In fact, Kite Hill's dairy-free "cheeses" taste so authentic, Whole Foods Markets actually sells them alongside its real deal Parmesans and cheddars.
The cheeses are the work of celebrity vegan chef Tal Ronnen, until now better known for orchestrating Oprah Winfrey's 21-day meat- and dairy-free cleanse as well as catering Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi's vegan wedding.
The inspiration to pursue high-end vegan cheeses came four years ago while he helping hotel magnate Steve Wynn develop vegan menus for his Las Vegas properties. "I remember bringing in some vegan cheeses and one of the chefs literally spit it out and it was such a turning point for me," Ronnen said during a recent telephone interview.
He vowed to never again use a product just because it was vegan. And thus was born Kite Hill, a Hayward, California-based company Ronnen set up with a team of co-founders, including biochemist Pat Brown and Monte Casino, a former instructor in cheese making at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
Their mission was clear — to create cheeses loved equally by vegans and carnivores, cheeses that could be served alone on a cracker instead of hidden in a casserole like most of the gummy processed faux cheeses required.
Most importantly, they wanted a cheese that was made using the same process as real dairy cheeses — pasteurized, cultured and coagulated.
Getting there took three years. Their medium was nut milks, but finding the right one was their first challenge. They gave up on cashews because there wasn't enough protein to form a curd. For a while, a blend of almond and macadamia milks seemed promising, but in the end they settled on straight up almond milk.
Finding the right enzyme — the ingredient that coagulates dairy proteins to create the curds that eventually form cheese — also was a challenge. The usual dairy-friendly suspects — rennet and calcium chloride — didn't work.
But once they found the right combination of ingredients, they didn't just work, they worked splendidly. "It was the same ingredients as cheese: milk, enzymes, cultures. There's no starches or gums or flavours. It was made the way cheese had always been made," said Ronnen, also chef and owner of Crossroads restaurant in Los Angeles.
Tasting those early efforts was inspiring, Ronnen said. "It was the first time I'd tasted that cultured flavour in a really long time. Creamy enough but firm enough that you can cut it. It was a really great moment."
Kite Hill eventually signed an exclusive deal with Whole Foods and brought a handful of soft fresh cheeses (priced between $6 and $11) to market last year. There is a soft, ripened brie with a rind that's dead on; two fresh goat milk-style cheeses, including one with truffles and dill; a couple of cream cheeses and a ricotta. They're also venturing into prepared foods with two ricotta raviolis — mushroom and spinach.
Casino also has experimented with a blue cheese and a feta aged in brine. But the ultimate goal? A tangy, aged Parmesan and a pulled fresh mozzarella.
"The main goal is to evolve from a soft, fresh category to a very hard category and everything in between," said Casino.
The making of the cheeses looks a bit like a science experiment in Kite Hill's 27,000-square-foot facility, filled with PH testers and aging rooms custom built in France. Which is to say, it looks like a professional cheese facility. Each variety of cheese has its own temperature controlled room for the precise steam injections and moisture. Some of the cheeses take 20 days to age, but they emerge like fluffy little clouds, ready to be pressed by hand.
"You couldn't open up a book, there were no rules, no guidelines," Casino said. "Learning how to do this thing was very close to impossible."
But getting it right clearly paid off. Whole Foods sells hundreds of cheeses, but before Kite Hill never had allowed a vegan product to be sold alongside its dairy options. Whole Foods doesn't share sales figures, but Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer for Whole Foods, said the product continues to set growth records for vegan cheeses. It even is selling well compared to dairy cheeses.
Most of the faux cheeses on the market were "either a lot of whipped products with oil or it was blended products made it into a consistency that maybe added a few flavours, maybe some cultures thrown in to give it some remote resemblance to cheese," she said. "You couldn't have anything that's a stand-alone or use it in an ingredient for recipes."