Meet PCG Member – Zack Gadberry – From Chef to Cheesemaker

PCG Member Zack Gadberry - Uno Alto Volta
Photo by Peter Taylor

It’s all in the hands.

zack-ballTo look at the large, beefy hands of cheesemaker Zack Gadberry, you’d never guess them capable of pulling and wrapping the thin, delicate strands of mozzarella to make up a round of burrata. But they do, and they do it well.

About 400 times every week, Gadberry plunges those hands into near-boiling water to form the popular little cheesy pouches found all over Charlotte. From farmers market stands to local retailers to some of the finest dining in town, Uno Alla Volta cheese has stolen its way onto our plates and into our hearts, and mozzarella is where it began.

It all started in the kitchen of Vivace, where then-chef Gadberry was searching for a good source for that essential staple of traditional Italian cuisine. “I just couldn’t get anything I liked,” he says in typical straightforward fashion. “All the commercial mozzarella you can get is just crap.” So he began experimenting with his own, prepping the curds from high-quality milk, then pulling them to order on the line. He also began making burrata for specials. “I just kind of honed my skills there.”

zack-packageDuring that time, his wife Victoria, a representative for a wine wholesaler, casually mentioned her husband’s new hobby during a visit to Pasta & Provisions. It was a natural fit and turned into UAV’s first retail opportunity. “They’re the consummate local supporters,” says Zack. “We had so many restaurants and customers going in there, it just developed an interest in the product.” It didn’t hurt that many of those potential customers already knew the name behind the cheese.

In a way, the early success of UAV can be credited to Gadberry’s skills both as a cheesemaker and a networker. Although originally from Kentucky, he had established myriad professional ties since arriving here in 2008 to earn a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales. With a resume starting at Customshop on Elizabeth Avenue, a stop at the Wine Shop at Foxcroft, and finally Vivace, he’d made personal contacts in numerous influential kitchens around town. It was only natural that professional ears would perk up at the news that one of their own was producing great-tasting mozzarella right here in Charlotte.

As demand grew, a previous consulting gig with Brazz Carvery in Uptown led to an agreement to rent kitchen space during off-hours. Then in 2014, all it took was a first successful day at the Regional Farmers Market to clearly demonstrate a strong retail demand for UAV cheese, and Gadberry was ready to leave Vivace and launch himself fully into business.

Membership in the Piedmont Culinary Guild has complemented the chef’s professional networking skills with opportunities to introduce UAV cheese to an even wider audience. “PCG has gotten us out in the public eye,” he says, “through email blasts and events like BOOM! Charlotte, where the public has the opportunity to try our stuff.”

One key opening in retail sales was a PCG connection with Rachel Klebauer, owner of Orrman’s Cheese Shop in Charlotte’s 7th Street Market and Raleigh’s Lafayette Village. Prior to the emergence of UAV, Klebauer says she didn’t carry mozzarella at all, due to inferior quality or freshness. “The cheese [Zack] makes fits in my shop, not only because it’s locally produced, but because it’s well-made and consistent in quality each time,” says the shop owner. “And it’s been this way from the beginning.” Beyond that, Gadberry’s twice-weekly drop-offs make a big difference. “I like that he is able to deliver so frequently, which ensures freshness of this highly perishable cheese.”

zack-cheeseThe transition from a busy restaurant line into a one-man production line seems to suit the intense, unpretentious Gadberry. Contrary to what one might expect, spending hours alone in a quiet kitchen has not hindered his chef’s creativity.

In the two years since leaving Vivace, the UAV repertoire has grown to include ricotta, feta, queso fresco, crème fraiche and cultured butter.

“It’s just the nature of somebody who’s worked in a kitchen or been a chef. “Eventually you’re bored with what you’re doing, and you expand and then you try something else.”

Most recently he’s tried his hand at goat cheeses, tapping into his network yet again to pair up with Nature’s Sunrise, an Amish dairy in Yadkin County. Last month he unveiled Ashy Goat, a button of ripened goat’s milk that can be aged up to a month. He next plans to develop a Brillat-Savarin, a French-style aged triple-cream cow’s cheese.

Now that he’s become the acknowledged master of local Italian staples, Gadberry is ready to push further with this new source of local milk and the possibilities of aging. “Some of the best cheeses in the world are made from goat’s milk,” he says. “I’m looking into styles that are less popular. But really, I have to see what takes to the milk.”

That respect for ingredients and dedication to quality have helped bring UAV rapid success. As Gadberry’s connections and experience continue to grow, he’s sure to go on bringing innovative flavors to a loyal, cheese-loving audience. It seems whatever form of dairy this chef puts his hands to, the results are hands-down delicious.

Profile written by Alison Leininger