Friday, February 21, 2014

Door 86 Vegan Cheese: Review and Interview with Owner and Fromagère Daphne Medina

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When I made the transition from vegetarian to vegan, cheese was definitely the hardest thing for me to give up. I loved to slice and melt it, drizzle it over stuff and dip things into it. I loved that there were so many different kinds, shapes and colors, and I was kind of fascinated by the art and science behind the cheesemaking process.

After giving up cheese though, the cravings were still there. But, after a while, I realized that it wasn't the dairy I was missing: it was the richness, fattiness and unique texture, balanced out with the perfect amount of acidity and salt that I was looking for. So when I hear about or try a new or new-to-me vegan cheese, it's that balance I'm hoping for, with fingers crossed. When I find that, sharing my discovery with others is (almost) as enjoyable as taking the first bite of it!  

After hearing about a company called Door 86 Vegan Cheese and reading about how their products are all handcrafted, cashew based and cultured and produced in small batches, I was intrigued enough to order some for myself. And when the owner, Daphne Medina, emailed me to tell me she was a regular reader of the blog (thank you!) and had thrown in some extra samples for me to try out in my order, I couldn't wait to receive it.

When the Door 86 package arrived on my porch several days later, opening the box revealed a beautiful array of eight gorgeous hand wrapped vegan cheeses. 
The taste and texture of Door 86 cheese is phenomenal: melt-in-your-mouth creamy and lushly rich, each of these cheeses are mini-masterpieces.

The Brie is exceptional: impossibly smooth, perfectly textured and practically identical to dairy-based Brie in flavor. My next favorite was the candied lemon dessert cheeseI loved the the little bits of dried tangy lemon dispersed throughout which provided a perfect combination of rich and tart. The sriracha cheddar was intensely and authentically cheddary—and perfectly spicy. (Thank you Daphne for putting sriracha into one of your cheeses!!) The white cheddar and Gruyere were astoundingly rich and intense, and I just ate them sliced straight off the block. Smothering the pepperjack, cheeseball and smoked cheddar onto crackers took me back to Christmases long ago when I ate the dairy-based versions straight out of Hickory Farms boxes. 

Needless to say, I love this product! Daphne's deep knowledge of how culturing and traditional cheesemaking works, combined with her passion for developing flavors and textures that closely mimic dairy-based cheeses, is reflected in each bite of her beautifully wrapped vegan products. How does she do it? I had some burning questions and Daphne was kind enough to agree to give me some answers, so we virtually sat down and discussed Door 86 Vegan Cheese!

When and why did you start making vegan cheese?
It was early 2012, and I had just moved to Denver knowing that I was going to move again to Nashville in about a year. I wasn't working at the time and didn't want to commit to a long-term job, so I had some extra time on my hands. I was also going through some very dark times—my brother had passed away unexpectedly in the Fall of 2011—and I spiraled into a really deep depression. During this time, I was not taking care of myself mentally or physically, and my lifestyle took its toll on my body and mind. I realized that I needed to get healthy from the inside out, so I reverted to a strict vegan diet while in Denver to help heal my mind and my body.
After reading Miyoko Schinner’s book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, I got really inspired and started playing around with her recipes. Although I had been making vegan cheese (the raw/cultured stuff) for a few years before that, I had not been able to achieve the textures that I discovered in Miyoko's book—so AVC was pivotal in teaching me technique. After that, it was crazy—I started making all sorts of cheeses and went wild with creating my own cheese flavors! 

What kinds of challenges and discoveries did you encounter along the way?
Challenges and discoveries have been many ... too many to count! I think the biggest challenge was realizing that this "fun hobby" of mine was turning into an actual business, and that I needed to rapidly learn about business side of it. And what I learned was that business can be a bitch ... it really interferes with your personal life and social calendar!
I also discovered that I am much stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. The success I've experienced this early on in the game still doesn't feel warranted, so it still feels surreal for me to be in this role!

What is the significance behind the name “Door 86”?

It has a couple of meanings behind it. During the Prohibition era in the early 1920s, there was a speakeasy called Chumley's at 86 Bedford Street in New York City, which was frequented by writers and activists. When the bar owner knew the spot was going to be raided, he would tell patrons to "86," which meant they would leave using one of the many secret doors and passageway exits that were utilized by bootleggers and others to evade the law.

Being a cultural historian who is obsessed with all things related to food and history, I love what this piece of underground food scene history represents, hence the term, "Door 86." It was this kind of spirit I embraced when I started to make my cheese—I intended to only sell it “under the table” and had no intention of getting involved with things like taxes and “The Man”. Yes, really! 
"86" is also a restaurant term for running out of an item on the menu during dinner service. By intentionally "86-ing" dairy from my product, I hope that it gets people to think differently about vegan cheese and vegan food! 

I love the way you package your product—does that have any historical significance as well?
The idea for wrapping my product in plain brown wrapper came from my great uncle Frank. He used it to wrap whisky he would sell out of a secret door inside of his house on Sundays here in Tennessee (which is highly illegal). So when I started making and selling my cheese, I embraced this spirit of anarchy (which I suppose is in my blood). I like the idea of someone showing up at a back door with some delicious parcel wrapped in plain brown paper—and that money is exchanged with a nod and a wink, and you are then free to indulge in whatever outlaw morsel you have just purchased.

