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Talking Cheese in Asia: Who is Isabella Chen?

During a recent visit to Taipei, our cheese specialist Ivy Ng spoke to Isabella Chen, Taiwan's burrata pioneer, who switched from journalism to cheesemaking 4 years ago. Already counting Michelin-starred chefs amongst her clients, she talks about her eagerness to keep learning and her aspiration to support local dairy farming industry!

Down a narrow and quiet alley in Datong district of downtown Taipei, not far from the Yansan Night Market, on the ground floor of a traditional low-rise building, is the bustling workshop where Isabella Chen and her small team churn out freshly made mozzarella and burrata (or the process of “formatura”) , between midday and 4 pm, three times a week.

Lunch customers can watch them in action while enjoying Lab Man Mano’s signature dish of freshly made burrata with locally grown organic tomatoes and arugula salad or fresh ricotta served with peas and Szechuan pepper oil. For hot dishes, the choices range from elegantly presented Parmigiana di Melanzane to delicious pasta dishes and steak. To finish, one must not miss the creative desserts including burrata with mango, fresh curd with black tea syrup or the caffè affogato with smoked ricotta gelato, combining dessert and coffee in one hit!

Lab Man Mano

On the day of my appointment with Isabella, I arrived just after midday to watch the “formatura” and to enjoy some lunch before returning later in the afternoon for our chat.  Watching them work was fascinating. No words were exchanged amongst them during the entire time I watched – communication is redundant in this well-oiled workshop. Everyone knows the process so well and anticipates Isabella’s every change in activity, toggling between mozzarella and burrata. When their assistance is not required, one of the assistants will be making nodini or bocconcini, while the other one will be busy packaging. It is imperative that packaging is done as soon as a batch is ready to maintain a high degree of freshness.  No time is wasted in the compact workshop.

The cheesemaking team busy at work

Like many Taiwanese of her generation, Isabella grew up with imported processed and industrially produced cheese. She had no idea of what artisanal cheese tasted like. Her interest was piqued when she watched a video of how Mozzarella di Bufala was made in Campania, about 10 years ago.  This did not just pique her interest but also awaken in her a desire for a change in lifestyle.  As a former journalist covering international news, Isabella considered her options. She soon set her mind on cheesemaking and more specifically the pasta filata process, the process of making stretched curd cheese that is unique to Italy.  An Italian speaker, Isabella wanted to create something Italian and something tangible – something of her own.

To kick start it all, she needed to learn the cheesemaking process. It would have made sense to start in Italy but the timing of the study programme did not quite suit her. In 2015, she went to Tokyo to learn from Fujikawa-san, the first burrata producer in Japan. Unlike Taiwan, Japan has a much longer history of cheesemaking, almost a hundred years.  She spent three months as the apprentice to the burrata maker in Shibuya, communicating in a mix of English and Italian languages.  After this stint in Japan, she went to Puglia in 2016 to further hone her skills for one month.

Isabella chose the name “Man Mano 慢慢弄” (literally translated as “crafting slowly”)for her workshop to reflect her ethos in life.  Nothing happens in a flash. She believes that one must spend time to lay down solid foundations before good results can be achieved. With her newly acquired skills, she started practising her craft in a small atelier in Tainan where her family lived. She was lucky to have access to fresh milk from a local farm. After months of practice, she felt confident to test out her prototype cheeses on her Italian friends. Bolstered by their endorsement, her business model slowly took shape and Lab Man Mano was born.

She got her first sales order in 2016, from a pizzeria about to open in Taipei. The restaurant had wanted to taste her cheese first before confirming the order. As a result of teething problems and delays on both sides, Isabella ended up personally delivering the cheese to the pizzeria on the actual opening day.  She anxiously awaited the verdict from the Veronese chef when he tasted her cheese.  It was a sweet moment for Isabella when he pronounced “Hai imparato bene” (translated as “You learnt well”)! 

Today, her clientele consists of 60% restaurants, most having started with her from the inception of Lab Man Mano, and 40% retail customers, including online shoppers, walk-ins and in-dining customers.

Isabella is never one to take shortcuts. Every cheese is created with patience and care. Apart from her renowned burrata and mozzarella, she makes a traditional version of ricotta, using the fermented whey from a previous batch as acid to curdle the fresh whey. The curdling process is therefore very long but the resultant ricotta is much more flavourful. Her traditional ricotta is so much valued by chefs that an Italian chef from the Japanese one-Michelin starred restaurant Pellegrino, changed the cheese used in his dessert from mascarpone to her ricotta, when he was a guest chef in Taiwan.  Similarly, another famous Sicilian chef also picked her ricotta over the imported version.

Success comes to those who wait”.  Isabella should be very proud of her achievements. 

