45 Minutes From Udder to Vat
Pick one thing and do it right. That mantra guided cheesemaker Willy Bridgham and the founders of Four Fat Fowl to focus exclusively on making St. Stephen as they established their artisan creamery in Stephentown, New York. With a whopping 75% butterfat, this luscious triple cream exudes a salty-sweet balance that’s turning heads in the cheese world. Not bad for a guy who spent 15 years as a race car mechanic before landing positions at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company and Coach Farm.
Four Fat Fowl opened in 2013. Willy, his wife, Shaleena Bridgham, and his sister, Josie Madison, had spent years dreaming of running a business together, and cheesemaking ended up the most viable option based on their collective experience and interests. Shaleena handles sales and marketing and Josie manages operations, finances and human resources. As in any small enterprise, roles morph as needed, which explains why the business manager is also the chief cheese wrapper!
Four Fat Fowl is clearly a family affair, though some were slower to embrace the concept. “My nine-year-old son thought we were a little crazy at first,” Willy says. “‘Dad, that’s a weird job. None of my other friends’ parents make cheese.’ But then at his science fair, we made fresh ricotta. Within minutes, everyone in the room was at our table. Suddenly my job didn’t seem so dorky.”
Willy’s experience in cheesemaking and machinery proved essen- tial as they got the creamery up and running. They rented an old pizza joint at the junction of Routes 22 and 43 in Stephentown across from the Cumberland Farms, and Willy spent six months getting the interior up to code for cheese production.
In the meantime, he and his sister were also perfecting the recipe of what would become their signature cheese ... in his grandmother’s kitchen in Albany. “I was making small runs, 10-gallon batches,” Willy says, “so I could hover over 10 pieces of cheese. They were sort of like my children at that point.”
“What distinguishes our cheese is the absolute freshness of the milk,” Willy explains. “We use Jersey milk with 5% fat from Dutch Hollow Farm in Stuyvesant. We’re really lucky to have one of the best Jersey farms in the country right here. Every morning we make cheese, I head over to the farm and pick up milk that’s 45 minutes old, and it goes right into my vat, still warm. You can’t get any fresher than that.”
“The scariest day came when I shifted from small batches in my grandmother’s kitchen to a 50-gallon run here in our own processing room. We had done plenty of testing but it had been three years since we made a full run batch of cheese. Cheese is like a kid: It does what it wants on its own sweet time. You can’t force or rush it.” The results surpassed expectations, orders started roaring in, and the cheese world had a new darling.
However, “that first year was hellacious,” Shaleena recounts. “We had no employees, just the three of us. It was pretty grueling. We were all grasping, trying to get this business off the ground. We even pulled our friends and relatives in on the weekends to help wrap cheese!” One of those emergency wrappers, Jennifer Leggett, is now the creamery manager, hired in June 2015.
Fortunately, Shaleena works for InterSource, a national distributor of specialty cheese, and Willy was confident she could sell any cheese they made. “Shaleena was hitting places I only dreamed of, such as Murray’s Cheese Shop and the Four Seasons in New York.”
Murray's affineur eventually requested a few pieces to age into a washed-rind cheese. He experimented with several different washes and decided on a raw wort from Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn. Willy now ships the cheese fresh at a few days old, when they’re just out of the brine and firm enough to be boxed. The affineur washes the rind in the beer and ages the cheese. The Other Stephen, a cave master reserve cheese, is labeled as a Murray’s product made in conjunction with Four Fat Fowl. The Other Stephen won third place in the flavored soft ripened cheese category at the World Cheese Championship in March 2016, a significant accomplishment.
Like most entrepreneurs, the Four Fat Fowl team took a circuitous route to making cheese. Willy grew up outside of Albany in Nassau and spent 15 years as a race car mechanic. Along the way, he completed the culinary program at Schenectady Community College in the mid-1990s. In 2001, he was hired by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company to work in sales with his future wife, Shaleena.
However, as much as Willy loved sales, he always gravitated to the creamery. “I couldn’t stay away. They’d be shorthanded and need someone to ladle cheese. Or somebody asked me to look at the yogurt machine, which was breaking all the time. My mechanical background allowed me to run this machine that nobody else wanted to deal with. So I was a salesman who started operating the yogurt machine, or diagnosing problems with the cheese. Eventually the boss asked if I wanted to move full time to the production end rather than sales.”
Willy shifted into yogurt production and learned everything he could about dairy from Walter Bauer and Bill Deweese. “Those guys were masters of cheese and yogurt. I clung to them like glue because they did everything right.” Willy also studied at the Vermont Institute of Artisanal Cheese and took cheese science classes at Cornell. He refers to Paul Kindstedt’s American Farmstead Cheese as his bible. “Basically, I learned by tasting and traveling and soaking up whatever knowledge I could glean from other cheese geniuses.”
In 2011, Shaleena moved into specialty cheese sales and marketing with InterSource while Willy transferred to Coach Farm, where he served as both operations and plant manager. “I guess knowing how to repair cantankerous yogurt machines is job security,” he quips. But again, he found himself jumping into the production end whenever he could. In the meantime, Willy, Shaleena and Josie were concocting their vision for what would become Four Fat Fowl. It seemed like a natural fit: Willy would be in charge of making extraordinary cheese, Shaleena would be in charge of selling it, and Josie would manage the business and fill in the gaps. In 2013, all signs pointed the trio to Stephentown, and that’s where they plan to remain.
“We weren’t married to Stephentown when we started, but we are now,” says Willy. “This valley is up and coming and we’re happy to be a part of it. Moving our whole theme to another town doesn’t make any sense. After all, our cheese is named for Stephen van Rensselaer, the patron saint of Stephentown.” Amen to that!
St. Stephen triple cream is available at Honest Weight Co-op, Cheese Traveler, Whole Foods in Albany, Healthy Living and Putnam Street Marketplace in Saratoga, Blueberry Hill Market in New Lebanon, Old Chatham Country Store and Hawthorne Valley Farm Store in Ghent.