Necessity might typically be the mother of invention, but in the case of Youssef Fakhouri’s beloved vegan cheese, it’s love.
Fakhouri, owner of dairy-free cheese shop Vromage in West Hollywood, began working in restaurants when he was 13, making pastries and chocolate, cooking and performing other tasks of the trade. After coming to America from Casablanca he opened four different restaurants, though none of them were vegan. In 2009, he met his muse: a young, beautiful vegan chef. They worked together in the kitchen, and one day, she gave him a taste of the vegan cashew cream with nutritional yeast she was making.
His first review was hardly exalting. Says Fakhouri, “I said to her, ‘That’s not how you make cheese!’ Then I went off and pretended that I knew what I was doing. Whatever I made tasted good, and she asked, ‘How did you do that?’ I told her that it was a secret.” Then, every night, he would practice with the nuts and seeds in hopes his efforts would impress her. “I’d call her up, she’d bring a bottle of wine, we’d taste the cheese and she’d ask me how I did it and I kept saying it’s a secret,” he continues. “So, I didn’t create the cheese to get in the vegan business or to compete with cheese or anything like that; it was really to inspire this woman and the ingredients just came out of my head.”
Although the friendship with Fakhouri’s muse never blossomed into a romance, Fakhouri opened Vromage in 2015, after five years of trial and error. His vegan cheeses are now known around the world, elevating him to become one of the foremost authorities on the subject. “I just shipped some cheese to the south of France, which is crazy. Most Europeans are non-vegans, and the fact that these people are eating this cheese tells me something,” Fakhouri says. “Actually, most of my customers are not vegan. That’s how I stay in business. I’m proud that my cheese is vegan, but you want to cater to the whole world. You have to make it delicious in order to entice the non-vegans over.”
As he says this, a regular walks into the shop and insists on tasting “some of that pâté.” He pulls a light brown block out of the case and slices off a piece for his guest and myself. I’m surprised at how the savory (almost gamey, even) quality is so similar to traditional pâté. It’s not as rich, of course, but it’d make for a delicious spread.
That said, it’s Fakhouri’s cheeses—he offers ricotta, mozzarella, feta, truffled Brie, blue, Gouda, pepper jack, goat, white Gouda and Taleggio—that really shine. The semi-hard cheeses like the cheddar can be shredded, or sliced and melted like the mozzarella.
Whether semi-hard or soft, a common thread his cheeses share is a creamy, tangy complexity that’s very hard to achieve in vegan cheese. While he’ll tell you he doesn’t use fillers or nutritional yeast, and will also reveal it takes 8—10 days for each batch, the rest, he says, is a secret. But Fakhouri’s not hiding anything from this cheese addict—you can taste the earnest, unrequited love.