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How-To

The Big Cheese

Jason Sobocinski’s passion for making the most of local ingredients has helped him build a Connecticut restaurant empire.

October/November 2015 Issue
Photos: Mike Yamin
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It’s a classic tale: A young man goes away to school, falls in love, and brings the object of his affection home to start a life together. But in Jason Sobocinski’s case, that love was cheese. While studying in Boston for an MFA in gastronomy, Sobocinski worked nights at Formaggio Kitchen, a gourmet market known for its vast array of cheeses. That experience was the start of his devotion to cheese, an obsession that he became determined to share.

Rise of an empire

Following school, Sobocinski returned home to New Haven, Connecticut, and opened Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro, a combination cheese shop and restaurant, complete with a cheese-aging “cave” that he built himself. “It’s just a regular walk-in,” he says. “But I got a kit to make it a low-velocity refrigerator, so it’s 80 to 88 percent humidity. It helps the cheese really open up. When we get cheese from Europe, we’ll put it in there for a few weeks before we taste it.”
 
The restaurant started off as a way to showcase his cheeses and make them accessible. “New Haven didn’t have a cheese shop in 2008. The foodie movement hadn’t quite gained steam here, and people weren’t as knowledgeable about food. The restaurant served as a way to educate people about new cheeses by putting them in familiar dishes.”

Comfort-food classics like mac and cheese, cheeseburgers, and poutine, along with more adventurous seasonal dishes, made Caseus a local  favorite almost overnight. When the tables tucked in the restaurant’s nooks and crannies were no longer enough to meet the demand, Sobocinski opened a grilled cheese truck. He’s gone on to partner with a bar called Ordinary that occupies a historic building in downtown New Haven, a barbecue joint called Smoke Box, a brewery called Black Hog, and, naturally, a cheesemaker called Mystic Cheese Co.

The patio at Caseus, flanked by herb planters.
The Caseus grilled cheese truck, serving up lunch in downtown New Haven.

Local Love

Sobocinski’s roots in the community and his interest in where food is coming from mean that his local empire is about much more than good eats. Caseus is known for serving as many local products as possible, including Black Hog beers and Mystic cheeses, of course, as well as herbs grown in the restaurant’s own roof garden and patio planters. And Sobocinski lets almost nothing go to waste. He buys whole animals, rather than select cuts of meat, and then uses every part. Oh, and that grilled cheese truck? The crisp, gooey sandwiches are a vehicle for cheese scraps, so the truck is part of his no-waste agenda.

A delicious byproduct

Careful ordering and menu planning, along with a perpetually packed restaurant, mean that there’s not much  food left over at the end of the day at Caseus. But, Sobocinski explains, sometimes there are a few odds and ends. Why let perfectly good food go to waste? That’s not in line with his ethos. Lucky for him—and his patrons—butter is a great preservative.

 
Regulars at Caseus know to always order the daily butter special. Made by folding any leftover ingredients into butter (anything from ground popcorn to scraps of cheese or herbs), the flavored butters are served with grilled bread from a local bakery. “When we first started serving it, we were a little worried people would balk at paying $5 for bread and butter,” he said. “And they did a little, but now they’re excited to see what we’re doing every day. And now charging for bread and butter is pretty common in restaurants. What’s great is that making flavored butter is one of those little restaurant things that’s really easy for people to do at home.”

 
So there you have it: a cheffy technique that’s delicious, endlessly customizable, and dead simple. Ingenuity like that is how empires get built.

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