Emmi Roth Cheesemaker Ashley O’Connor Penniston on the Happy Accident that Started Her Career and Discovering Artisanal Products
Ashley O’Connor Penniston was raised in Milledgeville, Illinois and moved to Monroe, Wisconsin, when she was 18 years old, beginning her career at Emi Roth shortly thereafter.
From making some of the most awarded cheeses in the U.S. to importing Switzerland’s most beloved cheeses, Emmi Roth works every day to provide the world’s best cheeses. They are part of Switzerland’s largest milk processor, Emmi Group, which employs 5,400 people in 13 countries worldwide. Here in the U.S., Emmi Roth has operations at five locations across Wisconsin and growing.
Ashley’s everyday responsibilities include making delicious cheese, culture ordering, and managing culture and ingredient inventory. She also lends her expertise when working with the Research & Development team on creating and testing new recipes.
In addition to being one of Emmi Roth’s talented Licensed Cheesemakers – a title required by law to make cheese in Wisconsin – Ashley has an Associates Degree in Food Science and is working on receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in that same area of study.
When she is not working, Ashley enjoys cooking and baking, hiking, and traveling. Learn more about her career, appreciation for the craft of cheesemaking, and favorite cheesy recipe below.
What's a day-in-the-life like at your job?
I never have a dull day, which is the exciting part about my job! Cheesemaking is a very artistic task that I have a lot of passion for. As a “living organism,” cheese is extremely sensitive and needs constant monitoring. Throughout the day, I am monitoring milk and cheese pH, fat, protein and other components, ensuring the cheese make process is on track to create the perfect type of product. Not only am I monitoring the vats, but I also make sure the floor is prepared with the correct equipment and the right amount of ingredients that will be added to the vats. This is a team effort throughout the facility, which I help keep on track.
How did you become interested in cheesemaking and food science?
I never actually thought cheesemaking would be a full time career for me. It happened by accident! One day, during one of my shifts at Emmi Roth, I got curious as to what happens in the vat room. I went in and the current cheesemaker at the time showed me around and explained the process to me. At that point, I decided I really want to learn the art of cheesemaking – and I have loved it ever since! When I was about ¾ done with my apprenticeship, I started studying Food Science and recently graduated with an Associate degree. I plan on continuing to get my Bachelor’s degree, too.
What's your favorite cheesy recipe going into this holiday season?
My favorite cheesy recipe is Au Gratin potatoes, with a bottom layer of rosemary and caramelized onions. The cheese I like to use is our Grand Cru® cheese with a mix of parmesan.
There are 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in the state, and only 60 are women. Why do you think this is the case? What do you think is the best way to bring more women and diversity into the field?
From my experience, I see things changing. There is definitely more support for women in this industry than there ever has been, and I really hope my work as a female cheesemaker can inspire other women – especially other young females – to get into the field.
How has climate change affected the business at Emmi Roth? What is the company doing to change and pivot?
A lot of energy and water is used in the dairy industry, and is a huge concern for our sustainability team at Emmi Roth. We have been working on designing new equipment flows that will help us manage our daily water usage (We typically use water for daily tasks like cleaning, water line flushes, and adding water to the vats - which can be thousands of pounds of water). We have also worked on water tank timings, which allows us to prevent refilling of water tanks that were previously dumped at the end of the day. We also have a Green Team at our company working to reduce water and implement other important sustainability initiatives.
What's one thing you wish more people knew about cheese?
I really wish people would get out and experience new and different types of cheeses. Not only to experience the different flavors, but to also learn about the process of making that particular product. When I go to the store, I see beautiful pieces of cheeses that I know took so much time and effort to create. The amount of patience and time it took to design, monitor and create is not an easy task. I feel like people should branch out from simple cheeses, and discover a world of incredible artisanal products that have a flavor like no other!