At what point did you realize that your cheesemaking had been transformed from being something you just made at home into a successful business?
It all happened so fast—I started selling the cheese to Plants & Animals Denver, a local vegan pop up, and from there it spread by word of mouth. I went in with no expectations other than offering vegan cheese I really liked and hoping that others might like as well. Turned out, they loved it, and I met some of the most amazing people along the way. It was my first interaction with a large vegan community, and it was awesome for me to be accepted into such an encouraging and compassionate group. I felt blessed beyond what I can ever really express, and Denver will always have my heart because of that. 
But I knew it was really serious when Aaron Adams from Portobello Vegan Trattoria in Portland, Oregon emailed me to ask about purchasing my cheese. He had heard of the business through word of mouth from a friend. And not long after that, VegNews asked for samples ... I couldn't believe it! 

Can you explain how you create your cheeses, from start to finish?
I start with organic, raw cashews which are soaked, then blended. Some basics like nutritional yeast, sea salt, coconut oil and a probiotic agent (made from homemade cultured soy milk) are added. From that point, I add various spices and then the mixture is set in a culture bin to ferment. Depending on the type of cheese I am making, the culture time can vary anywhere from 12 hours up to four days. After that, the mixture is cooked, poured into a mould and left to sit overnight. Then it’s cut, salted and left out to cure until its ready for packaging. 

What makes your process and end product different from other vegan cheeses currently on the market?

I spent some time researching my competition, and while there are some fantastic products on the market, I just wanted to offer the type of cheese that I personally would like to see on the shelf. I am a weirdo who likes stinky, unusual, old-school types of cheese: the stranger and stinkier, the better! Early on, I had about 25 different cheeses that I produced—I would research rare and unusual cheeses and then try to produce a vegan version of that. That number has been refined down to about eight varieties that aren't too strange and offer something for everyone's taste preferences. (I still make the weird stuff, but I keep it for myself!)
I don’t know if my process is that much different from my competition, though. I think it’s more important that as vegans, we're all working towards the same goal (which in my case, is to to get people to think differently about cheese, vegan food, and to "86" the dairy!) and, as Miyoko put it, “we all have to support one another."

How can people order Door 86 vegan cheese?
They can order by visiting the Door 86 websiteStay tuned for a new website coming soon that will be more streamlined for easier ordering (the url will remain the same).

For more news and updates, follow Door 86 on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Ooooh, I am so excited to try these vegan cheeses! I loved reading your interview with Daphne - who sounds awesome and is creating some very interesting flavors. The history behind the name is really cool too. Now I'm off to check out her website... :)

    1. Thank you Amanda! Daphne IS amazing and her cheeses are unbelievably good--I am so lucky to have discovered them!

  2. I must commend you on your blog; it is so interesting and well-written, and the photographs are beautifully composed and clear. I am excited about these cheeses, because I am simply unwilling to buy soy cheeses with all sorts of non-food ingredients in them. These look like they may be the answer. I love the name and packaging. I have forwarded this post on to my favorite local food coop and hope they will investigate this cheese.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Hestia! And thanks for sharing Daphne's wonderful products with your coop!

  3. Out of my price range for the moment, but as soon as that changes these will be in my fridge and reviewed for my blog!

  4. Oh I cannot wait to try! I am going to order some for our Easter celebration. As a newly turned Vegan, and a born Cheesehead from WI, I admit I miss cheese but not so much as to convert back to my old, evil ways. I love all the alternatives and honestly, feel I have more choices being Vegan. There is so much good food out there!

    1. Vegan cheese has come a long way over the past few years, and this product is a perfect example of that!

  5. I've had my eye on these for a long time, and you may have just persuaded me to finally order some! That Sriracha Cheddar though... <3

    And beautiful photos!

    1. yay! I've really enjoyed stuffing this into my face for the past week and a half. And the sriracha cheddar is spectacular!

  6. What a great interview, Erin!! I follow Door 86 on FB and I'm so intrigued by Daphne's various creations. and your photos are just so beautiful... so many enticing flavors to consider. <3

    1. Thanks Amey! Jeff does the photos, I just arrange it! Yes, Daphne has come up with so many creative flavors -- but I am especially in love with the Brie!

  7. What an excellent post! Thank you for sharing this success story. Those cheeses have me drooling - want some NOW! Vegan cheeses have indeed come a long way!
    p.s. if this is a double post, please excuse me. The first one disappeared into thin air!

  8. Thanks everyone!! Such kind words. :)

  9. Thanks so much for introducing me to some amazing vegan cheese. Sometimes vegan cheese is rubbery and full of artificial ingredients, so I hope to be able to order this cheese. I really enjoyed reading your interview and learning about Daphne's interesting journey. I have since read her blog and appreciate her honesty about what the start-up experience is like. This is a very well-written article, and your photos (including the styling) are exceptional. Best, Dana

    1. Dana, I hope you can! And I am so happy you liked the interview ... thank you for your very kind words about it!

  10. Replies
    1. There are tons of kinds and brands of vegan cheese -- some melt and some do not. Daiya and Teese melt fine. Some homemade cheeses melt too, like this one:


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