Via The New Yorker By MARGALIT FOX, Published: July 7, 2012
Daphne Zepos, an internationally known authority on cheese whose expertise encompassed the buying of it, the selling of it, the making of it and above all the almost transcendental experience of eating it, died on Tuesday at her home in San Francisco. She was 52.
The cause was lung cancer, her husband, Brad Brown, said.
A writer, teacher, consultant, importer, chef and cheese-competition judge, Ms. Zepos was, as The New York Times wrote in 2005, “one of the most respected voices in the field of American cheese.” (In this accolade, “American cheese” does not denote American cheese.)
From 2002 to 2005, Ms. Zepos was associated with the Artisanal Cheese Center, the restaurateur Terrance Brennan’s vast Manhattan complex at which cheese is aged before being shipped to consumers, shops and restaurants.
In 2006, she helped found the Essex Street Cheese Company. Based in New York City, the company imports and wholesales a small number of artisanal cheeses from Europe. Chief among them is Comté, a French cousin of Gruyère that, as Ms. Zepos rapturously told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, unleashes “a tsunami wave of cream” in the mouth “and leaves that incredible aftertaste of cream and butter on the tongue.”
Ms. Zepos could wax more poetic still. In describing the sensory pleasures of a given cheese, her husband said on Thursday, she might invoke Homer, Mark Rothko, the soul music of Stax/Volt Records and the pianist Glenn Gould in a single blissful breath.
Last year, Ms. Zepos became an owner of the Cheese School of San Francisco, the country’s only independent institution of learning devoted to cheese.
Ms. Zepos’s work — as well as her writings on cheese for The Atlantic magazine’s Web site and elsewhere — helped prompt the current interest in artisanal cheese among American consumers.
“Twenty years ago, the image of cheese, other than amongst a very tiny percentage of Americans who had traveled a lot, was really about mass-market cheese,” Ari Weinzweig, a founder and chief executive of Zingerman’s, the gourmet food concern in Ann Arbor, Mich., said on Thursday. “Today, thanks in part to Daphne’s leadership and teaching and training, a far bigger slice of the American populace understands what artisan cheese is, and can be.”
Ms. Zepos was as much anthropologist as ambassador, for her travels in pursuit of fine cheese took her to the farms and pastures of small producers throughout Europe and the United States. The best of their handiwork, she often said, was imbued with the taste of mountain and meadow and with the life histories of the cheese makers themselves, or so it seemed.
“She wanted people to support small makers of cheese and to understand all the work and the love that went into it,” Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a writer on food, said on Thursday. “She told people how to appreciate the full range of scents and taste and how to look at and how to feel cheese — literally: touch it, crumble it, understand the texture.”
In perhaps her most important role, Ms. Zepos was a gerontologist of cheese. More precisely, she was an affineur, as someone who oversees the aging of cheese to its exquisite, carefully calibrated pinnacle is known. The profession, which combines the skills of artist, chemist and nursemaid, is one to which only a few dozen people in the United States can lay claim.
It was this job that Ms. Zepos held at Artisanal, presiding over the center’s five “caves,” large walk-in refrigerators with rigorously controlled temperature and humidity. There, cheese is tenderly husbanded and refined — aged, turned, sometimes rinsed in wine or beer — before being deemed mature enough to serve.
Daphne Zepos was born in Athens on July 13, 1959, to Costa and Greta Zepos. Her father was a Greek diplomat, and she was reared in Athens, London, Geneva and Brussels. She studied medieval history at the University of Kent in England, and architecture at the Architectural Association, a professional school in London.
In 1987, her father became the Greek ambassador to the United Nations, and Ms. Zepos moved with her family to the United States. She studied at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) and later worked at the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco, where her duties included assembling its trolley of artisanal cheeses and wheeling it through the dining room.
Ms. Zepos’s first marriage ended in divorce; she married Mr. Brown, an artist, in 1994. He survives her, along with her parents and a sister, Amalia Zepou.
To travel with Ms. Zepos to a remote mountain farm, to attend one of her classes or even to engage her in casual conversation was, her colleagues said, to be in the incontrovertible presence of an evangelist.
“She never was blasé,” Mr. Kummer said. “She loved what she did. She loved the people who made cheese. She loved looking at the light in your eyes when she put a piece of cheese into your mouth.”