The Nanny Diaries: From Coach Leather to Coach Farm

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Back in 1983, Coach Leatherware company founder Miles Cahn was in his early 60s, an age when the thoughts of many tend to turn to crossword puzzles or golf. Instead, Cahn talked his partner in life and work—his wife, Lillian—into starting a second business making farmstead, artisanal goat cheese up in the Hudson Valley. The couple’s introduction to goat cheese was an indirect result of a little brainwave of Cahn’s that became known as the classic wide-stitched Coach handbag. Because of it, the company, founded in 1941, had done well. By the 1980s, the Cahns had time for extended vacations and travel abroad—especially to their beloved Paris, where they had opened a Coach store and fallen in love with all things French.

At the time Americans knew nothing about goat cheese, and until only a few years earlier no one in America made it. But in Sonoma, California, a woman named Laura Chenel had started making chèvre in the late ’70s, her breakout moment coming when Alice Waters famously featured the cheese in her signature Chez Panisse salad. (Great minds think alike: Unbeknownst to the Cahns, breeder Mary Keehn was figuring out how to make cheese with her herd’s surplus milk at Cypress Grove goat farm in Arcata, California; a Vermont cheesemaker named Alison Hooper was about to make her first domestic chèvre and launch Vermont Butter & Cheese; and in the Catskills, Sally Weininger was making a Gouda-style cheese with goat’s milk.)

“We knew Laura Chenel was selling it out on the West Coast,” recalls Cahn, who will turn 91 in April and is still sharp as a tack, in his Central Park West study, “and we figured we had New York City, the biggest market possible. So it seemed so logical and so simple that we embarked on this [project]. Then it got complicated.”

The Cahns purchased 300 beautiful upstate acres near Gallatinville, up in Columbia County, from a dairy farmer looking to retire. Like him, they wanted a respite from the pressures of their workaday lives, but their naive idea of a rural retreat was a working farm. Bear in mind that this was a time when local East Coast dairy farms were ailing and agribusiness ascendant; the small family farm was no longer regarded as a viable economic model. Not to mention the fact that consumer demand for goat cheese, which had yet to become a supermarket staple, was approximately zero.

Their accountant and others wrote off the idea of making French-style hand-ladled goat cheese as crazy talk. But Cahn, in thrall to his vision, proceeded to invest more than a million dollars in the construction of barns and the digging of a well, infrastructure that would eventually expand to accommodate close to 1,000 French Alpine goats. Cahn approached Fairway’s famed master cheesemonger Steve Jenkins, who was curating arguably the best cheese case in America. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Jenkins had championed the fresh goat cheese of his friend Ian Zeigler, a New Yorker with a doctorate in art history “who left the city to rusticate,” settled in the Finger Lakes region and made goat cheese as rich and creamy as ice cream. Zeigler died in the early ’80s, right about when the Cahns came along.

“Out of the blue, this terrific person, gorgeous and wearing a beret, shows up saying, ‘I want to make goat cheese,’” recalls Jenkins of Cahn. “I was so taken with this guy who had the wherewithal to do what I wanted to do.” The relationship between Coach Farm and Fairway and Cahn and Jenkins was foundational, and the two men quickly became close, their families sharing vacations in L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue, near Avignon. There, says Jenkins, “We ate and drank and had fun like peasants. There were no sweaters draped over our shoulders. He was a farmer and I was a counter man.”

Cahn also hired Frenchwoman Marie-Claude Chaleix (“An idiot savant about cheese, like I was,” as Jenkins describes her), who had once made prize-winning goat cheese in a small village near Bordeaux. Chaleix was living in New York, struggling to make a living importing goat cheese from the Charente Limousine region for the likes of Fairway and Murray’s Cheese. Cahn created living quarters for Chaleix on the farm, and for the next two years, the cheesemaker tutored a group of local women.

When the first 200 young breeding does that the Cahns purchased were ready to give milk, Chaleix showed her students how to handladle goat’s milk curd into tapered molds, let it drain overnight, then remove and lightly salt it. As Phil Peeples, one of the Cahns’ first hires, recalls, they began producing roughly 1,000 pounds of milk a day, yielding 150 to 200 pounds of fresh goat cheese. The only stylistic difference between this cheese and that bearing the French appellation fromage de chèvre, explains Cahn, is that his goat’s milk, in accordance with the law, was pasteurized before being left to incubate.

