The big cheese: Mozzarella Co. owner Paula Lambert
The big cheese: Mozzarella Co. owner Paula Lambert
Peter Calvin

Her Whey

It's cold on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, but it's sunny. It's only a few days before the holiday season kicks in for real, before the busiest travel weekend chokes the freeways and confounds Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, before retailers grin and brace themselves for the certain onslaught of prosperity-induced holiday spending.

It's even colder inside the Mozzarella Co., where brisk sales of trendy gourmet products early in the entertaining and gift-giving season threaten the ability of the small staff of hands-on cheese makers to keep up with the demand. Last year, the 18-year-old Dallas company sold more than half a million pounds of fresh cheese at an average of $10 a pound. But it's not easy being cheesy, and the Sunday before Thanksgiving brings its own set of problems. "We normally deliver to the grocery stores on Thursday," owner Paula Lambert is saying as she sprints out of the cluttered office area into the warren of rooms that make up her Deep Ellum cheese factory. "So we're here on Sunday in order to get this cheese on its way a day early." Two men are sorting and packing plastic-sealed, palm-sized, creamy white balls of fresh mozzarella into Styrofoam coolers in the small distribution area. Lambert speeds past them, into the aging room, past dripping cheesecloth bags of goat cheese, bins of elevated bricks of draining mozzarella, and cups of soft, white ricotta. She checks the oscillating fans that keep the cool, moist air moving around the racks of curing cheese. The fans propel the smell around too: a keen, concentrated aroma with a slightly sour edge. Lambert stops for a second to take it in, as if she's seeing and smelling the handmade cheeses for the first time. "Cheese, glorious cheese," she says, smiling before another burst of scurrying. "That's my own expression."

It has to be cold inside her factory--milk and cheese, duh--but Lambert is hot. She's just rolled out her first blue cheese, tagged Deep Ellum Blue, in deference to the musical history of her neighborhood, she says. And she's briefly back in Dallas this Sunday right in the middle of a promotional tour for her first cookbook, The Cheese Lover's Cookbook & Guide, released in mid-November by Simon & Schuster. Tonight, she'll host the cheese course for a Dallas Symphony benefit called Savor the Symphony. On Friday, she signed books in both Houston and Austin, returning to Dallas in time for a Friday-night book signing for the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. On Saturday, she taught a five-hour cooking class at Sur la Table on Travis Street, then dashed back to the factory for a session with a photographer. She's pushing 60, this blue-blooded debutante-turned-businesswoman, but she's lithe, relaxed, and wiry, with the look of a lifelong tennis player.

For all her privileged upbringing in Fort Worth's Westover Hills, Paula Lambert seems comfortable with hard work. She opened the Mozzarella Co. in 1982, renting a former corner drugstore half a block from Randolph's Meat Market on Elm Street and turning the space into a Texas-twanged replica of the Italian cheese factory where she worked during a five-year post-college adventure that puzzled her traditional family. "I was supposed to go to school, get married, do volunteer work," Lambert says. She did marry landscape architect Jim Lambert and, in helping him, learned how to run a business. Annual trips to Italy reminded her how much she loved fresh mozzarella and how she couldn't find it in Dallas. "There was not fresh cheese in Dallas because there wasn't fresh cheese anywhere then outside of Italy," she says. So she started her own business. "We were the first people in the United States to make fresh mozzarella."

Lambert is savvy and a little rehearsed as she tells her entrepreneurial story for the umpteenth time, and slightly preoccupied. She has every right to be tired, but she says she's not. She's enjoying this recent burst of celebrity, she says, but she's staying on top of her core business and staying plugged in to the Dallas food scene, even as her book tour took her to France last week for an appearance at the International Cookbook Fair. She name-drops a little, mentioning friend and colleague Stephan Pyles, who's been a Mozzarella Co. customer, Lambert says, since he started Routh Street Café, way before Star Canyon. She did several segments on making and cooking with fresh mozzarella for Pyles' KERA-produced New Tastes From Texas cooking show, and keeps in touch with him. "He's taking a little sabbatical and traveling now, but he's going to open a new restaurant here," she says. She knows Grady Spears, another high-profile chef who recently bailed on Fort Worth's Reata restaurant to pitch a cowboy cooking show for the Food Network, hawk his own Cowboy in the Kitchen cookbook, and, Lambert says, start his own restaurant. "He's up to something," she teases. "A new restaurant. In Fort Worth. That's what I've heard." Lambert says bluntly that all the "good restaurants" in the area carry her products.

"I know a lot about cheese," she says. "So when I decided I wanted to make a blue cheese, I just made it up." Mozzarella Co.'s Deep Ellum Blue has the distinctive tang of Roquefort or Gorgonzola, but is milder and doesn't crumble; its consistency is closer to that of Monterey Jack. It isn't veined throughout with the biting, pungent blue mold, Lambert says, because she decided to control the flavor by growing Penicillium glaucum--a type of fungus--only on the exterior surface. "It's the blue cheese for people who don't really like blue cheese," she says. Her cookbook reveals even more of her technical knowledge, with textbook-caliber, comprehensive sections on cheese history; nutrition; types of cheese; storing, serving, and cutting cheese; and even making cheese at home. "I have never been able to make mozzarella at home," she says. There are 150 of Lambert's best recipes in the new book, along with dust-jacket praise from the likes of chef Jacques Pépin, Pyles, and Dean Fearing of The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Old friends' praise--and even the famed Pépin's--doesn't make her feel like an author, Lambert says. After the book tour, she'll be back up to her elbows in curds and whey. "I still make cheese anytime I want to," she says.

Starting Monday Lambert will turn up the heat in the front of her factory, where the small storefront on Elm Street offers fresh cheese for retail sale, while the cheese factory out back sends large orders all over the country. Her press clippings are plastered on the tile walls in the retail space, alongside glass-front refrigerators loaded with mozzarella rolls stuffed with prosciutto, green olives, or sun-dried tomatoes. The Deep Ellum Blue is on the top shelf, above the goat's milk ricotta and goat cheese rolled in black peppercorns or chopped herbs. Next week, employees will be pushing the blue cheese along with the cookbook for holiday gift baskets. "When we started out, we just made one cheese," Lambert says, standing up, itching to get busy. She recites her personal motto with a quick wave of her hand: "This is what can happen if you don't give up."


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