March 31, 2017
The Man Behind the Mould
Graeme Paynter was larger than life, full of ideas and lived with a passion that was not easily matched. Three years ago he started one of Australia’s leading cheese companies before, sadly, a battle with cancer claimed his life.
There are rows and rows of cheese lining the shelves of a Woombye factory and although I’m dressed in a hairnet and gumboots, I can’t help but envision myself in stilettos with wine in hand and a dripping array of cheeses for tasting at my fingertips. Camembert and triple cream brie, feta and a variety of other delicious assortments are all being set, wrapped and prepared to adorn platters across Australia. Award-winning products that would have any savoury palate yearning for more.
The man behind the now-thriving company, Graeme Paynter, was sitting on a couch in Singapore watching a television show with his wife, Karen, when he suddenly decided the art of cheesemaking was for him.
“We were watching this Irish girl on the show making cheese with a little vat and cheesecloth,” Karen says, chuckling over her late husband’s tenacious nature, “Graeme just turned to me and said, ‘I can do that!’ and I just said, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Graeme.’ But, he didn’t let it go. A month later he told me he was serious about it and started to plan.”
“He was like a dog with a bone,” Sandra, Karen’s older sister, laughs in agreement.
Graeme was an ideas man and Karen is a woman of detail.
Graeme was larger than life, he just had a way of connecting with everybody.”
“Once he had an idea in his head, he’d make it happen. Well, mainly, he’d make me make it happen,” Karen says, “But, that’s what made us such a good team. He’d come up with a plan and I’d take care of all the details.”
Graeme and Karen met in Sydney. She was studying to be a lawyer and he was an account executive at Telstra. They met through mutual friends and following a few months of pursuit, the pair fell deeply in love and were married.
“We became friends to start with and we just really liked hanging out together,” Karen says. “He was going overseas and he said I should go with him and from that day onward we were together.”
The pair spent years trotting around the globe before Graeme’s decision to semi-retire as a cheesemaker landed them on a stunning property in West Woombye. A little bit more research and the Singapore-based businessman was on the phone sourcing Sunshine Coast produce to get his cheese company up and running.
“He rang Dick Schroder from Cooloolah Milk and said, ‘I need milk, mate! A constant supply. Can you do that for me?’ I think Dick almost had a heart attack. He couldn’t believe some random person from Singapore wanted his milk,” Karen says, “Once the milk was secured we just went bit by bit, got everything in place and then things took off.”
She, however, still had her doubts about her husband’s cheesemaking abilities.
“I sent him off to learn how to make cheese and he came back having become best buddies with cheesemaker extraordinaire, Carole Willman,” she chuckles, “Graeme was larger than life, he just had a way of connecting with everybody.”
Graeme made his first batch of camembert in July 2014. From the get go, the creamy cheese was perfectly delicious and within a few short months the Woombye Cheese Company’s delights were in high demand. Business production was on the incline, but, sadly, in March 2015, Graeme’s health took a rapid decline.
“He was so tired and he looked shocking,” Karen says, holding back tears. Initially, they thought he was suffering from stress and exhaustion.
“He woke up one morning and he was yellow, and it turned out he actually had a cancerous tumour in his liver. Before long it had spread to his stomach and then on to his bowel.”
Tragically, once the cancer had spread, the diagnosis was terminal.
“After it spread to his bowel, he couldn’t eat or drink and his body started shutting down.”
Graeme passed away in the family home, leaving his loved ones with his final wishes.
“He made me promise not to sell the business,” Karen says, “he wanted me to try.”
Graeme made his first batch of camembert in July 2014. From the get go, the creamy cheese was perfectly delicious and within a few short months the Woombye Cheese Company’s delights were in high demand.”
“Every single day I work, I just think of doing it for Graeme,” Sandra adds.
She and Karen now run the company together, “Knowing that we have the support of the staff and everyone involved really makes it okay. It seems to work, we are definitely doing this because it’s his dream. We’re doing it for Graeme.”
“We hired some amazing staff who have stayed with us from the beginning. They’re so loyal,” Karen says, as a team member walks past, placing his hand on her shoulder, “They do a fantastic job, they’re like family.”
The simple dream of an account executive-turned-cheesemaker has certainly placed Woombye on the map, and with his zest for life and the strength that remains with those he loved, Graeme Paynter’s cheesemaking legacy will certainly be tickling our tastebuds for years to come.
As Karen, Sandra and the team carry on his dream, I’m reminded of just how powerful one person with passion and an idea can be – a passion that my cheese-loving taste buds are certainly thankful for, as I pop another piece of brie on my plate.