Today I’d like to pay respects to someone very important. Daphne Zepos, co-owner of the Cheese School of San Francisco and Essex Cheese and cheese advocate, passed away this morning. She was a role model to so many, extremely giving, an amazingly passionate and funny person, and had more knowledge and life in her pinky fingernail than most of us have in our entire body. And more. Those of us who have had the honor of learning from her, working for or with her, or just sitting next to her at table even once or twice know how lucky we are to have been blessed with her enchanting presence. I consider myself very lucky to stand in the long line of people who are in complete adoration of her.
Rest in peace, Daphne. My heart goes out to all of her friends and family.
Here is an article that was written about her in Wine Spectator in April. While it doesn’t capture her charisma and beauty, it explains her extensive professional reach and influence.
“Cheese educator, importer and innovator Daphne Zepos fed her obsession on the Greek island of Sifnos, where her family vacationed. “I helped the shepherd boys collect the goats for milking every summer,” she says. “Their mothers would make fromage blanc in the sink and we ate it with hot bread.”
But Zepos didn’t get serious about cheese until she was a line cook at Campton Place in San Francisco in the early 1990s. She was put in charge of the cheese service, uncommon in American restaurants at that time unless they were serving classic French fare. While convincing American diners to accept a cheese course presented its own challenges, there was also the problem of sourcing many of the cheeses we now take for granted, as well as finding food purveyors knowledgeable about cheese.
“Suppliers couldn’t tell me where the cheese came from other than it came from France, maybe Normandy if I was lucky,” Zepos says. “They might also tell me the butterfat. That was about it. It was infuriating.”
She broadened her cheese horizons by taking short sabbaticals to Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, as well as stints in the Basque country, the Jura and the Balkans. “It was like opening a box of treasure, a universe that was incredible. I was hooked,” Zepos says.
From 2002 to 2005 Zepos worked at Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York, where she chose and aged hundreds of cheeses in Artisanal’s caves. She also created an affinage (cheese aging) internship program, and, with Max McCalman (Artisanal’s maître fromager), Zepos put together a cheese master class program.
Zepos founded the Essex Street Cheese Co. in New York in 2006. Essex hand-selects only a few artisanal cheeses-Marcel Petite Fort St. Antoine Comté, Cravero Parmigiano-Reggiano, two kinds of Gouda (L’Amuse Signature and small farmstead Goudas, such as Wilde Weide) and a recently introduced small-production Manchego called 1602. Essex sells these cheeses to retailers, such as Cowgirl Creamery, Di Bruno’s and Bedford Cheese Shop. (See http://www.essexcheese.com for a list of retailers.)
Zepos works with cheese retailers in another capacity: as a teacher at The Cheese School of San Francisco. She hopes the school will help elevate the status of those who sell cheese. “Cheese retailers are not recognized in the food industry as craftsmen, like … sommeliers. But they should be,” Zepos says. “There is a craft to putting together an inventory, bringing cheeses back from shipping and a million things like that.” To formalize that recognition, Zepos has been involved in creating a certification program much like the one for sommeliers. The first Certified Cheese Professional exam will be offered in August at the American Cheese Society’s annual gathering, to be held in Raleigh, N.C., this year.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a push for certified cheese professionals if American artisan cheesemakers hadn’t started creating cheeses that compete with the best from Europe. Zepos can claim some credit for this, too. Prior to her time at Artisanal, she worked with the California Milk Advisory Board to develop a program for farmstead cheese, a concept foreign to many dairy cow farmers then involved.
To prove how far American cheesemakers have come, Zepos tells about one of her trips to France to buy Comté. She brought with her Andy Hatch, the maker of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the Wisconsin cheese modeled after French mountain cheeses like Comté. Without anyone noticing, Hatch sneaked some of his cheese among those the Comté cheesemakers were tasting. “When they found out that it was made in the United States, they almost fell off their chairs,” Zepos says.
Zepos feels similarly. Recently she tasted a batch of Winnimere, a cow’s milk cheese made by Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. “I had never eaten such a great cheese,” Zepos says. “It was like Vacherin Mont d’Or [one of the great Alpine cheeses] to the nth degree.”
Not surprisingly, when asked for an ideal cheese plate, Zepos included the Winnimere, along with Hoja Santa, a goat cheese from the Mozzarella Company in Dallas (offering “hints of sassafras,” Zepos says); Ossau Iraty, a Basque sheep’s milk cheese (”delicate texture, subtle layered flavors”); Monte Enebro, a goat cheese from Spain (try it with “oily Marcona almonds, preferably with the skin on”); and L’Amuse Gouda, which Zepos suggests having with “a shot of espresso or roasted cacao nibs.” Sounds like a great way to end a meal.””