In 2013, Willy Bridgham and his wife Shaleena were working for the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company (he made cheese and she handled sales) when they found out the business was changing ownership—which gave the couple the perfect opportunity to follow their dream and launch their own cheese business. “They say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life…and we have always loved the artisan aspect of making and selling cheese,” says Shaleena.
With the help of Willy’s strategic-thinking sister Josie Madison (now the operations and finance director), Four Fat Fowl was up and running in an old pizza shop in Stephentown just a few months later. The name is a nod to their Capital Region roots—it’s inspired by Dutch landowner Stephen Van Rensselaer, whose tenants paid “four fat fowl” as part of rent in the 19th century. The first cheese they made? St. Stephen, a smooth and buttery triple cream made with Jersey cow’s milk (from Dutch Hollow Farm in Schodack Landing) enveloped in a soft, bloomy rind. “Willy has the most experience with soft-ripened cheeses,” and at the time, there wasn’t a prominent East Coast-based triple cream, “Plus, we needed to be able to sell cheese to make more cheese, and triple cream ages in just two weeks,” says Shaleena.
St. Stephen was a hit, and Four Fat Fowl outgrew their first space after four years. So, the trio undertook the massive project of purchasing and renovating the old Stephentown elementary school (which shuttered in 2010) to grow their business even further. They added two new cheeses: Inagadda Ricotta, made with whey from St. Stephen, and CamemBertha, a soft cheese like St. Stephen, but aged twice as long with earthy undertones. CamemBertha was a top-five finalist in the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest.
Grateful Dead fans will no doubt recognize song references in St. Stephen and CamemBertha. “When naming the cheeses, we figured, who doesn’t love the Dead?” says Shaleena.
But what about Inagadda Ricotta? “We looked through so many Dead references and just couldn’t find anything to match the flow of ‘ricotta,’ so we had to switch it up and use an Iron Butterfly song instead.”
The trio are, no surprise, all music lovers. (Willy plays guitar on the side.) “Music makes people happy, and so does cheese, so the two should be together,” adds Shaleena. The Bridghams and Madison honor that connection annually at their free Celebrate Cheese, Beer, and Music! festival (Saturday, August 19, this year) on the grounds of their Stephentown facility.
Today, Four Fat Fowl produces about 2,000 cases a month. The cheeses can be found at local shops like Hudson’s Talbott & Arding, the Catskill Country Store, and all locations of Adams Fairacre Farms and DeCicco & Sons. Nationwide, most Whole Foods carry St. Stephen, but you can also order all three at fourfatfowl.com.
What’s next? The team is discussing their fourth cheese launch—and if it’s anything like their current trio, we’re in for a treat.