Sonoma Chef Getting Back to Cheese

Sheana Davis has been a fixture in the Sonoma Valley culinary community for more than 20 years. She cooked for and with legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher, learned to make cheese from Ig Vella, founded The Epicurean Connection cheese shop and cafe, and introduced cheese education to Sonoma.

Yet despite all her energy, Davis, a petite brunette with a firecracker personality, was running out of gas.

So in September 2015, she handed over the keys to The Epicurean Connection, which she owned for 10 years, to Sonoma restaurateur Manuel Azevedo. Her sigh of relief was heard ’round the Sonoma Plaza.

“Now I don’t have to work until 10 every night,” Davis said. “I’m a morning person, after all.”

Because the demand for her handmade cheeses, Delice de la Vallee and Crème de Fromage, had increased 25 percent over the

course of five years, Davis, 46, had a dilemma: hire more staff for the cafe so she could focus on producing and delivering her cheeses, or close the shop.

“Wholesale sales had grown so much, thanks to Kendall-Jackson, Thomas Keller and other restaurants and retailers,” she said, “that it was more financially sustainable to close the cafe and focus on production.”

No more late nights. No more liquor license. No more covering shifts.

Now it’s back to basics for Davis: cheese production, cheese education and catering, with her products continuing to carry The

From start to finish, Sheana Davis’ approach to cheesemaking is definitely hands-on.

Epicurean Connection label.

One of her biggest fans is Justin Wangler, executive chef for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa and one of Davis’ consulting clients.

“We enjoy her cheese because it is incredibly well-balanced,” he said. “Delice de la Vallee has richness from the cow’s milk along with the nice tang of goat cheese on the finish. It’s an extremely versatile cheese and can be used in both sweet and savory preparations.”

A KITCHEN PRODIGY

Born and raised in Sonoma, a young Davis joined her grandfather Donald Davis, a professional chef, in the kitchen. Every Friday, he prepared meals using local produce and meats and served them to farmers and ranchers at the Sonoma Grange. By the fourth grade, she was carving beef tongue and canning vegetables from her grandfather’s garden.

As a teen, Davis apprenticed under M.F.K. Fisher, supporting the elderly author in her daily at-home cooking and preparing for soirees at Fisher’s Glen Ellen cottage.

“I had no idea who she was,” said a chuckling Davis, who connected with Fisher through a work experience program in high school. “I called her Mary Frances and did whatever she said, which often meant making a lot of chicken stock.”

Months later, she began working with Vella, whose Vella Cheese Co. made Sonoma Dry Jack popular around the country. Vella taught Davis the importance of entrepreneurship and building and supporting communities around food and farming.

“Without Ig, I would have not had the understanding or interest in starting a business,” Davis explained. “He taught me two important words: entrepreneurship and epicurean.”

Vella served as her mentor until his death in 2011; one of his cheese knives and signature paper hat are framed and hang in her office.

INSPIRED BY NEW ORLEANS

After completing the two-year Culinary Arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1988, Davis traveled to New Orleans for an internship at the venerable Commander’s Palace, a time she describes as “magical.” Davis still returns frequently to New Orleans as a guest chef and to explore the city’s ever-evolving culinary scene.

Upon her return to Sonoma, Davis catered events and gave birth to her daughter, Karina, in 1992. She launched The Epicurean Connection business, marketing cheeses and beverages to chefs and retailers. Straus Family

No more late nights. No more liquor license. No more covering shifts.

Creamery in Marshall was one of her clients, well ahead of the local artisan dairy boom.

Davis said that in those days, people thought artisanal milk was absurd.

“You’re going to buy this organic milk,” she said, “in a glass bottle, you’re going to pay twice the price, and you’re going to pay a deposit, and then you’re going to bring it back, and you’re going to promise to clean the bottle?”

It’s a far cry from today, when Straus milk is a kitchen staple for many.

Davis raised Karina, now 23 and a student at UC Berkeley, in the world of Sonoma and Marin cheeses. “I bought my house selling cheese,” she said.

It was at that Sonoma house, where Davis still lives, that she met Bob Sessions, the legendary winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards. He welcomed her to the neighborhood and was a grandfatherly figure to Karina. Eventually, Sessions introduced Sheana Davis to his son, Ben. The couple married on Jan. 23.

In 2005, Davis opened The Epicurean Connection shop in Boyes Hot Springs. Within five years, the tiny store outgrew itself and Davis relocated to downtown Sonoma.

“I had originally wanted to create a cheese salon, where people would enjoy cheese and charcuterie and wine pairings,” she said. But with a larger space and bigger bills to pay, Davis added more food items. “We instantly became a lunch and dinner place.”

EXPERIMENTATION LEADS TO SUCCESS

Making her own cheese didn’t happen until 2010.

“At the end of every weekend, I’d have leftover cheese from catering jobs,” Davis said. “I’d make crème fraîche, chèvre, fromage blanc.”

Experimentation led to the creation of Delice de la Vallee and Crème de Fromage. The former is a blend of cow’s and goat’s milk — creamy, fluffy, earthy and tangy. The initial commercial release placed first in the Fresh Unripened Mixed Milk category at the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition in Seattle. Crème de Fromage, a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese, is sweet, thick, spreadable and perfect for pastas and crostini.

Delice has such a following that it will soon be distributed in New York, thanks to industry demand and the fact that Jay Z and Beyoncé order it by the pound. Locally, Oliver’s Markets are scheduled to stock Davis’ cheeses this year.

Production has moved from Davis’ Sonoma catering kitchen to a Berkeley co-op. Last year, she made 375 pounds of fresh cheese a week; she now makes 500 pounds a week and expects to increase volume by 25 percent this year.

Davis’ Crème de Fromage, a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese, is sweet, thick and spreadable, perfect served as an appetizer with wine.

Compared to Laura Chenel’s Chèvre and Cowgirl Creamery, Davis’ production pales, but for a one-woman show, it’s substantial.

“The demand outweighed the needs of the cafe, and I decided I wanted to put my time and energy into cheese production, distribution and education, and still continue catering,” Davis said.

She sold the cafe to Azevedo, owner of LaSalette restaurant in Sonoma, and he reopened the space early this year as Tasca Tasca, a Portuguese-style tapas bar.

“We have a lot of respect for each other, and now he has a great location, with a great reputation, and I know what he does will be great,” Davis said of Azevedo. “I couldn’t have sold to a better person.”

Antonio Ghilarducci, chef and proprietor at Sonoma’s Depot Hotel Restaurant, embraced Davis’ cheeses from the start.

“What makes them unique is their simplicity and consistency,” he said. “They are mild and not covered in mold or other flavors that would overwhelm the beautiful lactic quality that the cheeses have, and the texture she has been able to achieve through great technique.”

“It’s not every day you get the opportunity to sell your business and hit the ground running with so many new opportunities,” Davis said. “I’m excited to guest-chef, I’m excited to educate chefs and cheese lovers, and I’m excited to finally work on that cookbook I’ve wanted to write for years.”


The Epicurean Connection, P.O. Box 1916, Sonoma, 707-935-7960, theepicureanconnection.com

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