Leah Park Fierro: Eagle Rock’s dairy queen

The Milkfarm team includes (from left), Melody Dahlgren, Owner Leah Park Fierro and Devra Golden in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles April 4, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental

Milkfarm, Eagle Rock’s only artisan cheese shop, is a dangerous place. From the Bandaged Bismark to the Brie de Meaux, one can imagine even the most disciplined vegans struggling to walk in and out without giving the carefully constructed French ham ficelle sandwiches a double-take.

Equally overwhelming are the six women behind the counter, each wearing a headband in her own style, eager to educate customers on proper cheese storage and appropriate wine pairings. Customers, unfamiliar with most of the gourmet brands, pick up blocks of white, blue and yellow cheeses, asking them, “Is this any good?”

“Literally everything on the shelves, we think is good,” four-year Milkfarm employee Devra Golden said. “At least Leah has tasted everything on the shelves, and whenever possible she tries to always make sure to save samples so that the rest of the staff have an opportunity to taste all the things that we bring in to sell.”

From the d’Amatxi cherry confitures of the Basque region to the Spanish sheep’s milk truffle cheese, Queso de Oveja, Milkfarm’s carefully curated shelves reflect a well-travelled owner connected to family farms and producers worldwide.

Leah Park Fierro, the owner of Milkfarm, bought her first plane ticket at 15, and left for San Francisco without asking her mom for permission.

“I was like ‘Bye mom, I’ll see you on Sunday night,'” Park Fierro recalled.

By age 26, Park Fierro had saved enough money to pay off her culinary school loan, buy a new car and pay it off, embark on a 10-month tour of the globe and still have enough in savings to return home comfortably without immediately searching for a new job. So why cheese?

The shop owner backtracked to her elementary-aged self, who found her dairy addiction in her friend Vanessa Garcia’s blocks of Monterey Jack. Vanessa’s parents stocked up on the cheese bricks for what Park Fierro describes as “strictly quesadilla purposes.” They sent the young Park Fierro home with her own sweaty white blocks of cheese, insisting that she confess her love of Monterey Jack to her mom, and convert her into also seeing the weekly pound of cheese as the gooey transcendence that stole Park Fierro’s heart.

A cheese obsession, uncommon for most Korean-Americans, resulted in some fusion culinary experiments in the young chef’s kitchen. A child of the fast-food and packaged-product-crazed ’80s, Park Fierro recalls putting Kraft Singles inside her mother’s rice cooker to create what she deemed “an Asian-style quote-unquote mac and cheese.” Today, she says she’s evolved from the days of Kraft Singles, and now only uses fine rice with cubed aged cheddar to recreate her childhood favorite.

But to really understand “Why cheese?” Park Fierro said one must first understand “Why the food industry?” Being a chef wasn’t a popular career option in the late ’80s and early ’90s, according to Park Fierro. She grew up watching Julia Child, Yan Can Cook and How to Boil Water — but that was all there was, Park Fierro said, and following a culinary path wasn’t exactly in vogue.

The child of a single mother, a “latchkey kid,” she said she wasn’t exactly prepared for a four-year university path, and she would’ve never considered it regardless. Megan Ortega, Park Fierro’s childhood friend, said the decision to pursue food came as a surprise to her, because Park Fierro had excelled in high school, taking Advanced Placement courses and participating in student government. But, Ortega said, Park Fierro wanted to follow food. Perhaps a remnant trait from her days training for triathlons, Park Fierro chased the culinary dream relentlessly, with the goal of one day owning her own business at the finish line.

Park Fierro graduated high school at 17 and started at the California Culinary Academy a month later. A month before her graduation, Park Fierro recalled her mom asking her if she was supposed to take the SATs “or something like that.”

“And I was like, ‘Oh no, mom, I think I was supposed to take that last year, but I’m going to culinary school,'” Park Fierro said.

Luckily, her mom didn’t protest.

Park Fierro said she fell in love with the mathematics of the pastry chefs. She’s not a dessert person — “I’d much rather have two glasses of wine,” she said — yet was struck by the structure and beauty of pastries, and that she had to use a ruler to get it right.

Her post-grad years included working head pastry gigs at luxury California hotels like the Ritz-Carlton.

“She was working in the hotel business, which is really hard because it’s kinda corporate,” Ortega said. “And it’s a little tough in the kitchen as a woman sometimes — just hearing the struggles and long hours, working every holiday — but she always did it. There was never any complaint, it was just put your head down and work hard and learn everything you can.”

Then the quarter-life crisis hit. Park Fierro put in her notice of resignation, and thanks to years of financial planning she learned from her mom, a banker, she was able to escape to 16 different countries for a span of 10 months. After almost a year of globe-trotting, she returned to her hometown of Monterey Park. Not really wanting to go back into pastry, and thinking over how kitchen staff are so underpaid and overworked, Park Fierro Googled local cheese shops.

It was 2007, and there were three. She called the Cheese Store of Silverlake. They were hiring, but she had a backpacking trip planned. It’s now or never, she thought. She interviewed, was hired before she could drive back home and spent six years learning about the cheese industry.

