Sonoma epicurean is breaking the mold in cheese education
Flipping through the pages of some culinary magazines in cheese maker Sheana Davis’s Sonoma shop the Epicurean Connection, one will note that most of the cheese makers and chefs featured in photos throughout are older, white men who look very serious. Yet as soon as Davis starts showing you around her new Eighth Street space, you see how she doesn’t fit that mold. Pun intended.
For one, she’s spunky. Her passion for her work as a caterer, chef, cheese maker and cheese educator is joyous and infectious. She’s also difficult to keep up with. Within minutes she’s seemingly covering as many topics as there are varieties of cheese. Still, for as much as Davis has accomplished in the cheese world in the 30 years since she graduated from Sonoma Valley (Agua Caliente) High, she’s not showing any signs of slowing her pace.
And what has her fired up on this particular afternoon is the suddenly booming international market for American dairy cheese.
Davis recently traveled to Dubai to teach classes on “everything cheese – from making it to cutting it, wrapping it and tasting it.” Yet this first international trip to talk cheese was a sort of final step in a long process of trying to get overseas.
Davis’s Epicurean Connection has gone through many variations since it opened in 1992. It started as a marketing firm for Sonoma County dairy clients, and for a few years, Davis had a brick and mortar shop downtown.
She began teaching classes around the United States but she says she always had an eye toward teaching overseas. Still, it would take until February, 2019 for that dream to come true, when she set foot in Dubai as a cheese educator.
“Everyone kept telling me that (as a cheese educator) ‘until you get an overseas trip, you’re not legit.’” It was hosting large tech groups at her shop that inadvertently kick-started her much anticipated international educator journey.
“Believe it or not, the Wikipedia page I got after hosting their group here helped my business more than I ever would’ve imagined,” says Davis. Soon tech companies from around the world started coming to Sonoma to learn about cheese from Davis, who is the only licensed cheese educator in Sonoma.
“One of the biggest groups out there that want to learn about cheese are tech people and they come from around the world,” Davis says.
As Davis zips around her space, bringing in magazines, photographs as well as a copy of the first book to feature her writing – the latest edition of Juliet Harbutt’s “World Cheese Book” – she rattles off just a few of the tech groups from various nations that have come through her doors to learn about cheese. “We had a large group from Sri Lanka; we’ve had groups from Australia and New Zealand. The first group we hosted was from Korea; we hosted them for five days and they learned about U.S. produced cow milk cheese.”
According to Davis, “the Asian countries are obsessed with American cheese.”
Even though Davis was not only bringing diverse groups into the area for weeks at a time and collaborating with hotels like the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and the Silverado Resort, it took a combination of lobbying from fellow cheese educators Mark Todd (aka “The Cheese Dude”) and Chef John Esser to finally get Davis to Dubai.
“Mark, John and I have written curriculums for the cheese classes I teach. Then, we started reaching out to various cheese councils.”
After years of trying, it was the U.S. Dairy Export Council that finally ponied up the money to send Todd and Davis to Dubai. Davis says that she created a bond with her students there when she and Todd joined them at their tables in the commissaries for meals.
“Other chefs who had been there were just so arrogant. We sat right down with everyone and got to know them personally,” Davis says. While this wasn’t a calculated move, Davis says the texts she receives at all hours of the night from excited former students was a bit of a surprise.
“I had to learn the ‘WhatsApp’ so students could stay in touch and now they text me at weird hours to show me cheese plates they put together. I finally had to turn my phone off at night” Davis says.
Davis continues to show how she’s diversifying her knowledge by showing off a 2018 bottle of “The Epicurean Connection Sonoma Coast Rosé of Pinot Noir.“ The wine is available only at cheese classes and was made in-house by another Sonoma Valley High graduate, Jess Wade.
Her next foreign excursion, she says, will be when she heads to London this winter for the British Cheese Awards.
In the meantime, the public is invited to check out her new warehouse and cheese education center at 19670 Eighth St. East at an upcoming open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9.