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Jeanine Dargis
Head Cheesemaker
Valley Shepherd Creamery
February 03, 2015

Have you ever wondered how long it would take you to transform your life? To go from your current unfulfilling job to a completely different food-related career, in which you are actually making a living? Well, in Jeanine's case, it was three years. And if you want to learn even more details than she shared with us here, then check out the full saga of those three years in this article.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

My very first job out of college was at The Lisa Ekus Group, a literary agent and PR firm that focuses on cookbook authors and chefs. I was just the office manager, so it didn't matter that my only experiences with food or cookbooks was maybe making a vegetarian chili one time in college. Once my new job started, however, I was able to take home these amazing cookbooks and essentially teach myself how to cook (and eat!) delicious food during my three years of working there. After that job, I started working on farms and thought that cheesemaking could be fun and interesting work. Almost every job I've had since I left college has been somewhat food-related, so it really was a slow (but steady) process!

How did you get your current good food job?

Through GFJ! (though it was a little bit of a roundabout process) I was poking around the site while working as a cheesemaking apprentice in Maine, and replied to a listing for a cheese shop manager in Brooklyn. I talked with the owner and it seemed good, but the timing was off, and he offered the job to someone else. I kept in contact with him, though, and soon enough he let me know that a cheesemaker position had opened up on their main farm. I drove down a week or two later for an interview, and got an offer a few weeks after that. It was a job much more suited to my actual experience than the original position. So my advice is: keep those contacts open, and stay on good terms with potential employers. Even if you don't get the job you wanted, you might end up getting first dibs on the next opportunity.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

As I've said previously, my journey to a good food job was a slow but steady one. I've been really into cooking at home for many years now, and cheesemaking is really more like cooking than anything else. Even if you aren't super exact in your measurements, your food (and cheese) will taste delicious if you are present and attentive during the entire process. This might make me sound like a hippie, but I firmly believe that food (including cheese!) tastes better when it's made with love. It's an essential ingredient, in fact. The cheeses I make are like my babies and I treat them as such.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

I certainly did consider calling it quits. I worked for a brief time on a goat dairy in Hawaii, and contrary to what you might think, it was a terrible experience. Hawaii itself was wonderful, of course, but my bosses there were petty, mean, and thought nothing of barking orders and yelling at us for the tiniest offenses. I had moved 6,000 miles and put my entire life on hold for this job and was so, so excited to start learning how to make cheese, and all of a sudden I had to get out of there because I just couldn't take it anymore. Thankfully, I thought to myself, "all cheese farms can't *possibly* be like this, it must be an anomaly!" and figured second time was a charm. It was!
I moved back home to my parents' house, started applications again, and a few months later ended up at a small goat dairy in Maine. It was the place where I finally started learning how to make cheese for real.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

If there's anything I've learned from working on farms it's that good people are hard to find. This kind of work requires special balance of grace under pressure, good attitude and willingness to work in sometimes gross and uncomfortable conditions that only a few people possess. That said, to use a dairy metaphor, the cream always rises to the top! In my three years of managing a group of seasonal interns, there are always one or two that rise to the occasion and make themselves indispensable. They are the ones that either stay here for an extended season and assume more of a management position or move on to another good food job the next season.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Cheese, obviously! Sometimes I feel like my compensation IS just large amounts of cheese. In all seriousness, though, I'd probably choose farmland. Maybe a rent-to-own type situation. One day I would like to have some land and a little cheese operation on it, but it's quite hard to figure out how to make that happen if you don't have a huge pile of cash hiding somewhere.
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