Heather Donaldson and her husband Reggie went vegan in 2019 to lower their carbon footprint, but like many people, they really didn’t want to give up cheese and charcuterie.
Donaldson says in an email to CityBeat that she “wasn’t thrilled with the commercial vegan options available,” so she set out to learn how to make her own plant-based meats and cheeses.
Charcuterie is a French term describing a type of cooking that focuses on processed meat products, namely items like bacon, cured ham, sausages and pâtés. In recent years, charcuterie also has been used to describe extravagant boards filled with meats, cheeses and other finger foods in the United States. Donaldson’s venture Mad Cheese creates vegan versions of these items as well as made-to-purchase boards filled with imaginative ingredients.
Like so many others, Donaldson and her husband moved back home to Cincinnati in 2020, leaving Los Angeles once the COVID-19 pandemic shut down both of their jobs in the film industry. Donaldson had worked as a food stylist, designing and creating food eaten by actors on camera, while Reggie did lighting and camera work for shows like Shameless. With her job on hold, Heather suddenly had the time she needed to further develop and perfect the vegan meat and cheese recipes that she already had been toying with.
About six months into COVID-19 lockdown, the couple flew to their hometown of Cincinnati, where they had both attended The School for Creative and Performing Arts, to visit Reggie’s parents; that fall, they bought a home in Madisonville.
While the house was being renovated, Donaldson continued to make her cheeses. She soon began sharing them with friends, who in turn gave them to other people, “Within a few months, strangers were contacting me and asking to buy cheese,” she says.
Feeling uncomfortable selling food products to strangers without proper licensing, Donaldson tells CityBeat that she decided to go for it and start a business. In March of 2021, she officially launched Mad Cheese.
Donaldson says that at first, she hadn’t even planned on creating a website, but within five days of marketing her new business on social media, she had more than 100 orders.
For a while, Donaldson and her husband operated Mad Cheese out of the kitchen of Walnut Hills’ New Thought Unity Center. The duo recently received a LEAP (Leveraging Education Assistance Program) grant from Main Street Ventures, though, with funding that allowed them to hire a part-time employee and move into a new fully-equipped kitchen at 5909 Bramble Ave. in Madisonville.
Donaldson says that to perfect each product and bring them as close as possible to the dairy and meat tastes and textures that they are imitating, she will test “over 100 different versions of a recipe before I feel like it is close enough.”
The recipes vary greatly for each product that Mad Cheese produces. Donaldson says that the cheese bases vary from nuts to seeds to pea protein. The general process involves combining the ingredients, cooking them and then chilling them in molds. “Fresh” cheeses can be made within one week and are packaged as soon as they are set. Some cheeses like Brie, blue and blue-gouda are aged using vegan cheese cultures shipped from France. Donaldson says the process for aging these cheeses are controlled and can take up to eight weeks.
While Donaldson is open about her cheese processes, she keeps her “meat” making a little more secretive, as she has developed a fairly unique style of vegan meat that also is gluten-free. She says that the process is similar to the one she uses to craft the cheese. To make the meats both vegan and gluten-free, she uses pea protein, which Donaldson says differs from the typical vegan meat that is created using wheat gluten. This process creates a meat-like product loved by many — even non-vegans enjoy it, she says.
Donaldson notes that she has heard from several meat and cheese eaters that they prefer her Greener Pastures ($13 per six-ounce wheel) over traditional goat cheese. She says that Greener Pastures is an herbed chevre and is Mad Cheese’s most popular creation.
Donaldson says her current favorite of Mad Cheese’s offerings is the company’s version of Brie, La Ferme Rustique ($15 per four-ounce wheel). She is also a fan of Mad Cheese’s take on ricotta, called Euphoricotta ($14 for a 16-ounce container).
“It’s nut-free and super versatile — eat it solo on baguette toasts, swirl some into pasta, make lasagna, add it to soups to make them creamy,” Donaldson says of the Euphoricotta.
As for her husband, Donaldson says that Reggie loved their aged smoked gouda, GoudaVibes ($15 per 6.5-ounce wheel) as well as their walnut paté ($11 per four-ounce glass jar).
New products are always being developed in Donaldson’s kitchen. Recently, Mad Cheese released Fet-ahhh ($13), created with soy from Cincinnati-based soy sauce fermenter CinSoy Foods. In the works now is the soon-to-be-released Mad Parma, a vegan hard parmesan that can be shaved and grated.
Vegan charcuterie enthusiasts can also pick up pre-made charcuterie boards from Mad Cheese. Each Mad Cheese Board ($95) is made-to-order, Donaldson says, the company can even customize the colors, add a theme and deliver it straight to your door. Mad Cheese also occasionally offers seasonal boards, which feature limited-edition items and decor.
As of press time, Mad Cheese is sold out of every product in its online store, but its products can be found all over Cincinnati. Cork N Crust in Bellevue uses Mad Cheese’s vegan cheeses on its pizzas and sells the vegan cheese and charcuterie boards as well. The company’s mozzarella also is used in the vegan poutine that’s now offered at La Petite Frite in Oakley Kitchen Food Hall.
Additional Mad Cheese products are available at Rooted Juicery + Kitchen’s various locations, grocer Morsel & Nosh in Cumminsville, the marketplace at Oakley Kitchen and Food Hall, Spoon: Kitchen & Market in Covington and Madison’s at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.
Donaldson and Mad Cheese will be at Cincy VegFest in Burnet Woods on June 4.To purchase Mad Cheese products or learn more about the business, visit madcheese.com.