From the start, standards were high. “Miles was adamant that every piece that went out was of the utmost quality,” says Peeples, who is now general manager of Mill Hill Farm, the 1,000 acres of land—including the land Coach Farm sits on—that the Cahns now own or rent. “He had very successfully branded Coach Leatherware and he didn’t want to go backward.” Jenkins debuted the goat cheese at Fairway in April 1985 and says that it was “immediately an unqualified hit.” “We were written up everywhere,” recalls Cahn. Soon, high-end grocers Dean & DeLuca, Zabar’s and Balducci’s, along with restaurants Windows on the World and Union Square Café, were lining up for their share of chèvre.

It didn’t take long for the weekend life of the gentleman farmer that Cahn envisioned to turn into a massive undertaking. “Rushing back and forth between Coach Farm and the Coach leather factory (on West 34th Street), we had lost all sense of which was ‘back’ and which was ‘forth,’” Cahn wrote in his charming 2003 account of the business, The Perils and Pleasures of Domesticating Goat Cheese: Portrait of a Hudson Valley Dairy Goat Farm. Despite rave reviews, the farm was in the red, his accountant could only roll his eyes and Cahn’s children began to worry about their dad’s well-being. Lillian, he recalls, was busy trying to keep him from “going over the edge.” Meanwhile, Coach leather was going gangbusters, doing nearly $20 million a year in business. And although the staff was loyal and efficient, Cahn was still the company’s key player. Faced with the impossibility of carefully tending both companies, Cahn decided to sell Coach leather and devote himself to the farm. “It was very hard to do,” he says. Mostly, he now says, he was driven by fear of the farm’s failure, of having to admit defeat.

He and Lillian shopped around for an investment bank to handle the sale (they picked Rothschild because its lobby was decorated with the best art), and in 1985 sold Coach Leatherware Co. to the Sara Lee Corp. for $30 million. (Today, the hybridized brand Coach is a $4 billion-a-year global accessories leviathan, selling everything from pet leashes to sequined bags.) The Cahns, who had been splitting their time between city and country, now made the farm their full-time residence and devoted their undivided attention to getting the new business into the black. Coach Farm Goat Cheese was nearly five years old before the family experienced “the joy of breaking even,” as Cahn dubbed it. In the meantime, a growing list of marquee chefs helped put the brand on the path to profitability.

In the late ’80s, early adopter Jean-Georges Vongerichten began using Coach Farm products at the Lafayette in the Drake Swissotel. At his first solo venture, JoJo, the chef’s most popular dish was a warm goat cheese and potato terrine with arugula juice and olive oil. “We put the name ‘Coach Farm’ on the menu because it was something very fantastic,” the chef recalls. Since then, he’s served crumbled goat cheese, roasted beets and olive oil at Mercer Kitchen and continuously featured Coach Farm on the menu at Jean Georges. “We’ve been using it probably for 23 years now,” he says, “and I feel like they’re family.”

Mario Batali eventually did become family—he married the Cahn’s daughter, Susi, in 1994—and has used Coach Farm products in all of his restaurants, in dishes ranging from his classic vanilla yogurt sorbetto and goat cheese frittelle, which pastry chef Gina de Palma garnishes with honey at Babbo, to the goat cheese–topped pizzas at Otto. Andy Nusser, chef at Casa Mono, says he likes Coach Farm’s product for what he describes as its “barnyard, sort of ‘wet log’ quality, an earthiness similar to a St. Julien wine.” Nusser recalls food writer Faith Willinger hand-delivering wild Italian fennel pollen “like contraband” back in the mid-’90s for what became Babbo’s signature dish: Coach Farm goat cheese-filled tortellini garnished with the pollen and dried orange, and a goat cheese and pumpkin croquette at Casa Mono. Batali’s staff has even taken springtime trips to the farm to meet the goats and forage for wild ramps on the Coach Farm grounds.

