The Cheesemaker and Café Owner

SHEANA DAVIS

Bringing the Big Easy to the Sonoma Plaza

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPH BY FERRON SALNIKER

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It all started with a cookbook.

In 1988 Sheana Davis had just graduated from the culinary arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College. While in a bookstore, she picked up the Commander’s Palace Cookbook, a collection of recipes from New Orleans’ iconic white-table Creole restaurant. It took her into an unknown world.

What was gumbo? What was jambalaya? And what was Mardi Gras?

While her culinary school cohort went off to France and Italy, Davis hopped on a train to New Orleans. She spent two months as an intern at Commander’s Palace. It was in that kitchen where Davis prepped mirepoix, cleaned crawfish and got her first taste of Southern flavors. The grunt work was heavy and the internship was brief, but it was there that she began a love affair with the Big Easy.

Davis is the owner of the Epicurean Connection, a market, cafe and wine bar around the corner from Sonoma Plaza. She’s a petite woman and a fast talker with a purposeful walk. She told me that she wants to start taking tap dancing lessons on Sunday mornings—because although she’s running a small business, making cheese, planning a yearly conference and traveling, she’s bored.

I can picture her leaving the kitchen with her apron still on after making five gallons of bacon brown sugar jam, and tapping the crap out of that stage. From what I can tell as her voice quickens during our interview, the things that excite her the most are her friends and family, New Orleans and cheese.

It would be correct to call Davis a caterer, a chef, a culinary instructor or a small business owner, but she’s a cheesemaker (and cheesemonger) at heart, and she’s very good at it.

A fridge full of Wisconsin and California artisan cheeses hums at the back of the Epicurean Connection. Blue-speckled blocks glow on the top two shelves and cream- and orange-hued wheels sit on the bottom. Davis has spent over a decade as a consultant launching cheese brands big and small, and bringing together cheesemakers from across the country for the annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference.

Her own cheese, Delice de la Valle, a triple-cream blend of cow and goat’s milk, is a favorite with customers like the French Laundry. It’s safe to say that if you order one of the cafe’s artisan American cheese plates, you’re sampling some of the tastiest cheese in the country.

The first Epicurean Connection was a tiny cafe and shop inside a strip mall in Boyes Hot Springs. Davis originally moved into the space with the intention of making it an office. Shortly after signing the lease she discovered that her grandfather had operated a shop out of the same space over 40 years ago. A second discovery revealed drains under the carpeting and fake paneling—the office had been equipped to be a commercial kitchen. Chalking it up to fate, Davis was soon pulling espresso shots and offering a small menu of soups and sandwiches.

Three years ago, the Epicurean Connection moved to its current location. The walls are Easter egg lime, except for the painted black skylines of New Orleans and Brooklyn on one side. Piles of books and framed awards clutter on top of an old piano. There’s an eclectic assortment of pantry supplies clearly meant for local cooks and tourists alike: gallonsize cans of coconut milk, pasta made in Oakland, kosher salt, hoisin sauce, pickles from Brooklyn, chocolates from Vermont, and local oils and vinegars. Handwritten notes shout out praise for salsas and syrups.

The cafe menu, a serious ode to cheese, boasts a selection of grilled cheese sandwiches with homemade marmalades and tapenades, openfaced tartines, crepes and a few soups and salads thrown in.

“You don’t get a table by yourself here,” said Davis, sitting at one of the communal tables in the shop. “Which is part of making a community and conversations and sharing, which to me is very New Orleans.”

Other clues of Davis’s affection for New Orleans abound. Several golden gallon containers of Creole mustard tower over the store from the highest shelf, much like a Virgin de Guadalupe painting would at a taqueria in Mexico. Black and white photos her daughter took of Willie Mae’s Scotch House and an old snowball shop, both in the Crescent City, hang on the wall.

The cafe itself is laid out shotgun style: Customers order from the back counter and later pay up front, something she adopted from one of her favorite New Orleans cafes. Live music plays Thursday through Sunday, and usually it’s a blues band.

Since her days at Commander’s Palace, Davis has made New Orleans a second home. She visits up to six times a year and fills her days guest chef-ing at restaurants, going to parties, volunteering, discovering new foods and hanging out with her friends—life-long friends, as she describes them. People like Chef Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon, with whom she takes family vacations (this year they’re thinking Mexico). She met Lolis Eric Elie—the New Orleans–born writer whose most recent work includes the Treme cookbook—volunteering after Hurricane Katrina, and the two have remained close.

“Sheana’s approach to New Orleans is emotional, culinary and philanthropic. She’s raised money for New Orleans causes. She’s devoured the city and its culture. And she’s studied our food and foodways enough to be an expert,” said Elie.

I asked Davis if she ever considered moving to New Orleans. “I thought about it, but I would never want to move my daughter away from my parents,” she said. “My family has a stronger pull, but it’s close. They rival each other!”

Fortunately, the marriage of Davis’s Sonoma roots and New Orleans infatuation feels natural when sitting inside of the Epicurean Connection. The cutlery and ceramic plates are all mismatched, some are adorned with pink flowers or blue rims. They were brought in by customers when the cafe first opened, which according to Davis is a New Orleans tradition. She named the former owners of each plate as she put together a few sandwiches.

“In fact, I need to put a note out that I need spoons!” she said mostly to herself, adding that the local consignment shop saves tableware for her too. When Davis travels she mails her 21-year-old daughter obscure care packages of food, like canned cheddar cheese from Wisconsin or alligator meat from New Orleans. It’s not unlike what she does for the shop—she grabs local specialties and traditions from her favorite places in the country and brings them home.

“Part of what makes her connection to the city so genuine and organic is the way she’s not only been influenced by the city’s food, but has personalized and extended our food traditions,” said Elie. “For instance, tasso is a seasoning meat to be put in beans and greens. Her tasso ham sandwich with cheese and aioli is something you won’t find on any New Orleans menu. But the key ingredient is one you will hardly find outside Louisiana.”

The peppery slices of tasso ham are featured in a grilled cheese with an aged Wisconsin cheddar and tangy Creole mustard. It’s a sandwich that’s hard to put down, and Davis smiled knowingly when I said the mustard really makes it.

On Mondays, the menu also includes a red bean soup, a traditional Monday staple in Louisiana. In her home kitchen the menu expands: She makes Crock-Pots of red beans and rice, eats a lot of andouille sausage and, when her craving kicks in, she goes to a diner in Vallejo where the fried chicken is up to Southern par. Sometimes she has crawfish flown in.

“I love crawfish boils. You just eat with your hands, grab your corn and hang out in the backyard. But I love it even more when you just stumble upon a crawfish boil,” she said.

One year, Davis and her daughter visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras and were instructed to meet a friend at someone’s house for a party. When they arrived her friend wasn’t there yet, but the host invited them in and they joined the party, eating crawfish and painting coconuts for the Zulu parade.

“Then my friend calls and is, like, ‘Where are you?’ We had gone into the house next door, but it didn’t matter! Until you have those experiences you don’t even understand the beauty of the city.”

At the time of our interview Davis was looking forward to going to New Orleans the following month. No doubt she’ll bring back red beans, crawfish and whatever else she can carry.

The Epicurean Connection, 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma, CA 95476 TheEpicureanConnection.com

Ferron Salniker is a freelance travel and food writer, and works for nonprofit SFMade advising artisan food and beverage manufacturers in San Francisco. She regularly contributes stories about local food and drinks to SF Weekly and Vision Hispana. Follow her eating adventures around the globe at Ferronlandia.com.

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