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An Ode to Daphne Zepos

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An Ode to Daphne Zepos

Many have wondered why I have not posted lately.  Don’t worry, I have not stopped having delectable delusions.  On the contrary, I most definitely have enjoyed a richness of experiences during the past nine months.   Bottom line, I have been unexpectedly busy with very good, and delectable, shenanigans.

These “very good and delectable shenanigans” transported me around the world.  I witnessed battles between the bravest and craziest cheese mongers in a Long Island City warehouse.  I saw tens of thousands of 80-lb Comte wheels aging in an impressive nineteenth-century army fort.  I worked behind the counters of the best cheese stores in the United States during absolute mayhem – aka Christmas.  I rekindled my dormant relationship with the French language.  Finally, for le fair de resistance, I consumed some of the best food and beverages known to man in five separate countries in just under a month.  This is merely an amuse bouche of my feast of experiences during 2012.

In contrast to the many beautiful and delicious moments enjoyed these past nine months, numerous bitter tears were shed and many “therapy sessions” were convened in my apartment amongst close friends.  Death’s painful sting seemed to be a common thread – a minimum of five friends gone in a span of four months.  While each were people unique and special to me in various ways, the pain was the same, especially for those who remained huddled together unitedly to find and provide comfort and support.  All of these deaths touched me in their own way, but one in particular managed to break my heart and open it at the same time.  She was a woman that I knew more in name, reputation, and spirit than in actual reality.  However, her impact on my life was tangible and substantive.  On July 3rd, 2012, the cheese and food community lost a true “Raw Milk Rockstar” – Daphne Zepos, age 52.  As the newest member to Essex St. Cheese Co. and a beneficiary of Daphne’s oozing wisdom, this blow hit me like it did for thousands of others – cruelly and with overwhelming sobriety.  Nonetheless, there is no need for me to relive the obviously depressing nature of this loss.  Instead, I prefer to embrace Daphne’s outlook (as shared to me via her husband) to look to the future with a “vision”.  Days after Daphne died, I began searching through my notes from my first “official date” with Daphne.  I sat on the hardwood floor in front of my menagerie of legal pads that I had saved over the years, hoping I hadn’t thrown away my notes from that rainy day in March in a Manhattan pub.  Alas, I found them, but was immediately disappointed in my initial impression of brevity – only one page?!  I slapped myself for not having taken better advantage of my time with her.  What was I thinking?!  She had taken her precious time to open my eyes to a world of opportunities and give so much of herself, but at the time I failed to appreciate the gift.  Now, she was gone and all I had was one measly page of notes to show for it.  But then, my eyes caught sight of my final notation – “Name 4-5 experiences that said to you, ‘Aha!  This is what I want to do!’”  Immediately I was transported back to that Lower East Side pub, all bright-eyed and naive as all new college graduates are.  After explaining my grandiose plans for a career in food, Daphne had in essence told me to “back it up” and return to the basics to find what I really wanted to do with my life.  It struck me that I had never made my “Aha” list, like many things that I promised to do but didn’t because of “life”.

Well, Daphne, it’s been two years since you told me to contemplate why I love what I love.  It took me almost a year to admit to myself that what I was doing WASN’T what I wanted to do (something you already knew, like most mother-figures do).  It took another three months to put my plan into place.  Then, finally, sitting on the floor of my home office, days after your passing, tear-stained and in the mood, again, to do some serious “pondering”, I decided to make my list.

I finally did it, Daphne.  I’m sorry it’s late…but better late than never.  I figured that you wouldn’t mind since you were always a little slow to respond to emails anyway – let’s consider ourselves “even”.

