You wouldn't necessarily think a massive company that produces 2.4 million pounds of cheese a day would be part of a speciality farm-to-table program from the Bay Area's prestigious International Culinary Center.
Yet the Hilmar Cheese Co., the world's largest single-site producer of cheese annually, was a stop on an intensive tour of California food makers for a new program at the ICC. The class visited the Hilmar plant Thursday, getting a glimpse of the operation and company's sustainable approach to its manufacturing.
The farm-to-table movement emphasizes local production, sustainable agriculture and, often, small providers. The six-month ICC program focuses on ingredient sourcing and sustainable practices along the entire supply chain. The course launched in February and the inaugural class of 10 students will graduate in July.
Graduates of the culinary center in Campbell include award-winning and renowned chefs Bobby Flay, David Chang, Dan Barber and Christina Tosi.
As part of the weeklong tour, the students have visited a small organic farm in Salinas; large-scale agriculture company Bolthouse Farms, the largest producer of carrots in the United States; an abalone company in Monterey; and a free-range grass-fed beef ranch in Paicines, a town south of Hollister. The tour ends today at the San Francisco Produce Market.
Hilmar Cheese Director of Education and Public Relations Denise Skidmore said the company was happy to be part of the program and showcase its process to the students. The company gives tours year-round to tourists and students, though it's rare to have chefs and potential chefs visit.
"I think it's important for them to learn about farms and producers of all sizes," Skidmore said, "so they have choices and understand the process more."
The company showed the visitors its water recycling program, where all the waste water from production is recycled. The water is used for landscaping and to help clean the plant, and then, after treatment, is used to irrigate crops, which in turn feed the cows that produce the milk that makes the cheese.
"For such a large-scale plant to have that sort of sustainable program of recycling water is interesting and good to know," said ICC student Shane Meistrich, 23.
The plant emphasized its use of reusable wood packing boxes, which are completely recyclable except for a thin plastic lining.
Program instructor Tim Shaw said visiting a large plant such as Hilmar gives aspiring chefs and food professionals a look at how the products get to their table.
"So many people have no idea how food gets to us, and as a chef, it's useful to know," he said. "It's fascinating to see the size of the operation."
The students got to hear about the other products Hilmar Cheese produces whey proteins and lactose and the various applications they have in other products. And, of course, they tasted cheese.
Students said the tour helped broaden their notion of what farm-to-table can be.
"The perception is that small equals good and big farms equals bad," said student Sara Valine, 23. "So to see a well-established and large company working toward production for the better is encouraging."