Suzanne Levy wouldn't mind if you called her a bit cheesy. In fact, she'd probably take it as a compliment.
That's because Levy, 34, makes her living as a maitre fromager, or cheese master.
It's her profession to know all about the cheeses of the world where they come from, how they taste, the right way to store them and what food and wine they accompany best.
"I love how many different kinds of cheeses there are," Levy said. "I'll still be learning (about cheese) a long time from now. It's something that anybody could make if they wanted to. It's the food of the masses, it really is."
The Wichita native moved to Lawrence at the end of January to join her younger brother, Michael Levy, owner of West Side Deli & Market, 4931 W. Sixth St. She's working in the kitchen and helping to oversee the store's cheese department.
"A pastry chef is what Michael needed right now," Suzanne Levy said. "But I've been trying to get my production schedule down so that I can spend more time (with the cheeses)."
She moved to Lawrence from South Miami Beach, Fla., where she worked at a small gourmet store before Michael Levy offered to bring her on board.
Prior to that, she opened and supervised the cheese department at the Fairway Market in Plainview, N.Y. The Long Island business, which also has several locations in Manhattan, has a reputation as one of New York City's premier gourmet grocery stores.
There she worked under Steve Jenkins, who is widely acknowledged as one of America's leading cheese experts. He is a board member of the American Cheese Society and author of "Steve Jenkins Cheese Primer," now in its sixth printing.
At Fairway Market, Levy had to be able to offer expert advice about the more than 400 varieties of cheese sold in her department.
Before working there, she served as manager of the cheese and charcuterie (cold foods such as smoked salmon and meats) department at the Dean & DeLuca gourmet store in Leawood's Town Center Plaza.
She inherited that job from her brother, who was vacating the position to start West Side Deli & Market in Lawrence.
"He was the one who convinced me I would love (working with) cheese and he was right," Suzanne Levy said.
Coming to Dean & DeLuca from a job as sous chef at the 75th Street Brewery in Kansas City, Mo., Levy had to take a crash course in the field of cheese.
"I started with (Jenkins') 'Cheese Primer' and every book I could get my hands on. I read as much as I could about it, and I did a lot of Internet research," she said. "Since I had a food background, it was something that came fairly easy to me."
It was a steep learning curve, with lots of arcane information to master.
"You need to know if a cheese has been properly ripened, to be able to tell by the smell if a cheese is past its prime, how to age cheese at the right temperature and humidity."
And, of course, she samples every type of cheese that she sells, in order to discover the subtle differences among them. At West Side Deli & Market, there are 73 varieties.
So what distinguishes a good cheese?
"If you can really taste the grass, the berries whatever the animal that produced the milk (for the cheese) grazed on that's good," Levy said.
There are some kinds of cheese she just doesn't care for.
"Havarti," she said, wrinkling her nose. "There's nothing to say. It's boring. I also don't like pasteurized, processed cheeses, like most of the American cheddars."
She offered some advice for those embarking on a journey of discovery into the world of cheese.
"If it's ammoniated (bitter and spoiled), if it smells like a cat box, leave it alone," Levy said.