Caseus Bistro’s Jason Sobocinski
Every Cheese Monger Has a Story: Jason Sobocinski’s Journey from Assistant Baker to Restauranteur
Arriving at Caseus Bistro in the (very) early morning, founder and owner Jason Sobocinski is deep into the prep work for the day’s service ahead. The cave-like quality to the restaurant is enchanting, more like a cafe tucked away somewhere along the cobbled streets of Paris, rather than in downtown New Haven. He sits down at a corner table and pours a much-needed cup of coffee. His line cooks and bakers trickle in, one at a time, and he greets each with a boisterous welcome. As they go into the kitchen, Jason recounts their backstories and their individual talents. But the man behind the mug – an ever-growing presence in Connecticut’s culinary scene – has a story to tell, too.
It was an auspicious day when a young Jason Sobocinski walked into Chestnut Fine Foods to buy a cake for his parents’ anniversary. While he waited for his cake, he told the staff about the detailed menu he was planning for their dinner. The owners, Patty and Fred Walker, noticed immediately what all of New Haven would come to know in the intervening years: that in the heart of this young, then-marketing major dwelt an artisan chef who belonged in a kitchen, not behind a desk. That very day, Patty and Fred told Sobocinski he should come work for them, beginning his culinary journey.
Sobocinski worked there for several years, eventually helping the store move from its place on Wooster Square to State Street, where it still operates today. “We used to collect the tips from the two tables at Chestnut, and when enough money amassed, they’d take the staff on field trips. We’d go to all kinds of cool places,” Sobocinski reflects, fondly. One of those places was to Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, an institution in the Massachusetts food scene for over 30 years. “Blown away” by what he saw, Sobocinski knew he needed to expand his cooking repertoire.
Soon after, he applied and was accepted to study at Boston University’s prestigious gastronomy program. Sobocinski’s next call was to Formaggio Kitchen. “I called them and said I was moving to Boston and was going to be at the BU program. I have experience, I am really interested in all the cheeses, and they said I could start as an assistant baker. So I started as a baker,” he says, laughing. Eventually, Jason took over Formaggio’s barbeque and went on to receive the “Best in Boston” award before graduating to the Cheese Monger position and then Cheese Buyer. “When my program at BU ended and my wife’s time at Harvard ended, we chose to move back to New Haven, and Ihsan Gurdal (owner of Formaggio Kitchen) helped me open my own thing.” That “thing” would become Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro on Whitney Avenue in downtown New Haven.
“I wanted to do a cheese shop, not a restaurant, but then I found this space,” he says, as he motions to the endearing, Parisian-esque surroundings, “and a restaurant made sense. I wanted to have a cheese shop that had a deep arsenal of cheeses, and in order to do that, you have to move them quickly to enjoy them at their peak ripeness. So it made sense to have the restaurant, so we could keep a quick turnover and introduce new cheeses to our customers through the vehicle of classic comfort food (mac and cheese, burgers, tarts) without asking them for the commitment of buying 2-3 pieces of cheese at $20/lb.”
“Caseus is my thesis,” he thoughtfully asserts as his boyish bravado turns serious and reflective. “The more that you know about the food and the animals and the land, the better you can taste them, and the more you enjoy them. The French call it the terroir.”
Through the success of Caseus, Sobocinski has proven that this philosophy does matter to people. By illuminating the rich history behind each ingredient, he enhances the eating experience. “If we only think of food as utility, then we should just be eating ‘soylent green,’ but if food is going to be a pleasure, then let’s add to the appreciation of each bite.” Sobocinski’s philosophy resonates with his loyal customers, who flock to Caseus and follow the now-famous Caseus food truck to farmers markets throughout New Haven.
But Sobocinski’s success with Caseus has hardly laid his ambitions to rest. He released his cookbook, The Caseus Fromagerie Bistro Cookbook, in 2010. In 2011, he starred in the Cooking Channel show, "The Big Cheese". Then, in 2013, Sobocinski partnered with his longtime friend and coworker, Timothy Cabral, and Mike Farber (owner and head chef of Mikro in Hamden) and opened Ordinary, which was recently voted by Conde Naste as one of the “Best Bars in the World” (only one of three to be given the title in the United States).
Then, when the Calvary Brewery came up for sale in Oxford, Sobocinski jumped on it and founded Black Hog Brewery with his brother, Tom Sobocinski, and master brewer Tyler Jones. “We’re making beer from local ingredients, whether it is our CT Love Bomb, which is made from 100% Connecticut hops, to Rosemary Dunkelweizen, which we grow the rosemary for at the brewery, to our Strawberry Gose that was brewed with 250 pounds of organic strawberries from Massaro Community Farm. We’re all about utilizing what our region has to offer.”
Sobocinski now turns his culinary sights on District New Haven, the office/cowork space being built on James Street, where he intends to open a restaurant on the nine-plus acre, park-like campus. In the collaborative Sobocinski fashion, he has plans to bring in Jamie “The Bear” McDonald of Bear’s Smokehouse in Windsor and James Beardnominated chef Tyler Anderson of Millwrights in Simsbury as his partners. The endeavor will be comprised of a luxurious, 5,000-squarefoot, open-air beer garden on the Mill River, where he plans to bring in brewing equipment and brew beer onsite, and a restaurant that will feature an open kitchen with a wood hearth.
Sobocinski’s motto for Caseus is “every cheese has a story.” As it turns out, so does every cheese monger, and given his entrepreneurial history, Sobocinski’s story is far from over. Connecticut food connoisseurs wait, knife and fork at the ready, for his next chapter.
> Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro: 93 Whitney Avenue, New Haven;
> Black Hog Brewery: 115 Hurley Road, Building 9A, Oxford;