“Something started changing in the 2000s, and not just in Texas but nationally,” says Lindsey Schechter, who started her business, Houston Dairymaids, as a wholesaler in 2006, before adding her retail shop on Airline Drive in 2012. “Artisan cheesemakers started popping up all over the place.”
While Schechter stops short of saying so, a lot of the credit for taking Houston to the next level belongs to her. Dairymaids now supplies more than 300 restaurants in Houston and Austin with cheeses from close by and from around the world, while also offering locals a unique way to learn about—and buy—them without feeling daunted. There’s no traditional counter at Schechter’s Heights-area shop; rather, everyone who walks in the door is offered a free, guided tasting of six ripe cheeses.
From the beginning, the goal was simple. Schechter hoped to find and cultivate Texas’s farmstead and artisan cheesemakers, most of whom were just starting out, and get their wares in the hands of local chefs. “It was a leap of faith,” she says.
A line cook during her high school days in North Carolina, Schechter studied English and art history at Rice while working at dearly departed eatery The Daily Review under prominent local restaurateur Claire Smith (Shade, Canopy), learning the ins and outs of the industry.
In 2001 she took a cooking position in New York, and soon all things began to point to cheese. “I started getting taken to the farmers market, and we’d buy Cato Corner,” she says, referring to the Connecticut cheesemakers.
Schechter wrote about cheese and other things for Food Arts Magazine before moving to Maine, where she befriended numerous local makers while developing a cheeseboard for the menu at the restaurant where she worked. It was then that she realized: She was more interested in cheese than in cooking.
She took a coveted five-week position behind the counter at the legendary Neal’s Yard Dairy flagship shop in London, during its busy Christmas Season, learning the business from the world’s best cheesemongers, going on rounds collecting cheese, and “working the arches”—flipping cheese in the aging room. And then, finally, she moved back here to launch Houston Dairymaids. “We kind of made it up as we went along—the best way to get the cheese here and deal with the customers,” she recalls.
Since then Schechter has sought out and developed relationships with Texas’s best cheesemakers—among them Pure Luck Farm & Dairy in Dripping Springs and Veldhuizen Farms in Dublin, outside of Fort Worth—and become a kind of ambassador for the state’s growing artisan-cheese market.
Today the industry has changed vastly. Raclette is a bona fide trend. Culture Magazine exists. Popular American creameries like Cowgirl and Rogue are selling to larger corporations. And this all makes Schechter, now considered this state’s premiere cheese guru, protective of its small cheesemakers, who face challenges from exorbitant shipping costs to overregulation.
Next time you stop into Houston Dairymaids, your tasting might include hipster favorites from Vermont makers such as Jasper Hill Farms and Parish Hill Creamery as well as incredible artisan selections from Texas favorites CKC Farms and Revolution Dairy.
Once you taste them, she says, you won’t go back. “It’s like returning to Folgers after you’ve had a good coffee.”