Phil Kampel

Kim Mack, founder, Scratch Made Life

Kim Mack, founder of Scratch Made Life, which offers online and in-person cheesemaking classes, could not have seen where her life was headed when she began her business almost four years ago.

An army veteran, she worked in a police department, on an ambulance and was even involved in politics for a short time, all the while having a passion for culinary arts.

“Culinary arts was always a passion for me,” she says. “It was a way for me to relax as well as a creative outlet.”

Thinking baking would be her end-all career, Mack started her food journey with an online bakery about eight years ago.

“Then the Food Network called me to audition for a baking championship show, and I knew I had to expand my repertoire,” Mack says.

Starting the Journey

Her goal was to learn how to make cannoli with homemade ricotta. Mack found a ricotta recipe, and her love of cheesemaking. At the same time, she realized fitting her baking business in while working full time was stifling her passion.

“I was tired coming home from work then baking for hours, while getting up early and baking; it wasn’t fun anymore,” Mack says. “I also saw how much better my homemade ricotta tasted compared to what I bought in the store, then wondered what it would take to make other cheeses.”

Mack did what many would do in her situation; she went online seeking YouTube videos and local cheesemaking classes to learn more. She discovered the information she needed to know was not readily available.

“I couldn’t find any answers to my questions online, and the classes were expensive and two to three hours away,” she recalls. “I wanted to make sure this is what I wanted to do before investing money.”

She admits that because the cheesemaking community is still really small, especially the at-home cheesemaking segment, getting started was very difficult.

“The first time I made cheese curds for my daughter-in-law, who is from the Midwest, and my grandchildren, I couldn’t separate the curds,” Mack recalls.

Mack decided to take classes from a cheesemaker at a local coop to get her questions answered, then her new business venture began to take off.

“I made all kinds of cheeses and learned to modify ingredients to get the results I wanted,” she says. “Then I posted photos of my cheese on Facebook.”

Six months later, Mack’s friend asked if she would teach her friends to make cheese. It then occurred to her coming from a newbie perspective that teaching cheesemaking could be a niche.

“I was making cheese 24/7. It got to the point where my husband asked what we’re doing this weekend, and I would be making cheese, and he’d go fishing,” she says.

Mack then set up a Facebook page with an intro to cheesemaking class, and it received a lot of attention. Her class immediately filled up, the business began to grow and Scratch Made Life was born.

“It partly stemmed from my constant battle with my body and removing processed foods from my diet,” she explains. “I tried to make as much food from scratch as possible, including bread and sausages. However, living in Sacramento, I needed to approach it from an urban perspective and make it as uncomplicated as possible; that’s how the classes are set up.”

The Business

Cheesemaking classes are 85% of Scratch Made Life’s business, which also includes classes on making kombucha; canning and pickling; baking; pasta making; and sausage production. Mack’s advanced cheesemaking classes teach bandaging and monitoring pH. Although classes are small, with 12 to 15 students, they are held Saturday and Sunday, sometimes twice a day.

Mack also takes special requests for different types of classes and will hold private sessions at her home or the student’s.

In-person classes teach participants all the steps in cheesemaking, from pouring the milk to putting product in the mold, pressing and flipping. Comprehensive handouts are provided answering the basic questions that Mack had when she started making cheese.

“[For these classes,] we will bring samples of the cheese we’re making,” she says. “I take no shortcuts unless the cheese needs long heating. Students go home with an 8-ounce piece of cheese to age and eat.”

Online classes are demo style, and Mack also will record the sessions and e-mail the link. Attendees can watch live and ask questions or use the link as a reference for up to six months.

Mack held two virtual academies via Zoom since opening, which included six classes over 12 weeks where students learned to make seven cheeses.

“I charged $150 a person, and mailed out the rennet, culture, etc.,” she says. “The academy has worked well, as we have been able to teach people from around the world.”

Because raw milk is hard to come by and not legal in all states, most of Mack’s students use pasteurized milk from the store in their cheesemaking.

“I like to use sheep’s milk, since it has a higher fat content and is the best milk to use for cheesemaking,” she says. “But it is hard to find, so I have to alter ingredients due to what’s available. For example, I help them use calcium chloride to overcome the pasteurization process.”

Mack uses mostly vegetable rennet in her cheeses, as many in her community are vegetarians.

“I want to include as many people in our cheesemaking classes as possible, so I use vegetable instead of animal rennet,” she explains. “It doesn’t change the process as I’ve experimented with vegetarian and animal rennet. Although the taste can differ very slightly, especially with longer aged cheese, I prefer vegetarian rennet.”

Classes include basic fresh, aged and stretched cheese. While mold-ripened cheeses are popular like brie and Camembert, along with cheddar, Scratched Made Life’s most popular class is the Italian Trifecta, where students make ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan.

“The hardest part of cheesemaking is patience. The first party I had where I served my cheese, the result was garbage,” Mack recalls. “Not too long after that party I found a half wheel of Fontina that got pushed to the back of the cheese cave I had made. It was eight months old, it tasted amazing and my patience in cheesemaking took hold. It was then that my cheeses improved by leaps and bounds.”