Juhl’s Top Four “Aha” Moments

  1. Winter 2004 – On a snowy Utah night, the sommelier at my Mamela’s restaurant introduced my senses to the culinary insanity of food and wine pairings.  She invited me to a party of flavors where the guests were fresh red pepper strips, gooey house-made fondue, Chilean red wine and the hostess was ma bouche.  The previous eleven years of “melted cheese” experiences had led me to the point of groaning each time my mom suggested this molten dish, much like a kid who whines “ham sandwich again???” as he opens his lunchbox.  But that night, she instructed me on how to breathe in deeply the wine’s aroma, then to gently enjoy the cheese-cocooned-pepper, allowing both my taste and smell to birth the “flavor”.  For the first time, I understood that “flavor” involved more than just your tongue and that you should NEVER give up on a cheese!  Aha! Moment #1.
  2. June 2007 – After returning from my first trip in France with my sister after graduating high school, I was back at my job as a nanny for an adorably pudgy and precocious three-year-old.  The three days a week that we were together always revolved around food – our Starbucks after-school snack, Teriyaki Chicken from the place next to my bank, or preparing food together for her family’s meal that evening.   Having just been to France, the birthplace of the “sous chef”, I thought it only appropriate that I bring her a “sous-chef kit” complete with apron, mixing spoon, measuring cups, and cookie cutters.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of satisfaction as I looked down at her, standing on her tip-toes to reach the bowl of cake batter while she was mixing.  As I smiled at her, she babbled on and on about how much “Mommy” was going to love this special “present” she was making.  I knew then and there that I needed to teach children about the joy and gratification which results from cooking – concepts that are quickly becoming extinct on a global scale.  Aha! Moment #2.
  3. Alsace, France 2009 – For nearly twenty years, I had heard my dad go on and on (as dads do) about how I needed to go to Germany.  He’d looked at me through his square-rimmed glasses and say, “Everything will just make sense, Rachel.  You will look around and truly understand why you are you.”  And for nearly twenty years I “yeah-yeah’d” him and then would go on to my seemingly “American” ways.  After spending a weekend with dear family friends (first-generation Germans living in Alsace), I sat down to my laptop and composed an email to my father I thought I would never write: “I’m realizing how German I am…fits like an old shoe.  Hardly know these people and yet feel at home…feel like I’m safe…I dunno how to describe it but it’s pretty amazing and I had to say thanks for the opportunity to do this.”  At that moment, I knew that wherever life took me, personally, professionally, or both, it had to be tied to Europe somehow.  It had to be tied to where I felt “safe”.  Knowing where you belong is truly an “Aha” moment – something Daphne reiterated to me.  Aha! Moment #3.
  4. June 2012 – Cheese Monger Invitational in Long Island City, NY.  While this was not my first time at the annual “cheese rave”, it was my first time as a legitimate member of the “cheese community”.  As I stood with my family and colleagues cheering on the contestants, I felt an incredible sense of “belonging”.  I was no longer that weird kid who was “fancy” or “eccentric” or “different” for getting crazy excited about the flavor in raw-milk cheeses or how MIND-BLOWING cashews are with aged gouda!  These labels always left me feeling like loving gourmet-food was a bad thing or snobbish.  Finally, I was normal and in fact, for once, the subdued one!  Surrounded by 400 cheese maniacs…and it was absolutely amazing.  Aha! Moment #4.

Unfortunately, Daphne died before I was able to complete my “Aha” list, let alone share it with her.  I had promised her we’d meet for lunch again in that same restaurant, just steps away from the birthplace of Essex St. Cheese Co, to reassess my goals and share the results of the homework she had given me to do.  Now, I often think about what I would say to her if we could still meet for lunch…

I know that you asked for five moments, Daphne.  However, I think that the fifth is en route.  With the help of your husband, business partners, and dear friends, your most compelling “vision” is becoming a reality.  Your joie de vivre and legacy as a phenomenal teacher is alive through this scholarship that will be awarded to a bright-eyed and eager cheese monger committed to your same vision, that of cheese education.  In the last nine months, I have poured a great deal of time, energy, and heart into the process of setting up and administering this endowment fund.  Along the way, I have been connected to literally hundreds of souls that were all made better by having met you, each time learning something new about you, and consequently, our relationship remains strong and vibrant in my mind.  Out of all of my experiences this year, my encounter with you was the most extraordinary in how it broke and opened my heart at the same time.  The separation from a mentor, for any reason, is a feeling that leaves students helpless and questioning how they will continue to bring honor to their education received.  But, you didn’t leave your students, friends, or colleagues alone.  This foundation and scholarship unites all you know and gives us the tools to allow your love of cheese, community, and life to carry on and grow within our own hearts.  So this summer, at the American Cheese Society Conference in Wisconsin, when an eager cheese monger is accepting their check for the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award, I know that this will be part of my really big and magical “Aha! Moment #5”.