Right in line behind these chefs was a growing number of food-loving sophisticates with disposable incomes. “We got lucky,” says Peeples, in that [goat cheese] became kind of the yuppie food of the late ’80s early ’90s and it stuck. I remember having a discussion with Miles. We agreed, ‘Boy, if these yuppies ever go away, we won’t have any business here.’” As it happened, successive generations of yuppies stayed in love with Coach Farm—in large part because it maintained its spirit of invention and innovation, keeping the brand relevant amid growing farmstead competition. Almost from the very beginning, for example, the Cahns made aged cheeses, notably its green peppercorn variety.

After the first fresh goat cheeses appeared on the market, explains Christine Hyatt, board president of the American Cheese Society, the aging of domestic goat cheese “was the next pivotal” development in the field in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was Steve Jenkins, tired of what was becoming a boomlet of fresh goat cheesemakers, who encouraged this trend. By the early ’80s, says Jenkins flatly, “I was annoyed by fresh goat cheese.”

He became besotted with the goat cheeses of the Loire Valley, the unpasteurized, aged Crottin de Chavignol and Sainte-Maure de Touraine, which he managed to smuggle into the United States from the Rungis wholesale market in the Paris suburbs. (Back then, as it does now, the U.S. government prohibited unpasteurized cheese aged for less than 60 days). “That was my cardinal caveat,” says Jenkins: “Your mission is to go beyond fresh goat cheese.” Spurred by Jenkins’ missionary fervor, Hyatt says cheesemakers “started putting a ripened rind on it.”

An early ’90s Coach innovation came about serendipitously when an aged cheese log was accidentally left on a rack too long, put on a tough coat of mold and dried out. Underneath the corrugated armor, creamery workers discovered a delicious hard cheese similar to a Parmesan, yet with the salty, funky taste of an aged blue. Christened Grating Sticks, they became a signature product, and the darling of many chefs.

Mark Strausman, chef at Fred’s at Barney’s, Griffou and Agritourismo near Coach Farm in Pine Plains, says “we shred it and use it instead of Parmesan. It’s really nice to have a local version, and from goat, not cow.” He loves it on salads and pastas, especially shaved over chanterelle pasta at Agritourismo. During the fat-phobic ’90s, Coach won awards for its low-fat goat cheese—but workers hated throwing away the by-product: huge amounts of cream. Rosie Parsons, then head cheesemaker, happened to attend a seminar with Scottish cheese whiz Kathy Biss, who offered to help Parsons develop the super-rich Triple Cream. “We made it and then we told Miles about it,” recalls Debbie Brandt, a 23-year-long Coach Farm employee who is now in charge of scheduling and inventory.

Cahn liked it so much he began selling it in 2003. (Ironically, the Triple Cream has become so popular, says Peeples, that Coach Farm has found itself with the opposite problem: an excess of leftover skim milk, which it transforms into low-fat cheese and has begun packaging for longer shelf life and wider distribution.)

Well into his 80s, Cahn was going full tilt running Coach Farm. But in 2007, he and Lillian decided it was time to sell. Best Cheese, the Mt. Kisco–based American arm of a Dutch company, purchased the creamery and in 2009, bought the herd as well. The company leases the land the creamery sits on from the Cahns, with Peeples doing double duty as Miles Cahn’s proxy landlord and farmer. In addition to cultivating hay and soy to supplement the goats’ diet, he grows corn and—in part to provide straw for the herd’s bedding—wheat, oats and rye.

One of the Cahns’ most lasting legacies will be that over the years they’ve donated the development rights to over 700 acres of their land to the Columbia County Land Conservancy, which means that development on it will forever be strictly limited, regardless of who buys it.

Even after the farm changed owners, many employees remained on staff, including 24-year Coach Farm veteran and master herdsman Rene DeLeeuw, who still tends and raises the goats just as he did under the Cahns’ ownership. On a recent gray day DeLeeuw was on hand to introduce the stars of the farm, the milk-producing does, their kids and their buck paramours. The creamery’s hodgepodge layout is the result of the Cahns adding structures to meet demand as the business grew. “This one’s just been cleaned, so they’re especially rambunctious,” says DeLeeuw, pointing to one corridor of stalls. “They love fresh hay—they all become like little kids again.” The frolicsome bunch head butt and literally jump for joy. A set of piebald two-day-olds are unsteady on their feet; across the aisle, a doe that DeLeeuw estimates is carrying three or four kids stands quietly, her belly bulging. Intelligent and highly social, the goats feed on balage, or fermented alfalfa grass, which is grown, wrapped and lightly fermented on Mill Hill Farm.

