Grilled cheese sandwich. Mac and cheese. Not what you would call haute cuisine? Au contraire, mon ami. Of course, Jason Sobocinski, owner of the New Haven fromagerie and bistro Caseus, wouldn’t put it that way.
Sobocinski’s approach to the art of food seems a genuine blend of sophistication and populism. He says that one of the major goals of his various endeavors — the restaurant, the Caseus cookbook published this year, “The Big Cheese” show on the Cooking Channel (he is now in discussions about a second season), and particularly the Cheese Truck that parks on New Haven streets and offers Caseus-style food at bargain prices — is to make the novice diner or cheese consumer feel comfortable trying something different.
One of the best ways to put the novice at ease, according to Sobocinski, “is to take a cheese they probably would never have had before and put it on something completely familiar and comfortable like grilled cheese, mac and cheese, hamburgers.” Everybody knows a hamburger, Sobocinski says, but “melt some Bleu D’Auvergne on it” and the familiar — granted, Caseus uses high-quality grass-fed beef — becomes sublime. As for the bistro’s grilled cheese sandwiches, the mix of cheeses can be different from day to day – and we’re not talking slices of Velveeta here.
“We grab cheeses from the cheese shop. If there’s less than a quarter pound there, it gets ground up and put in the mix,” Sobocinski says. “I don’t know what’s going to be in there. I can tell you it’s going to be good.”
Caseus’ menu offers meals that are earthy, flavorful, and smart. When possible, the restaurant sources its ingredients locally. While Sobocinski has a hand in planning the specials, he isn’t hands-on in the kitchen as he was when the restaurant first opened at the beginning of 2008. (In 2011, Sobocinski and his brother Tom also became consulting partners in Park Central Tavern in Hamden, refining the menu there.)
Sobocinski learned the “academics of food” while earning a master’s degree in gastronomy in a Boston University program started by Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. He notes that he hasn’t been trained as a chef, saying, “I don’t have the amount of knowledge of technique that a lot of chefs know.”
“I love to learn about a particular ingredient, how that ingredient was used in a culture, and recreate that. It’s almost like reliving the past and experiencing something that other people from other places experienced. How more can you connect with a person than by your food choices? It is the most visceral experience we all have and it is one we all have. We all make food choices, no matter what,” says Sobocinski. “When you start delving into that, products like cheese, beer, wine, and bread — I say this a million times — but all those products came about because of fermentation. That discovery of fermentation — it’s bigger than cell phones! Fermentation allowed us to preserve food in ways we never could have done before. And to get drunk!”
Is his approach to food an art or craft? It may be semantics but it’s a discussion Sobocinski has had on occasion — with no definitive conclusion — with an artist friend, painter Max Toth. In his master’s program at Boston University, Sobocinski took a course on “food and film,” which involved watching and dissecting not only such foodie classics as Babette’s Feast, but also the historical drama The Girl with a Pearl Earring, adapted from a novel inspired by a painting by Johannes Vermeer.
“There was a scene where (Vermeer) takes 20 minutes mixing his paints,” recalls Sobocinski. “It looks like he’s cooking, mixing his different pigments and colors together to get what he wants. A couple of times he’s tasting them, looking at them in the light.”
“As far as aesthetics go with food, I don’t like things to be too (fussy) — I like chaos on a plate. I don’t want to take a chicken, cut it in a billion pieces, stack it on top of itself with a stick through it,” says Sobocinski.
The “stacking” is what goes into the preparation — the chicken is organic, free range, and marinated for two days in Berkshire Brewing Company’s Pale Ale.
“When we’ve roasted it and flash-fired it for that crispy skin, shucked a bunch of fresh peas, and thrown some fresh chevre and chilies in there — that’s the fancy part. When it hits the plate it should look like it just fell onto it and is ready to eat,” says Sobocinski.
“I like ingredients to really shine through in foods. My rule is ‘no foam, no squiggles.’ Be true to the ingredients. Every cheese has a story. That’s our credo,” declares Sobocinski. “Every ingredient has a story. Our philosophy is to tell that story.
“If we took a beautiful Parmigiano-Reggiano and turned it into a foam, how can you tell its story? It’s not really what it was meant to be. Some artisan labored over making sure the cow ate the right grasses and was milked the right way and that the milk was taken care of and coagulated in a particular style and formed into a wheel and brined and then somebody else aged it. If we take that now and (mess) with it, you’re not really respecting that ingredient or the people who put heart and soul into it,” argues Sobocinski.
“I’ve made cheese. It’s hard, hard work. You have to wake up at four o’clock in the morning every day — it doesn’t matter if you have the flu, it doesn’t matter if it’s cold out — and you have to go milk your animals, you have to clean out the vats,” Sobocinski says.
Sobocinski’s relationship to the ingredients he chooses for his meals mirrors the relationship so many artists have with their materials. He is especially captivated by their particularity — the intersection between place and taste.
“The French call it ‘terroir.” I have a love-hate relationship with that word, because it’s a bombastic, snooty word just because it’s French,” says Sobocinski with flippant irreverence. “But it encompasses so many wonderful things — it’s the flavor of the land, the environment, the rainfall and humidity and sunlight. It’s more used for grapes and wine than anything else, but it should be used for everything.”
What is true for wine, Sobocinski says, is true also for cheese.
