The kitchen is closed but Donna Jean’s dining room is brimming with students sipping California wine and kombucha. Chef Tony Howe, a modern day magus of cashew and butter beans, takes the stage equipped with a blender, induction stove, and likely the most vegan cheesemaking knowledge in San Diego.
Previously the sous chef at Donna Jean, Howe helped transition the kitchen to an inherently cheese-heavy menu of pizzas and handmade pasta dishes. It didn’t seem fit to bring commodity vegan cheese into a scratch made kitchen, so he took the obvious step of an idiosyncratic full-time chef: dedicating his life to manipulating plants into textures and flavors of cheese. His scratch-made cheese is now fundamental to many of Donna Jean’s dishes.
Unlike much of the vegan cheese found on supermarket shelves, Scratch House is a firm, sliceable, and fermented product. It is delicious raw and delivers stretch when melted. Howe has since traded the Donna Jean kitchen for his own where Scratch House cheese production and continuing research and development is his full time job.
While called cheese, Howe doesn’t aim to create direct dairy dupes. Instead he builds upon traditional cheesemaking techniques, expanding them into the dairy-free world. While Scratch House products use familiar names like smoked gouda and dill havarti, these names convey flavor notes and communicate ideas for best use.
Howe hosts a monthly vegan cheesemaking class at Donna Jean. Sessions include a cheesemaking demo and vegan cheese tasting along with the possibility to sample new products in development and his favorite fermentations.
Howe shared his new bean-based mozzarella and smoked dates with students at a recent class. Class attendees witnessed the birth of vegan cheese while Howe blends raw cashews with powders and oils then double boils into a warm baby cheese. The fresh cheese is paraded through the dining room for students to sample and differentiate the complexity that age brings when tasted in contrast to the finished products.
The class walks students through the creation of a basic base that can be dialed into various styles of firm, meltable cheese. He shares instructions for finding vegan cultures and various types of brine, from saltwater to win, are discussed.
Each guest was served full cheese plate along with a large lacinato kale salad topped with semi dried tomatoes and a salty mound of finely shredded Scratch House parmesan. Slices of fermented Fresno jack and baby goat sit with appropriate partners like olives and housemade pickles. (Howe’s fermentation skills do not end at cheese: he is an expert of a seemingly endless array of pickled fruits and vegetables—but that’s a different class.)
Ready to learn how to make your own vegan cheese, sign up for a class here.
You can try a cheesy Scratch House paninis and samplers at the La Mesa pop-up First Friday Night Market and That Good Good Market in Bakers Hill. Scratch House vegan cheese is also sold at local stores like San Diego Vegan Market and The Mighty Bin.