It’s the great American love story: Vegan boy meets vegan girl, vegan boy gets vegan girl, vegan boy and vegan girl move to Chicago and create line of vegan cheeses. Nahum and Laviyah St. Martin took a few simple ingredients and turned them into sliceable, meltable versions of Colby, Muenster, Smoked Gouda, Olive and Pepper Jack. I caught up with the veggie entrepreneurs and got the skinny on their story.
Roseann: Laviyah, you’re from Brooklyn—I am too—and Nahum’s from Jersey, which is where I met my husband. Do you think the Brooklyn-Jersey connection is the key to a happy vegan marriage? What led you to Chicago?
Laviyah: Ha! Nahum had a totally opposite upbringing than I did. I’m a Brooklyn girl through and through! I like city life. I like going out, museums, free concerts in the park, hole in the wall restaurants with amazing food—everything my home city is known for! However, having lived in both the city and the suburbs, I do appreciate peace, quiet and solitude. Nahum is the perfect balance to my personality. I’m a people watcher and kind of a loner; he’s a people person, always cooking up big meals and inviting friends over. There must be something to this Jersey-Brooklyn chemistry! I was a Brooklyn girl longing for life in the country, and he was a Jersey boy longing for life in the big city. Chicago isn’t as dense or as expensive as NYC; it’s a good mix of big city life with quick and easy access to the lakefront (I love water). It’s not a final destination for us, but it’s given us an excellent opportunity to build our business and our brand.
Roseann: What gave you the idea to create your own vegan cheese line?
Laviyah: A friend shared a cheese recipe with me that she found on the Internet years ago. For years when we had potluck dinners, people would request that I bring “the yellow cheese.” They were crazy about it! But I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t have the original source of the recipe I started with and made my own. However, that recipe (or variations of it) can be found if you Google cashew cheese recipes. There are also cookbooks out that are specific to making vegan cheese. We got the idea to do an olive cheese from The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook. My husband really wanted to do that once he saw it in the book. That’s when we moved from four cheeses to five. We basically took the yellow cheese and added sliced olives to it. People love it!
Roseann: It’s one of my favorites! So when did you start working on the cheeses as a business idea?
Laviyah: We were talking for months about doing a vegan cheesecake product, but I lost my original recipe for it and wasn’t really feeling making dessert just yet. I kept telling my husband, “Let’s do the cheese.” He got the recipe from me one week and tried it, and after that he was sold. At this point he’s tweaked it so much that I have to ask him for the recipe! He produces all the cheese, and I do the website work.
Nahum: Back in April 2009, I was managing a restaurant in Chicago but really wanted to do a venture of our own. I quit my job and began tinkering with the cheeses. It probably wasn’t the best time to start a new venture, since my wife had just given birth to our little girl in February. However, she believed enough in me and I believed enough in her creation that we both moved forward without hesitation. So far it has been a good decision.
Roseann: Nahum, you’re a self-taught chef. What other innovations have you cooked up?
Nahum: I’ve always loved to cook but really started putting more effort into it over the past five years or so. I wouldn’t say I’m an innovator. I’ve been vegan for 18 years and always thought good food was achieved through the addition of spices and sauces. I don’t know many people who love the taste of raw beef or chicken or tofu; it’s how they’re cooked, the sauces, that make them mouthwatering. So I figured I could play with different spice combinations from popular meat dishes and veganize them. With this concept, I’ve developed tofu enchiladas, lasagnas, cream sauces, etc. The most popular post on our website is the Vegan McPizza, which is my vegan adaptation of a crazy pizza recipe we saw on the Internet.
Roseann: That is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen!
So how did you come up with the formulation for the cheese? Was it a challenge to get the right consistency without adding oil or emulsifiers?
Nahum: The formulation was just trial and error, but the ingredients are very basic. I’ve found that simplicity typically yields the best results. Adding oils was unnecessary. Our goal was a great-tasting product, which I believe we’ve achieved. The addition of oils is only necessary if you’re trying to imitate the high fat content of dairy cheese, which causes that stretchy, gooey visual. We’re okay with the fact that our cheeses don’t stretch. We want your mouth to be happy, not your eyes.
Roseann: Mine definitely was, and stretchy or not, your cheeses melt! That gets a big thumbs-up from me.
Is creating a healthy product important to you? Is that why you made your cheese soy- and gluten-free?
Nahum: We didn’t set out to be soy- and gluten-free. But a healthy product was key to us. As a parent to five children, I will not serve to the public anything I won’t feed my family. My oldest daughter is 16, and she’s been vegan her entire life, as have our other four children. Promoting healthful lifestyles through veganism is our main objective.
Laviyah: What I always liked about the yellow cheese is the fact that it was its own product—I would bring it to a potluck, serve it on a platter and open a bag of crackers. I like the simplicity of the flavors. Although our cheese is delightful in grilled sandwiches, we adore it as is. That was the goal: a vegan cheese that tasted good straight from the package. The fact that we’re soy- and gluten-free is an added bonus.
Roseann: We made amazing tacos with the Pepper Jack and grilled cheese sandwiches with the Muenster, Colby and Smoked Gouda. When he tasted the sandwiches, my husband said your cheese kicks Daiya’s butt! Who came up with the flavors, and what’s your favorite?
Laviyah: My husband came up with them. The yellow cheese became Colby, and my husband took it from there with the others. He wanted something spicy and something smoky; I was happy doing just two or three flavors. I love them melted down into nacho cheese sauce and poured over tortilla chips.
Nahum: The names of our cheeses are more names than exact vegan copies. Most of the vegan cheese alternatives are mozzarella and American styles. We wanted to stand out, hence our different names and flavors. Me being part French, the Muenster was a natural fit—it’s my favorite. It goes so well on sandwiches, and I’m a big sandwich eater.
Laviyah: One day. We just want to make sure the product keeps its integrity as we expand.
Nahum: Absolutely! I’m ready. Investors, please call.
Roseann: What’s next for you—something new like cream cheese or grated cheese?
Laviyah: We’re happy with the flavors we have and will continue to tweak the recipes to improve the flavors and extend shelf longevity.
Nahum: Our next line of products will be my wife’s desserts. This will include a chocolate mocha mousse pie, pecan pie and tofu spinach quiche. Also, we’ve partnered with Chicago’s oldest vegan restaurant, Soul Vegetarian, and will be doing a vegan food truck. The truck will offer Soul Vegetarian favorites like mac ’n cheese, greens and BBQ Delights, which are like vegan short ribs, plus some of Ste Martaen’s gourmet vegan desserts and entrees.
Roseann: Sign me up! Thanks to both of you for talking to SuperVegan, and please keep us posted about your dessert line (samples welcome!).