“It was such an amazing job. It was new, it was exciting, it was ever-learning, it was fun. And it kept me very connected to people in the food industry. Because chefs know food, but they don’t know cheese. Cheese is very specialized,” Park Fierro said.

In 2009, she knew she wanted to own her own business, but also knew that she had to do it right. Just because she knows what Brie is doesn’t mean she knows how to run a business, she thought, so she got a certification in small business entrepreneurialism from Rio Hondo College in Whittier.

The Cheese Shop of Silverlake went up for sale, but she didn’t end up buying it. Instead, Park Fierro spent nine months stalking the East L.A. communities close to home for the perfect location for her own business: a place she was familiar with, comfortable with, and with a community that would appreciate good food. Park Fierro hit the location jackpot when, after signing the Milkfarm lease in September of 2013, Redfin named Eagle Rock the second-hottest neighborhood of 2014.

More than good food, she wanted Milkfarm to be a place of education. “Why is there an expiration date on sauerkraut?” Park Fierro asked with frustration. “I think in America we’re so hung up on rules and regulations and stickers and certifications, that people don’t really think about food. If you think about why cheese was invented in the first place, it was because there was a lack of refrigeration. There were no refrigerators 7,000 years ago.”

She said many people don’t understand the basic source of what they’re eating, and it’s vital that her customers learn where their food is actually coming from.

“Because not too long ago,” Park Fierro said, “I had somebody ask me — there’s a company called Beehive Cheese Company — and she asked me if the cheese was made from bees. If bees made the cheese. So, that is what I’m trying to do — I made two of the most basic words that everybody knows: milk and farm. Let’s take it back.”

But the emphasis on education isn’t only targeted towards Milkfarm’s customers. Park Fierro holds her staff to a high standard as well, spending a year training each new employee, and handing out tests on the science of cheese.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, what cheese has blue spots in it?’ No, it’s not like that at all,” Ortega said. “It’s the science of it, because she wants people to fully understand it. She wants people to have that passion for it.”

An assortment of Milkfarm’s menu items await the lunch rush in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles on Monday, April 4, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental.

Golden is thankful for the hands-on educational opportunities that Park Fierro provides the team, noting that all staff members are encouraged to go out and meet cheesemakers and other professionals in the field. Her voice perks up as she explains a common misconception that people have about cheese crystals, that they are not salt crystals, but Tyrosine, a type of amino acid.

“That’s a fun fact that [Park Fierro] makes sure we all know about,” Golden said.

One would think planning European Wine Tastings or Sake and Cheese Nights is hardly a challenge, but owning a small business isn’t always easy, especially as a woman.

“She’s had it tough, too,” Ortega said. “Because I know when people look at her — and she looks younger than she is, she has really good genes — they say ‘Oh, let me speak to the owner of the business,’ and she’ll be like, ‘That is me.'”

Park Fierro confirmed these experiences.

“I have had men come in here and ask, ‘Why aren’t there any men working behind the counter?,'” she said.

She responded to one customer explaining that she will hire a man as soon as there are men who are as qualified as the women that have applied.

“And he turned around and said, ‘So, you’re telling me that men don’t have as good taste buds as women?’ And I didn’t say that at all,” Park Fierro said.

She admitted that customers are more likely to notice a staff compiled entirely of women than one of all men. Park Fierro opened the store with two high school friends, Jacob Rodriguez and Jephreda Hudson, her first Milkfarm employees.

“Not one person who walked through the door — man or woman alike — would think that I was the owner. They always thought that [Jacob] was the owner,” she said.

While the indirect sexism was frustrating at first, Park Fierro explained that she’s come to view it as a positive nowadays, particularly when she wants to avoid salespeople that come into the store.

“They have no idea who the owner is because we all look the same age and we all look really young. So it’s actually worked to my advantage in many ways,” she said with a laugh.

Park Fierro explained that this is probably a struggle for many women, depending on what business they own. While cheese isn’t a male-dominated industry, she said, business-ownership tends to be almost exclusively male. She’s joined the Lady Bosses of Eagle Rock, a local organization founded by therapist Michelle Harwell, that brings together women business owners in the community. They hold meetings four times a year, Park Fierro said, and help one another with skills like accounting and marketing, as well as serving as a social gathering group.

Supporting others seems to be a common thread that runs through all of Park Fierro’s relationships, from her employees and friends to young kids at the local Boys and Girls Club. Park Fierro said how excited she was to be teaching a class there April 18 on proper etiquette while eating at a friend’s house.

“She is really big on being a role model, and sharing her experiences,” Ortega said. “Like when she’s going back to her high school or the Boys and Girls Club. It’s more of letting people know there’s other options — you don’t have to go down what everyone’s telling you to do. Do what you want to do. Do what you truly want to do — which is kind of amazing.”

Park Fierro arranges displayed cheeses in the Milkfarm refrigerator in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles April 4, 2018. Spencer Patrick/The Occidental.