Here is my conversation with this inspiring and industrious burrata pioneer in Taipei.

CWHK: Why did you decide that you would learn to make cheese from the pasta filata family? It involves working with high temperatures, such as stretching the curds at 95°C.  

IC: I am not a fan of strong-tasting cheese.  I knew I wanted to make something Italian. So I decided to make cheese of the pasta filata family, which is unique to Italy.  Essentially, I only make cheese that I want to eat myself!

CWHK: Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP is made with buffalo milk.  Your mozzarella and burrata are made with cow milk.  Is it difficult to access buffalo milk in Taiwan?  Do you work with other types of animal milk?

IC: There are buffaloes in Taiwan but they are not the right breed for farm raising and milking. So I work with Holstein cow milk.  The raw milk is collected three times a week from a farm about 30 minutes drive from Taipei. The collection is about 200 litres each time, depending on our orders.  This farm has consistently been rated within the top 3% of the government’s samples of farm milk, in terms of fat-protein ratio.  [What I like is that] the farm voluntarily and regularly sends samples to the government laboratory to be analysed for fat-protein ratio and tested for bacteria count.  As such, I can be confident of the quality of the milk.  I would one day love to be able to work with Jersey cow milk or buffalo milk.  (Jersey cows are known for their high fat-protein ratio amongst cow breeds and buffalo milk has double the amount of fat than cow milk.)

I also source goat milk from a farm in Tainan with a herd of Nubia goats. Goat milk has smaller fat globules. Therefore it is more robust for long-distance transportation. I make a Robiola Spalmabile with it.  It is a spreadable cheese. You can use it with smoked salmon as hors d’oeuvres. I am currently developing an aged version of goat milk cheese, shaped like a truncated pyramid and ashed, like a Valençay.

CWHK: How would you describe the Taiwanese consumers’ palate for cheese?  Have you made certain adjustments to suit their palate?

IC: I have adjusted the salt level for the local market.  The local salt tolerance level is somewhere between Japanese and Italian.

For the cream in the burrata, I have considered the two PDO creams in France [CWHK: Bresse and Isigny].  One is inland and richer and the other is by the coast and more delicate.  I have chosen to use the more delicate cream as filling in our burrata.

Signature dish: Burrata with tomatoes and arugula salad

CWHK: Without a tradition in cheesemaking in Taiwan, there must be more room for creativity. What are some of your creations for the local market? Have you worked with chefs or other artisans to create new products or ways to enjoy cheese?

IC: The idea of the Mozzarella Bar at Lab Man Mano is to have a space where customers can come and discover more creative ways to enjoy cheese. I have created dishes for the menu that incorporate some local ingredients. For example, we have a dish where the ricotta is served with peas and Szechuan pepper oil.  Another dish is slices of bamboo shoot, topped with stracciatella and Szechuan pepper and pineapple jam.  When I was in Japan, I tasted a burrata with Okinawa mango. I really liked that and decided that it would be a good idea to try it with local Taiwanese mango. This has been a very successful dessert. Our burrata is not too salty so it is quite easily served in a dessert. Children really like it too, as they find rocket salad too bitter. Another fun dish I have created is burrata stuffed with mango paste. When it is cut open, the mango paste flows out like the yolk of a poached egg.

Bamboo shoots wit stracciatella and Szechuan pepper and pineapple jam
Burrata with mango
Image courtesy: Lab Man Mano

For an authentic creation of our own, it has to be the smoked ricotta gelato. In Italy, they make smoked ricotta and they make ricotta gelato, but nobody has thought of putting them together. So we created smoked ricotta gelato here.  We first make the smoked ricotta and then take it to my friend who is an ice-cream specialist to turn into gelato. [CWHK: The result is amazing!  I thought it went so well in the Caffè Affogato! Even better than vanilla ice-cream.]

Caffè Affogata with smoked ricotta gelato

I have created some flavoured cheese, for example the soy sauce mozzarella which has been very popular.  Mozzarella sticks marinated in Japanese soy sauce, mirin and a touch of sake.  It’s a great cocktail hour snack.  I have also created another product with a bartender. In Taiwan, we have a traditional snack called “smoked shark meat” ( 鯊魚煙 ).  As a lot of people do not eat shark meat (including myself), we decided to create a “fake smoked shark meat” based on cheese.  You can slice it thinly and serve it with wasabi and a touch of soy sauce.  [CWHK: Not having tasted the real shark meat dish, this is very delicious and a healthy snack too!]

A Man Mano best-seller: soy sauce mozzarella

For restaurant customers, I prepare a special version of mascarpone flavoured with “ma gao 馬告 (a type of pepper 山胡椒” that is almost like Szechuan pepper, with a hint of citrus.

