
I value my history background. I find it’s really important to know where you’ve been — otherwise, you get lost.
“I grew organic herbs. I got seriously into home brewing. And I helped my grandma make her soft cheese,” he recalls.
Eventually he was making cheese for a living — hired at the old plant (which had been bought by Kraft) and getting trained to make Parmesan, Asiago and Romano. He was surprised when his grandma expressed pride. Her father, it turned out, had been a trained cheesemaker. Was it destiny?
Some might say yes. Employees bought the plant in the mid-1990s turning it into Antigo Cheese, and eventually selling it to Sartori in 2006. Though not a small company, Sartori prizes the artisanal approach to cheese making, with every piece created as though it were “a gift,” according to Matucheski. He found it a perfect fit.
“I take such joy in my work,” he says. “It’s the creative part. I seem to approach cheesemaking the same way that artists approach drawing and painting. I can visualize it and say, ‘how do I want to get there?’ I know enough science to pick up the right cultures, and follow a process, but my flexibility is key. Sometimes things don’t go well. Sometimes they turn out better than anyone expected.”
The 2017 winning cheese, a warm gold speckled with black, is about as far as you can get from the mass-produced products made at the old facility back in the 1970s, when Matucheski and other kids pinched their noses as they passed by. The place is different — and yet familiar.
For a history major, this makes sense.
“I value my history background,” says Matucheski. “I find it’s really important to know where you’ve been — otherwise, you get lost.”