Vanessa Simmons: Cheese Connoisseur

“My job is about sparking connections, about mediating pleasure, about giving people taste experiences they would never have been able to discover themselves.” Sound like a dream job? For Cheese Sommelier Vanessa Simmons, it is. After beating cancer in 2004, she decided to follow her passion; she took a four-year cooking job in the Caribbean and then came back to Canada to complete her Cordon Bleu training in Ottawa.

“It was in a cheese-making class at Cordon Bleu where I had that first ‘cheese moment’ – we were eating a cheese for lunch that we had made together that morning. The magical simplicity of transforming that milk, the incredible freshness of that cheese… it was unforgettable.” By using up vacation days from her hi-tech marketing job, she attended classes at the Cheese Education Guild in Toronto – a 10-hour round trip.

She quickly became what one of her peers calls “the most passionate Canadian cheese person in the country.” And a good friend had just launched the Savvy Company, an Ottawa-based marketing and events company that focuses on wine, craft beer and now, thanks to Vanessa, Canadian cheese.

Tasting cheese with Vanessa means tasting it at the peak of perfection. She’ll personally hand-pick every single Canadian cheese she serves, even if it means sourcing each one from a different seller in order to capture the terroir she’s looking to showcase – or the creaminess, the squeakiness, the complexity… “If I don’t find what I’m looking for in the cheese I came for, I’ll buy something else. It has to be perfect. I’m just that way.”

But it’s about more than taste. Because she’s developed personal relationships with dozens of Canadian cheese makers, their personalities and stories are also part of the experience. “I get so excited about the tastings; I want people to taste as many cheeses as possible – it can be a little like speed dating. But I try to make sure that there’s a little lesson in each bite: whether it’s about the freshness of the milk, or an expression of terroir, or a particular flavour profile, or how the cheese feels in your fingers.”

How does Vanessa do it? See her at work and catch some helpful tips.

Aside from being able to taste so much Canadian cheese, what she loves about her unique job as a cheese sommelier is the expression she so often sees on people’s faces, “when their eyes roll back and they say ‘Mmm…’ It’s a thrill for me. It’s very rewarding to show someone something they would never have found themselves. I love how when you’re presented with cheese, you can’t help but slow down for a moment. It’s one of the small luxuries in life that you can’t just rush over. To share that with people is a real joy for me.”

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