I enjoy working with local ingredients. For example, I make a cow-milk Primo Sale using an aboriginal herb called Alianthus Prickly Ash, instead of arugula.

Primo Sale with rocket, tana or hazelnuts
Image courtesy: Lab Man Mano

I also make a drunk cheese using the pomace from winemaking.  I coat my cheese using the pomace from a friend’s winery (Weightstone Winery) and age it for around 2 months. The white pomace is from the grape variety Golden Muscat and the red pomace is from the indigenous variety Black Queen.

I would like to work more with chefs, but I think I will start working with Japanese chefs first before working with local chefs.  Japanese cuisine can be more creative and the chefs can be more open in incorporating my cheese products into their cuisine. 

Burrata with mango lava
Image courtesy: Lab Man Mano

CWHK: What are the key qualities you look for in a piece of mozzarella? 

IC: The most important quality about mozzarella or burrata is the quality of the milk.  It’s all about the milk. A good mozzarella needs to have sufficient moisture and is soft, but still relatively resilient.

CWHK: Is your cheese more expensive than the imported products?

IC: The best time to eat burrata is immediate. Same for mozzarella.  Nothing beats fresh locally made cheese.  This is what I tell my customers.  They pay more for better quality.

I have not had to do much marketing since I started.  Most retail customers hear about my cheese because of the restaurants they visit.  They learn from the restaurants where they source the mozzarella and burrata and they come here to buy.  A lot of our customers are repeat customers.

CWHK: How would you describe the cheese industry in Taiwan?

IC: I hope the cheese market does not fizzle out like other fads, like bubble tea. Effective 2025, imported milk from New Zealand will be exempt from duties as a result of the Free Trade Agreement.  This is not good news for local dairy farmers as they will have to compete with imported milk. About 90% of the milk produced locally is sold as drinking milk. It would be good to find an alternative use for local milk and cheese would be a logical option. Unlike yoghurt, cheese has to be made with locally sourced milk. This way, the farmers would have an alternative source of income and not have their income source threatened.  We as cheesemakers should work with the government and universities on ways to develop the cheese industry and teach farmers how to make cheese. 

CWHK: What is your ambition for Lab Man Mano?  What are your plans?

IC: I would love to own some Jersey cows and buffaloes and have them raised by local farmers. I never want to have a farm of my own.  I believe that each person has a dedicated task.  I want to focus on what I do best, and leave others to do what they do best, to achieve the best results.

I would like to invest more into Research & Development, purchase more equipment and develop cheese education for consumers.  Consumers are easily misled – a number of them think Gouda and Cheddar are the only two types of cheese available. They need to learn what is real cheese and how to appreciate it.

We try to come up with new products and new ideas every year.  We need to keep improving ourselves.

Formaggio affumicato alla salsa di soia (Smoked soy sauce cheese) 偽鯊魚煙起司
Image courtesy: Lab Man Mano

CWHK: Who is your hero in life?  Is there someone you aspire to be?

IC: I do not have a role model in life. I admired the work of my Japanese burrata master, but I want to be original. I want to create my own path and not imitate someone else’s, nor follow anyone’s footsteps.

CWHK: Do you take holidays?  Do you work 7 days a week?

IC: I am a very hands-on cheesemaker, so I take no holidays. I work 7 days a week. When I am not making cheese, I am busy at the shop.  I live near the shop, so I am always able to come back to check on aging process. I also sometimes teach cheesemaking. I travel much less now, as my colleagues are not quite up to running the cheesemaking by themselves yet.  However, I try to make at least one trip abroad every year.  For example, I visited northern Italy last year to learn how to make washed rind cheese and other aged and fresh cheese types. I also went to Japan last June.

CWHK: Which is your favourite cheese pairing?

IC: My favourite pairings are cheese and fruit or burrata and prosciutto. I like keeping things simple.  The best things in life are not too complex.

CWHK: If you were a cheese, which one it would be?  Why?

IC: If I were a cheese, it would be burrata.  It’s creamy and straightforward and it creates an impression immediately.  No beating about the bush…..[That’s me!]

Lab Man Mano’s Motto: Keep Calm and Eat Cheese
Image courtesy: Lab Man Mano

Follow Lab Man Mano @lab.manmano (Facebook) or www.labmanmano.com

About the author:

Ivy is an independent cheese and wine educator based in Hong Kong. At Cheese & Wine HK (https://cheeseandwinehk.com) she collaborates with quality suppliers of both cheese and wine to organise educational and creative tasting events. Talking Cheese in Asia is  cheese specialist Ivy Ng’s interview-based series on the movers and shakers in Asia’s burgeoning cheese world. 

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