Kristen Allan remembers the moment she realised she could make it in the cheese business. It was 2011, she'd quit her gig managing Sydney restaurant Berta, and was in Spain on a two-month research trip, visiting a cheesemaker in Seville's northern hills.
"There was the lightbulb moment of seeing her tiny kitchen," she says. "We think cheese production has to be big, with lots of equipment and industry. It was the first time I'd seen how small scale it could be. She wasn't wearing the white hat, lab coat and gumboots. She had her own goats and employed a shepherd to walk them. And of course, she made really beautiful unpasteurised goat's milk cheese."
Allan returned to Sydney, and spent the following years building her eponymous cheese brand. Restaurants, cafes and bakeries (including Fred's, Flour and Stone, Ester and Aria Sydney) placed regular orders for her signature buttermilk ricotta; customers lined up for her labne, yoghurt and fresh curd at the Carriageworks markets; while others signed up for her cheesemaking classes at Cornersmith. By 2017, Allan had opened her own cheesery in the light-industrial suburb of Alexandria. It was, by all accounts, a wildly successful business.
Then in April this year, she decided to quit cheesemaking.
Her announcement via Instagram took many by surprise. One mother, whose son loved Allan's yoghurt, emailed Allan to express her disappointment. "It read: you've made my three-year old son really sad," says Allan.
But the business had become a burden for Allan. In the lead up to Christmas last year, she struggled to keep up with demand. The cheesery was churning through 1,500 litres of dairy a week, and aside from one casual staff member, Allan was making all the products herself. There were punishing 4.30am starts, where Allan would summer buttermilk for the ricotta before cleaning her teeth in the factory's basin.
"I'd have these crazy dreams about not having enough labneh for Kepos Street Kitchen, or that someone would place a last minute order and I wouldn't be able to fulfil it. Everything was handmade, handpacked – I was fucking washing muslin on Sundays by hand. It was a seven-day operation," says Allan.
After therapy, sobriety and a frank conversation with Carmen Bateson (cheesemaker with Holy Goat), Allan realised her cheesemaking life was not only unsustainable, but a rehash of the high-intensity work environments from previous careers as a dancer, financial lender and Formula 1 PR. "My therapist said: do you want to look at this pattern in your life? Ballet, hospitality, corporate jobs – you put yourself in these situations that feed anxiety."
Popular as it was, the ricotta had become a monster. "It turned into something that was not what I saw in Spain," she says.
So Kristen Allan Cheeses is no more, but Kristen Allan the curd enthusiast, educator and sobriety advocate lives on. She will continue her cheesemaking workshops at Sydney's Two Good Co. and Cornersmith where students go home with own cultured butter, burrata and haloumi, as well as the once closely-guarded recipe for that buttermilk ricotta. "It's not just a cooking class," she says. "I love meeting with people and seeing them walk away with their own cheese. I get a real buzz from teaching."
Allan's brainstorming future projects that combine her love of cheese, education, sobriety and empowering women. And though she may pop up with the odd small batch of her own cheese and yoghurt, it's been a huge relief closing her cheesery.
"I don't feel sad about it. I don't have any regrets," she says. "I just need to be brave now."
For more details about Kristen Allan's cheesemaking workshops, head to kristenallancheesemaker.com