Colorado chef took ‘long, strange trip’ to create cheesecake in a jar

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Photo: Cheesecake in a jar

This story originally aired on 8/27/2014.

It wasn’t Lee Mathis’ idea to put cheesecake in jars. It actually came from an instructor and friend at Colorado Mesa University.

"Dan Kirby walked up to me one day and he's like, 'Dude, you gotta put the cheesecakes in a jar,' and I was like, 'Ya, right.'" Mathis says. "But I couldn't get the idea out of my head."

Two months later, Mathis says, he put his first cheesecake in a jar.

Mathis' company, Decadence Gourmet Cheesecakes, makes traditional flavors like German chocolate, but that's not all.

"We kind of push the boundary sometimes," he says.

Just try his jabanero pepper key lime cheesecake.

A year or two ago, Mathis launched a line of savory cheesecakes, though he's not calling them cheesecakes anymore.

"If I mention to someone it's a savory appetizer cheesecake, there's a look like a deer in headlights. So we rebranded them as savory craft spreads," Mathis says.

Photo: Cheesecake in a jar Lee MathisAn interview with Mathis is the latest installment in "Colorado Matters'" series, "Fish to Focaccia," about Coloradans who create food for farmers' markets.

Cheesecakes weren't Mathis' first career, like many other food entrepreneurs. He worked in newspaper sales for about two decades, but then faced a life-threatening illness and had to move on to another job.

"I came back here, and ended up in Grand Junction," Mathis says, adding that he was driving a cab to make a living, but didn't enjoy it.

"I've always loved cooking. I grew up on the Atlantic City boardwalk, tossing pizzas, doing silver-dollar pancakes in the window," Mathis says. "So I called up what was then Mesa State College and asked if they had a culinary program."

Mathis' business expanded quickly at the beginning, and it gained some attention from national food news media. But the recession really hurt him. "We almost went out of business a few times," Mathis says.

Now the business has mostly recovered, and this year, it's expanding to the East Coast.

"The thing is, if you're lucky enough to find out what you have a passion for in life, and you can figure out a way to actually make a living out of it, you're living the life of Riley," Mathis says.