OUR INTERVIEW

Eco cheese in Russia from American farmer

Cheese maker Jay Robert Close is well known in Russia from the culinary competitions on TV that he has taken part in. Fans of good restaurant food know Jay thanks to the many popular establishments where he has worked as a chef. Not long ago, Jay dropped off the radar, built a house in the Solnechnogorsky District outside of Moscow, and started making cheese professionally. Jay knows everything there is to know about cheese: mozzarella and Gruyere, cheddar and feta. You don’t have to leave the country or work around sanctions in order to enjoy the best cheeses in the world. Jay learned how to make every type of cheese in its country of origin and supplemented classic techniques with the unique touch of a professional cheese maker. Like every excellent chef and true master of his craft, Jay likes to create his own unforgettable combinations. Jay uses homemade gouda cheese made from the finest farm milk to make cheese with different fillings: truffles, red wine, asparagus, herbes de Provence. This homemade cheese prepared exclusively from natural ingredients has become Close’s new passion. And he has managed to turn his enterprise into a success - his customers include several famous Moscow restaurants.

Jay talked to Capital Ideas about things you need to consider before buying a house in a Russian village and starting a business.

Jay, you were born in New York but have lived in Russia for the past 20 years. Do you feel like a Russian or like an American?

Neither, I don’t have a home country. I was born in New York, grew up in Mexico, studied in England, lived on a crocodile farm in Papua New Guinea, travelled all over Australia, been to Italy, Spain, and Germany, lived in France for seven years next to Pierre Richard’s floating home, and came to Moscow for the first time in 1993. My home is where my farm is.

Why did you decide to move to Russia?

I met some Russians when I lived in France. They asked me to show them around, and invited me to come visit them in return. I came for 10 days, and a few months later returned for another 20 days. Then I came for a month, then three months. Over the past 23 years, I’ve spent about 15 years here.

What did you like so much that you kept coming back over and over?

The people. When I was a child, people who lived through the Cold War told me that Russians are communists, and that’s very scary. Propaganda worked well back then. But when I was 13 years old I saw a matryoshka doll for the first time and knew right away that Russians are exactly like us.

We get categorized as communists or capitalists, as black or white, as good or bad. They teach us how to hate each other. But really we are all the same. I’m probably closer to socialists in terms of my convictions. I love the whole world and can’t understand how people in one country can be better than people in another country.

But why did you choose Russia specifically?

I don’t like when every day is exactly like the one before. And this never happens in Russia.

Did you come here with a dream to make cheese?

No. At first I hopped around between different places, over a dozen restaurants. I’ve been a ship’s cook on the Volga. But then I realized that I don’t want to work in a city, for someone else. I realized that I want to live in a village, feed myself, grow my own fruits and vegetables. I bought land and two calves. Two years later, the cow calved and started to give milk. I made cheese and I really liked it. I like to work with my hands and I like animals. I like looking at my green lawn out the window of my wooden house. I’ve found a place where I feel good.

How did you start making cheese for sale?

They wanted to try my cheese at the restaurant where I worked, and they liked it. I thought, why do I need to travel to the city for work when I can work on my land? Then my neighbor sold me another four cows. That’s how everything started. I got orders. For the past 11 years I’ve been teaching people how to make cheese, and have already taught over 300 people from different countries.

Many people say that it’s hard for a foreign person to open a business in Russia. What do you think?

This is true. At  first I had to spend a lot of time to get permits, certificates, and all of the other necessary paperwork. I gave up. But then I tried again and was able to get everything done.

What kind of advice would you give to foreigners who want to start their own business here?

To think things through carefully. It’s a crazy idea, you’re guaranteed to have a nervous breakdown (laughs).

Do you have a big farm now?

Two farms, and I’m building another one. I have a bull, goats, chickens, a pig.

And who tends to all of this?

About a dozen people help me out. But I’m the only one who makes cheese and I oversee everything.

Is business going well?

Yes, we’re making about 30 kg of cheese a day. We already have more orders than we can handle. That’s why we’re expanding.

How did the sanctions affect your business?

The number of orders grew by 10-15%. I sell through networks and to regular clients who come specifically for my cheese. I have big plans for the future.

Another farm or something new?

I want to open a bakery and sell cheesecakes, pies, and ice cream. I also plan to build a water sports gym at the Istra Reservoir in two years and open a petting zoo.

What do you dream about?

To get some sleep. I’m a very active person and don’t give myself enough time to rest. There is a lot to do at the farm, you have to oversee everything, and I don’t want to waste time on rest.

 

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