“You can make the exact same recipe, but that milk makes all the difference. We’re so used to milk just being milk, because it’s all pasteurized that we forget there are hundreds of different varieties of cows and what they’re eating is going to affect what the milk tastes like,” he explains. “And that is amplified when it’s coagulated and concentrated into cheese.”
Food has always been important in Sobocinski’s family, both as a source of sustaining ritual and as a livelihood. He points to an old photograph on the wall at Caseus depicting his great-grandfather and great uncle in their store on Wooster Street, Cavaliere’s, an Italian specialty shop. They imported goods from Italy like cheeses and ground their own sausages on the premises. His maternal grandmother would come over on Friday nights and cook up a big dinner. His parents were vegetarians and Sobocinski was raised trying lots of different, albeit meat-less, foods.
But he got a taste of something different at a friend’s house when he was 12: beef stew. His reaction? “Oh, I like this!”
Sobocinski’s parents took his conversion from herbivore to omnivore in stride. While they remained vegetarians, they would have the occasional “meat night at the Sobos,” for which his mother would cook up a batch of Italian meatballs for Jason and his brother Tom.
“She would soak bread in water — big chunks of bread — and make the ball and hate to touch the meat,” Sobocinski recalls.
He always loved to cook, Sobocinski says, and worked in restaurants in high school and college. He was reluctant to get into the food business, however, fearing it would ruin “an enjoyable hobby, a passion.” But he couldn’t escape it. He tried. Sobocinski moved to Miami after college and worked in sports promotion, but, as he says, “It just wasn’t my gig. The thing I looked forward to was getting a whole mahi-mahi and making a bunch of fresh mangoes over mahi-mahi for my friends.”
Returning to live in New Haven, Sobocinski made a fortuitous foray to Chestnut Fine Foods in search of a birthday cake for his mother. He ended up working in the gourmet food shop and catering business for almost four years and “learned a ton from them.”
Sobocinski served his cheesemonger apprenticeship at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge while studying for his master’s at Boston University. Starting as an assistant baker, he eventually worked in the cheese shop full-time and also took over the restaurant’s Saturday barbecues, scoring a “Best of Boston” accolade while he was there.
“I love barbecue. It’s one of those great, slow processes, similar to fermentation of milk, barley, grapes, and wheat. Barbecue transforms food. I love how you can take something that’s not really prized and sort of inedible — what used to be cheap and now has become really expensive — and put time and effort and calculation into it and transform it into this unbelievably satisfying and succulent meal,” he says.
“When you walk into a cheese shop — and I saw it when people walked into Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge and I experienced it the first time I went to Formaggio Kitchen, too — it’s so intimidating,” acknowledges Sobocinski. “The smell is awful, they look intimidatingly weird, their names are unpronounceable, and then you scroll down to the bottom right hand corner of the sign and you see $28 a pound, $30 a pound, and you’re thinking, ‘(OMG), they’ve got to be out of their minds!’ But then a really cool, unintimidating cheesemonger comes up to you and says, ‘Would you like to try a taste?’ And you’re like, ‘Ah, alright.’ And that’s the philosophy of Caseus.”
Part of the comfort factor for Sobocinski is keeping the fun in it, the informality.
“If it’s not fun, if it becomes bourgie and overly sophisticated, it’s stupid,” he says. “The people who make these cheeses are farmers. They’re the most simple, basic salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They love a good, cold beer — they’re not drinking a $300 bottle of wine. They don’t have their noses in the air.”
The Cheese Truck, Sobocinski says, is a “PR machine,” a way to “get the word out” by taking it to the streets. The truck sets up on downtown street corners, announcing its location for the day on the Cheese Truck Twitter feed (twitter.com/caseusgrilled). And with its significantly lower overhead, it is also a way to offer such signature Caseus dishes as grilled cheese and mac and cheese to the public at a bargain. In early July, some of the daily specials included “Spiced Sour Cherry Spread and Drunken Goat” and “Buffalo Chicken with Form D’ambert Blue.”
Sobocinski is reluctant to be pinned down as to what his favorite cheese is. But more often than not he will choose Comte, a versatile French cheese from the Jura Mountains, which intersect France and Switzerland. True to Caseus’ credo, this cheese has a story or two.
Sobocinski says many of the stories are “oral legends taught to me by cheese mentors as we’re eating and ingesting. I believe these stories enhance the flavors — that is the true ‘educating of one’s palate.’”
He likens it to the experience of going to an art museum by oneself versus viewing the artwork with an educated guide.
“When I go with my artist friend and he tells me the history or the story of the artist, I can appreciate (a work) so much more,” he says. “It’s the same with food.”
According to Sobocinski, Comte is made exactly the same as Gruyere. But where Gruyere comes from the Swiss side of the Jura range, Comte comes from the French. And that difference of regional locale registers on the palate.
“For me, Comte is sweeter and more onion-y and Gruyere more shellfish and broccoli,” says Sobocinski. “And there’s a reason for that. When the Jura Mountains were created, at some point Africa slammed up against Europe, dislodged itself and crumpled, and a great jellyroll occurred — that’s the Jura Mountains. On the Swiss side you have a completely different terroir — the soil composition is thought to have more shellfish deposits from ancient seas. (On the French side) you have newer soil that grows sweeter grass. That blows my mind. It’s so cool and I love that story.”
Visit Caseus online at caseusnewhaven.com.