Mack’s goal with her students is to make the cheesemaking process as easy as possible.

“I don’t want people to invest time and get frustrated, so I’m a hands-off instructor. I tell them what to do, and they do it.” she says. “I have YouTube videos, as well.”

Those interested in enrolling can sign up via Eventbrite, on Scratch Made Life’s Facebook page or via its website.

Mack’s classes attract students of all ages, although more women than men sign up. These are geared more for hobbyists rather than those looking to start a cheesemaking business.

“Many people are realizing there are too many processed foods out there and want to make things from scratch,” she says. “But home cheesemaking is new and not many are doing it.”

Most who sign up for Scratch Made Life classes come back for more; Mack’s estimates her return rate is about 70%, with the majority taking at least three classes.

“I’ll do five to six months with basically the same people,” she says. “They hang out, become a community. Some have farms and can get raw milk for my students. It’s great relationship building.”

“Our classes provide the opportunity to explore what you can do out of the home but also see what’s involved with making cheese on a professional level,” Mack explains.

Sharing the Passion

She has discovered that home cheesemaking is clearly a passion of many people, as her virtual classes have attracted students from all over the world, including Canada, Malta and South America.

“I read an article that home cheesemaking has been one of the fastest growing hobbies during the pandemic,” Mack says. “But I also found out the dairy industry is the most highly regulated. I understand it, navigating that, found out what we needed and implemented what we learned.”

Mack enjoys making mold-ripened cheeses the most.

“I don’t know why, it’s just such a fascinating process that’s so different from other cheeses,” she says. “The other is blue cheese, since it is such a different process from aged cheeses.”

Her favorite cheese to eat is her Topo, similar to a San Jorge.

“I’ve fallen in love with it, and when I put it out in our classes, everyone loves it,” Mack says. “I don’t present a recipe as my own unless I made it my own. I found a basic San Jorge cheese recipe, did some manipulation, and brought it to where it needed to be.”

She says the biggest surprise in her cheese­making venture was how relatively simple the process is as long as the proper steps are followed exactly and no corners are cut.

“Once you have all the basic information you need to make basic cheeses, you make them and learn from what you’re doing, it’s amazing how easy it is to make cheese at home,” Mack says.

With cheesemaking, Mack finds the most difficult part is the waiting for it to mature.

“I’m very busy teaching busy people, but vacuum sealing is the way they can age their cheeses with the least amount of time and effort,” she says. “It doesn’t diminish the quality, and it decreases waste.”

Mack considers herself a city girl to the core, and never predicted she would take on a business centered around dairy farms.

“If you told me five years ago I’d be making cheese and hanging at farms, I’d have told you you’re nuts,” she says. “But it has opened so many doors for me and a passion in life on a professional level. I don’t know how to say the positive, amazing and wonderful things cheesemaking has opened up for me and my students because it’s so unknown. The fascination when they see what it takes to make cheese, it’s mind blowing. For so many students as it is for me, it is their life.”

Even Mack’s dogs have become cheese connoisseurs with a predilection for her creations.

“My female dog is a prima donna; she gets cheese on dog food every morning,” Mack says. “Yet, she will not eat store bought cheese. How does she know? There’s clearly a difference; the nose knows whether your cheese is good or bad. There’s nothing like the smell of cheese, or after you add culture and it ripens and you take the lid off and the smell is like, wow; there’s absolutely nothing like it!”

Future Plans

Mack is expanding her business in 2022 with plans to open an artisan cheese creamery with friend, farmer and milk supplier Joe Bento.

“Joe has a farm in Modesto and will provide raw cow, goat and sheep’s milk for producing cheeses that aren’t offered anywhere else, like Buffalo blue, Camembert with sheep and goat milk, and we’ll have A2 milk for the lactose intolerant,” she says. “Joe gave me a free license to do what I want, but I will ask for his input in staffing and running the creamery.”

The creamery will provide cheesemaking supplies like cultures, mold powders, rennet and calcium chloride, which are only available online now. Bento’s farm’s milk also will be sold.

“I also want to team up with local wineries and open a wine and cheese bistro in downtown Sacramento,” Mack says. “We want to continue to grow the city’s reputation as a farm to fork capital of the country. “

Mack says the cheesemaking classes combine her love of teaching with her passion for the culinary arts.

“I don’t know in my professional life that I’ve ever been this excited, making cheese,” Mack says. “Although it has been about four years, I still get excited cutting and separating the curds and whey. It’s either a complete passion or there’s something wrong with me.

“I’ve always taught. In medicine, I taught basic life support. I’ve taught organizational skills to volunteers. I’ve incorporated teaching in every job I’ve had… which is so awesome. This is a dream come true. “It’s amazing, I just turned 59, and this taught me you’re never too old to follow your dreams,” Mack says. “If you are blessed enough to find your passion and realize your dream, go for it!”  

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