By JOHN DeMERS
Chef Jason Robinson is resigned to the idea of having a cheesy restaurant.
In fact, he’s working hard to make it more so every single day.
“The less cans we open the better,” says Robinson, who grows most of the vegetables he serves at the Inn at Dos Brisas and who, over the past six months, has worked with a manager schooled in chemistry from making wine in Napa to put out a cheese selection that’s second to none. “Everything we do here is from scratch, and everything we do here is unique.”
The duo, Robinson and restaurant manager Cameron Karger, have a lot on their side in this quest. For one thing, the chef spent a lot of his early career in the Midwest, where dairy plays a larger part in local cuisine than it does in the land of chili and barbecue. For another, they work at Dos Brisas, a 311-acre luxury resort only a milk bucket’s throw from Brenham’s own Blue Bell, the “little creamery” that now sells its ice cream in 17 states.
Robinson and Karger have clearly found, in the arcane formulas and techniques of French, Italian and American cheesemaking, the perfect complement to growing produce in a series of gardens, orchards and greenhouses strewn about the green, hilly equestrian landscape near Washington, where the Texas Republic’s original independence movement was born.
“Everything in the cheesemaking process is very crucial and very specific,” says Karger, glancing at his chef for emphasis. “When you start, you’re working with different milk products, whether from cow or goat, with different fat contents and very different flavors.” He gives the big picture a moment’s thought. “We like to maintain a certain purity here. We control our vegetables by growing them in our garden, and we wanted to do the same thing with our cheeses.”
The Dos Brisas cheesemaking program began more than two years ago, kicking into higher gear with each new enthusiasm Karger brought to the task. The enthusiasm got so contagious, offers Robinson, that he just had to get in on the fun.
No fewer than seven cheeses turned up on an afternoon visit this week. There was a bleu made in the style of Explorator, resembling a triple-cream Brie on the inside but sprayed with the mold on the outside. Also in the French tradition, there was a lush, hyper-intense cheese resembling a well-aged Camembert or Epoisses from Burgundy’s Cote-d’Or – this one named “Pepe Le Pew” after the French-accented skunk of Warner Bros. cartoon fame – plus something the chef calls Cream Puff, with definite St. Andre tendencies.
Other selections included a young gouda smoked (three times, two hours each) with local pecan wood, a Muenster (named “Eddie” after that kid on The Munsters), a “Brazos Parm” in the grana style of northern Italy, and another hard cheese with a line of vegetable ash running down the middle.
In all, the resort has nearly four acres of garden near the front entrance on the country road from Chappell Hill to Washington, growing corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, plus (in the shade) tomatoes. There’s another full acre near the inn, from which the chef gets eggplant, squash, beets, radishes, onions and garlic. The resort’s half-acre herb garden supplies, at various times of year, 10-15 fresh herbs, while a greenhouse works for tomatoes in winter, micro greens and a bit of citrus (lemons and limes, with tangerines on the way).
The two cheese guys of Dos Brisas love to make batches no larger than four gallons of milk, each gallon turning out about a pound of finished cheese. The highly technical process that turns the former into the latter is one Karger craves and records painstakingly, dairy’s own answer to Thomas Jefferson – every bit as much as the chef wonders aloud at all the extra effort.
“I cook for a living,” Robinson says. “I experiment a lot more. I play around a lot more. Cameron is more scientific – and a whole lot more patient.”