I have been blessed with a number of great guides in this world of cheese that I have been navigating the last several years of my life. Most of them are women, and among them Daphne Zepos was one of the greatest.
For a while, she was "just" a brilliant smiling face I would see across the room at conferences and trade shows. Then, one year we were introduced and instantly she took me under her wing, "Ah, Mister Emi, I've heard about you..." she said. Mister Emi. The lilt of those words as she would smile a half smirk, half wink, as if she had me all figured out when even I was still finding my way. And over the years, that would be how she would call me and how I will always hear her voice in my head.
Though our meetings were seldom and our conversations all the more infrequent, there was always a familiarity and understanding with which she spoke to me. It honored and humbled me to know this woman had taken interest in my career and was keeping tabs on me. "So, Mister Emi, tell me about..." she would often start our conversations with. Whether it was my ideas about distribution, farmers markets, or that dreaded A word "affinage" she would always pick my brain to see what I was thinking about and talk about what was on my mind whether immediate or just shelved for long term development. She always wanted to help steer my course, but never in any sort of invasive way. It was a comforting guidance that always led me to my own decisions, simply shedding light on my paths or offering me others I hadn't yet seen.
Most recently, she was key in my decisions to leave Utah and return home to California. Her and so many others, but there were key moments that I have come to associate with her. Three in particular.
The first came when I was just starting to question where exactly my career would lead. That one ended with words from another brilliant cheese guru who ended our meeting with, "The way I see it, your next move... is to move." That started the wheels turning, but I decided instead to give it one last go. That decision came when I was at my low point, when so many of us were...
I attended a conference in Sonoma, but I wasn't really there. I did my best to focus, but I was so worried about everything that had become my life in Utah. My work, my love life, my happiness... where was it all? I was distracted. I still managed to glean much and benefit from the conference, but there was something more I was in search of. I had hoped to catch up with a few people who had always offered me sage advice. Sheana certainly let me bend her ear, and there's probably no other single person I owe more to than her. But where was Daphne? Finally, on my last day there, as I sat on a panel of retailers, she appeared. Alas, we were leaving straight away after the forum... but her words for me then were so completely direct and poignant, her care for me apparent in their urgency. She grabbed me aside for just a moment and looked me straight in the eye. It was the only time she wasn't ever smiling when we spoke. She issued a warning that it was a small world and that people talk. She said that whatever I was to do, that I needed to do it right.
And there was my decision. I was too invested in my position and had given too much of myself to simply walk away. I was going to give one last attempt at change with all my heart. And I did. Along with a committee of coworkers, we tried our damnedest, and all of us learned a great deal about ourselves, our camaraderie, and our potential in this world.
Several months later, comes the third. We were in Montreal, and I hear a calling brightly behind me, "Mister Emi!" Daphne threw her arms around me beaming the most brilliant smile I had seen on her face, "Oh, Mister Emi..." and with her arm tightly around my shoulder, we simply walked slowly down the hall as she contemplated her words. We stopped and she looked at me straight in the eyes and once more was direct to the point, "I just have to say... congratulations. Wherever you go now, Mister Emi, you will be fine. Better than fine. You have a whole community behind you, and it has been a true pleasure to witness."
And with those words, whatever darkness that lingered was washed away, and at that moment my decision was made. I was going to leave Utah and return home.
Originally, I was just going to pack up and head back to the Bay Area... but that is a whole 'nother story. Regardless, where I am today I owe in great deal to the words and guidance Daphne has shown me over the years.
I will forever cherish the moments we were able to spend together, mostly talking about cheese and the possibilities of cheese here in this country. She fostered many grand ideas, and her guidance and mentorship will never be forgotten by me nor so many others she has touched in our community.
As Tia Keenan posted earlier today, "She was so much more than the Queen of Comte. She was the shepherdess of an entire generation..."
And that is how I will envision her, standing tall on some verdant green rolling hill, her hair and whatever beautiful scarf she wore for the day billowing in the breeze, her smile big and bright as she watches over us, her flock.