The Waiting Game

Dana Cree works through the growing pains of a dairy start-up.

March 14, 2016 ● 3 min read

In 2015, Dana made the leap from restaurants to the world of dairy, leaving her post as pastry chef at Chicago's Blackbird for a position as Culinary Director for 1871 Dairy. She is documenting the weird and awesome transition from kitchen to milking parlor here on ChefsFeed.

I’ve hesitated to write anything about my new job at the dairy because, well, it’s kind of boring.  

Most of my days are now spent moving things around, because it turns out that’s all working for a dairy is: moving milk around. We move it out of the cows, into a holding tank, then move the raw milk into pasteurizers, which empty into semi-automated bottling machines. The milk is then moved into bottles, moved to our storage coolers, picked up for deliveries, placed on a truck, delivered to restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores, where ultimately, it’s moved—one last time—into a customer’s hands. 

So while my job is to develop the products we will eventually sell at 1871 Dairy, until we finish building out our dairy plant in the west loop of Chicago, I wait.  

While I wait, I work on a line of pie-bottomed yogurts with a local pie shop. I go to ice cream college, and learn how to manufacture ice cream with pasteurizers and homogenizers, instead of just making small batches of the stuff on the stove like I’ve done as a pastry chef. I spend time on the farm, hang out in the milking parlor with the ladies, then pasteurize and bottle their milk — and I dream up flavors for that 100% grass-fed milk: deep Askinosie chocolate, donut, vanilla chai…but all that won’t roll off the bottling line until it’s actually built.  

All that aside, I’m enjoying the kind of daily life I only dreamt of when working in restaurants. I’ve seen more friends in the last three months than I have in the entire four years I’ve been in Chicago. I’ve had the time and energy to be active, and shed more than a few of the pounds that came with a job that required you to taste desserts day after day after day. I feel more like myself than I have in years.  

At the same time, every time I see a beautiful new dessert posted on a friend’s social media account, I get vicious pangs of jealousy. I miss making desserts. I miss the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, and the immense feelings of accomplishment every shift in a kitchen brings. I love the ladies, but it’s safe to say the cows don’t do anything quickly. 

The learning curve has been steep. Six months into this endeavor, we were reminded that cows stop producing milk when they get pregnant — after mistakenly purchasing 14 cows that all gave birth at the same time. There was no milk for two months before their calves were born, and our milk production dropped to 80 gallons a week; not even close to enough to service the small client base we had built. We made more apologies than we ever hope to again.

There was also the time I drove seven hours to the farm in Wisconsin to make a batch of eggnog for the holiday season. I hand-cracked 400 eggs, grated half a pound of nutmeg, pasteurized 100 gallons, and just before it was ready to be bottled, the hose popped loose and the nog was gratuitously pumped onto the floor. My heart still ached the next day over the loss, my own ignorance about tightening gaskets the sole culprit.  

On some of the coldest days this winter, the milk froze on the delivery truck. If you know what happens when liquid freezes, you’ll see this coming: the expanded milk cracked all the glass jars. Pallets of ruined jars is bad enough, but freezing also damages the fat in the milk. So even if the the glasses hadn’t cracked, it still wouldn’t be something we could sell.

Oh, and that truck? I definitely crashed it, after underestimating the foot rail that extends off the back while pulling up to a restaurant, two days before Christmas. The driver whose bumper I left pathetically crumpled on the street returned after the holidays to very apologetic note on his window, blurry but still legible after the snowstorm.  

The truth is, we are a start-up company, and not without the challenges that come with being new. And it is all coming together, albeit slower than we had hoped, but that’s not an unfamiliar feeling: I’ve never seen a restaurant open on time either. We will eventually complete construction, and when we do, we’ll begin receiving shipments of raw milk from the farm through out the week, and the creations I dream up will become tangible.

In the meantime, I wait for pasteurizers, ice cream machines, cream separators, and a test kitchen of my very own to be finished. I wait to start making that deep chocolate milk with Askinosies amazing bean-to-bar chocolate. I wait to use my newly acquired ice cream manufacturing skills. I wait to fill yogurts with pie.  

And I move milk around. Day after day, after day.    

By Dana Cree