A gifted herdsman who grew up caring for goats on his father’s goat dairy in Colorado and then tending goats in Tennessee, DeLeeuw’s ultimate job is to strengthen the bloodlines to create better “milkers.” The herd is “closed” (goats are born here, not bought in), so in addition to mating good milking does with the herd’s bucks, he combs through records of goat breeders across the country to find buck semen he thinks will improve the herd. At $50 to $100 per straw, a 60 percent insemination rate and no telling the sex of the future offspring, each purchase is a roll of the dice.

Wearing a white lab-style coat bearing a patch with the Coach Farm logo (designed by Miles Cahn) and a hairnet, manager Willy Bridgham offers a tour of the creamery, where the chilly corridors are awash with the pleasantly funky aroma of goat. The heartbeat of the entire operation, the milking parlor, is where twice a day, at 4:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., the 360 or so milking does are brought in to be milked by machine. (The rest of the 750-goat herd are either in their 60-day “dry” period after their 305-day post-pregnancy lactation, too young to give milk, or are the 17 bucks kept in separate pens for breeding.)

The milk is pumped straight from a holding room to the creamery, where it’s pasteurized at 145 degrees for half an hour. The proximity of the milking parlor, holding tanks and creamery and the speed with which the fresh milk is bottled is “part of the key to our fresh flavors,” explains Bridgham. “This is the only place I’ve ever worked where we actually wait for the milk, because 48-hour-[old] milk is not as good as 2-hour milk.” Once the milk is pasteurized, active cultures are added, and it’s pumped into 30-gallon vats in the incubating room. A small amount of rennet is added to help set the cheese. After incubation, the curds are carefully ladled into individual molds, lightly salted and left to dry. Cheeses to be aged are placed in higher-humidity rooms to encourage mold growth. Sure enough, a close look reveals a spiky surface that Bridgham likens to “snow when it first falls.”

Mark Newbold, a former Cornell Food Science Department employee who became Coach Farm’s latest cheesemaker last February, points to a whiteboard with a tally of the day’s production. It reads like a geometry lesson, stuffed full of pyramids, wheels, bricks, cones, discs, buttons and medallions—all the different shapes and volumes that Coach Farm goat cheese assumes.

Although the creamery’s parent company is a $30 million-a-year importer of Dutch specialty cheeses, Steven Margarites, president of Best Cheese and Coach Farm, says, “A true artisanal farm and farmstead product was Miles Cahn’s vision when he started the company, and we want to maintain the integrity of the brand.” Best has also kept innovating; in 2010 Coach Farm began making a goat cheese ricotta with the cheesemaking by-product whey. At Griffou, Strausman uses it for gnudi di ricotta, dumplings sautéed with pumpkin squash, prosciutto and sage. Best has also begun making a Greek-style goat yogurt and fresh goat cheeses filled with fig and wild pear marmalade.

Life under Best Cheese ownership has had one unintended consequence: now that it’s owned by an international corporation, Coach Farm no longer qualifies to sell at the Greenmarket, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping small family farms. Margarites laments the loss of Greenmarket exposure. “It was a very big portion of our business, over 10 percent,” he says.
While it may no longer have a stand at Union Square, the Coach Farm brand can still be spotted all over town: Bridge Café chef Joseph Kunst layers it atop a vegetable strata of roasted autumn vegetables, and DB Bistro Moderne features it in a tomato tarte tatin with frisée and black olives. Babbo’s savory, custard-like goat cheese sformato drizzled with espresso-balsamic vinaigrette is a top seller. In retail settings, the brand is a fixture at gourmet food shops ranging from Whole Foods and Zabar’s to Eataly. Fairway’s Jenkins says all of this is built on the “complete commitment and single-mindedness” of Miles and Lillian Cahn, who raised “well-husbanded goats of their own,” grew the hay to feed them, “eschewed plastic wrap for state-of-the-craft paper” and “were constantly inviting the chefs du moment up to the farm to show what it means to be committed to farming and cheesemaking.”

“This,” Jenkins adds, “is what will be recorded when the history of our fledgling foodie industry is written.”

Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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