“I just started experimenting on a standard upright smoker,” Kiefer says, “and that worked — incredibly poorly.”
The staples of cattle cookery — hickory and oak chips — overpowered the mild flavor of most cheeses. Only sharp cheddar stood up to the smoke, and even then the resulting substance was smoky first and cheddary second. He tried resting the cheese on pans of ice in the smoker, but the heat still robbed it of its creaminess.
“You usually cook meat at 225 degrees for so many hours,” he says. “If you cook cheese at 225 degrees, you’ll just have a runny mess in the bottom of your smoker. Thankfully, I never did that.”
Still, he says, “I ruined a lot of cheese for seven years. But I stuck with it.”
He started the second seven-year phase of his experiment by taking his smoked cheeses to holiday parties and barbecues. Friends began making requests and dropping off wedges of cheese for him to smoke. Then they wanted to buy the cheese. The 40-year-old former skycap at Kansas City International Airport had a new business. In 2010, he opened BobKat-Dan Gourmet Products with a shop in Kingsville, Missouri.
“There are obviously plenty of barbecue places in Kansas City,” Kiefer says. “I don’t think I do such a great job [with meat] that I could crack that market. But I think I found a little specialty niche of my own.”
His first sale was to Waldo Pizza, where smoked cheese is now available on its salads, sandwiches and pizza.
“Either I have some ability as a salesman, which I’m not too sure about, or probably the cheese is that good,” Kiefer says.
Gram & Dun has four varieties of BobKat-Dan cheese on the menu; Blue Grotto uses his smoked fontina on pizzas; Green Room Burgers & Beer offers a pepper-havarti cheeseburger; and the Boulevard Brewing Co. has cubes (hand-cut by Kiefer) of smoked cheddar and havarti for sale in its tasting room.
But Kiefer isn’t just selling a product. He wants to rehabilitate the image of smoked cheese. For him, smoke is the modifier, not the defining flavor, a mistake he often tastes when sampling the competition. (BobKat-Dan cheeses are on shelves at the Hy-Vee at 7620 State Line and at McGonigle’s, Nature’s Own and You Say Tomato.)
“It’s like the difference between a gas grill and a charcoal grill that you fire up with lighter fluid as opposed to the wonderful invention of a paper chimney,” he says. “On my cheese, you get the flavor of the cheese. A lot of smoked cheeses, you get that chemical taste of liquid smoke that drives out the creaminess, smoothness of the cheese.”
Kiefer has had enough success so far to move his operation downtown. Last summer, he built out a kitchen in the McQueeny-Lock Building, in the Crossroads. Over the next year, he intends to redo his website so that he can begin shipping orders around the country. And Kiefer has a line of barbecue rubs that he hopes to package. But in the interim, he says, he’ll keep firing up his smoker, and keep his wood trained on a different part of the cow than the rest of Kansas City.
How to Eat Smoked Cheese
Bob Kiefer prefers, of course, that you use his brand of smoked cheese. But his pairing advice, his bias notwithstanding, is pretty solid.
“The smoked cheddar is phenomenal with [Boulevard’s] unfiltered wheat,” he says. “Smoked havarti pairs really well with darker beers like the Sixth Glass or Bully Porter.”
In the kitchen, he says, “Blend [smoked] havarti and fontina together, and you’ve got a great mac and cheese.” He adds: “I make that for my boys all the time. These days, we don’t eat as much cheese as we used to, and my boys get angry, but I explain that Dad has to make a living.”
And then there’s the grill. “If you love to grill steaks,” Kiefer says, “pick up some of the blue cheese and put it on top. You’ll want to finish the steaks with the cheese on top for a minute or until the cheese softens.”