Romance led chef to Hill and vegan cheese making business

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 5/13/21

They say that behind every successful man there is a woman. In this story, there is a woman behind every successful cheese.

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Romance led chef to Hill and vegan cheese making business


Steve Babaki has an important anniversary coming up in August, but it is not with Rae DiMidio, the young woman who lured him to Chestnut Hill from the west coast. In August, Babaki, 38, will celebrate his second year of selling Conscious Cultures Creamery vegan cheeses to Weavers Way. But none of this would have happened without Rae.

They say that behind every successful man there is a woman. In this story, there is a woman behind every successful cheese.

“I am originally from D.C. and have worked in restaurants all my life,” said Babaki. That included working for celebrity DC chef Jose Andreas’ Oyamel. “Four years ago, I was working for some of the best farm-to-table restaurants in the San Francisco and Oakland, California area.”

That is when Rae, whom Babaki had known from D.C., persuaded him to move back east and live with her in Chestnut Hill. At the time, Rae was an instructor at Rebel Yoga Studio studying to be a certified acupuncturist.  More importantly, she was allergic to dairy products and a practicing vegetarian on the cusp of becoming vegan.

“Philly is one of the best vegan cities in the country. You could eat out every night of the week in a place that is vegan.”

Just one problem. Babaki loved cheese. The kind made from cows' and goats’ milk. But he also loved Rae. To compromise, he was determined to create vegan cheeses that passed the taste test.

Vegan cheese had been around since the 1980s, but if you hadn’t heard of it, it is because it was not palatable. “I never ate the vegan cheese because I thought it was weird,” Babaki admitted. “I wanted to give Rae something that was better than what was available.” His efforts eventually launched Conscious Cultures Creamery, based in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia.

“I have only one employee and funded the business out of my own pocket. I work seven days a week, and until recently I was making deliveries,” he said. This included answering hundreds of emails in response to his recent appearance in the New York Times. 

In her April 6, 2021 article, “Vegan Cheese, But Make it Delicious,” New York Times columnist Tejal Rao described one of Conscious Cultures Creamery’s cheeses. “I was unprepared for the mellow, pleasingly dank flavors of a soft-ripened goat cheese, for the mildly peppery tang, for the dense, luxurious creaminess,” she wrote.

Rao was referring to Babaki’s Barn Cat, a vegan cheese made of cashews and coconut, run through with a dark line of vegetable ash. “I needed to add coconut,” said Babaki. “If you take away fat, you take away flavor.” Anyone who has gone on a non-fat diet knows this.

Except for its non-dairy ingredients, vegan cheese is made the same way all cheese is made. Strains of Penicillium candidum (vegan) are used to ripen soft varieties such as Camembert and Brie; then the cheeses are cave-aged for two weeks to three months. Babaki soaks some cheese wheels in kimchi brine and washes other cheeses with wine.

So far, Babaki has produced four varieties: Barn Cat, a faux goat cheese; Maverick, a double cream similar to Camembert; and Fresh Mozz (Mozzarella); plus a Cream Cheese. He recommends pairing them with crisp, light white wines or cider.

Conscious Cultures Creamery has a growing fan base.

“I started by selling them at pop-ups,” Babaki said, but he now has a distributor, and his products can be found in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and over 30 outlets in Pennsylvania, including DiBruno’s in Center City and all Weavers Way locations. “Maverick, a double cream, sells best so far, followed by their Cream Cheese and Fresh Moz,” said Norman B. Weiss, Weavers Way purchasing manager. “We’re stocking the Maverick in our Chestnut Hill and Ambler stores. Chestnut Hill also has the Fresh Mozz, and Ambler has the Cream Cheese. It’s a fairly new line for us, though, so we’re still figuring out what items we’ll stock regularly and at which stores.”

Why eat vegan cheese? Because, according to the Dairy Council, the average American eats 38 pounds of cheese a year. Unless you are under 30 and fond of running marathons, all that cholesterol builds up in your heart and waistline. Here’s an even better reason. Conscious Cultures Creamery products are available at Weavers Way, so you can have your cheese and your health, too.

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