Meet Lydia, the Cheese Maven!

“I was afforded lots of unique experiences and invitations and as a rule I always just said yes.” — Lydia Burns, founder of Savvy Squirrel Consulting (accredited cheese courses)

Consulting with the Rogers Collection team as self-titled Cheese Maven for Education & Outreach, a quirky but apt title (maven means ‘connoisseur’ or ‘expert’) that steers away from the stuffy and scholarly to instead embody her adventurous, open-minded approach to life and educating. (More on the maven mission in a moment!)

Some other “yeses” in Lydia’s life include many years of professional theatre performance, living and working on a biodynamic farm in New Zealand, degrees in Art History and History of Philosophy and Science–the former of which led her to Amsterdam where she fell in love with cheese– and a decade and a half working at some of the most esteemed gourmet shops in New York City and Chicago, notably a six-year run at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine in Chicago as Senior Manager of Procurement and three years at Marion Street Cheese Market as Director of Wholesale Cheese Program. These gigs allowed Lydia–as she fondly puts it– “to schlep cheese all over the city to some of the best restaurants around.”

Lydia’s time at these shops also brought her well beyond New York City and Chicago to international trade shows where she met and made friendships with many people, including Carrie Blakeman, managing director here at Rogers Collection, in 2015 at Tuttofood, an Italian international trade show in Milan. Lydia was a hosted buyer and Carrie invited all the American buyers on a day trip to Parma to visit two producers Rogers Collection represents, Pio Tosini (Prosciutto di Parma) and Valserena (Parmigiano Reggiano Solo di Bruna).

“It was such a beautiful and magical day,” Lydia says. “I instantly admired Carrie’s passion and candor and that she was willing to open up this experience to me who, at the time, was a total stranger.”

Lydia’s panoramic scope of experiences and forged relationships along with her vibrant and fun personality make her a captivating storyteller for the producers and products in Rogers Collection catalog.

So what exactly will this maven do?

Her task is a bit of a real-virtual hybrid, as the times call for. Lydia along with the RC team will be curating sample selections from our entire catalog—not exclusively cheeses— that ship directly to industry buyers. They–after receiving the curated goodie package– tune into a guided virtual tasting by Lydia, a necessary format change during this time of the pandemic. The buyers sample the products along with Lydia as she offers tasting notes, pairing advice and stories of the producers. To start the virtual educational series is geared towards the trade. A long-term goal is a collaborative project with Lydia that opens these sessions to both buyers and end consumers.

This partially virtual experience has become a necessity for so many people and businesses recently. Adaptation and flexibility have been key around the globe, and that is true for Rogers Collection as well. Carrie says, “I keep asking our team to pay attention to what we learned through all of this: how did we adapt to business in a new way…a better way, be it productivity, less pressure, more rewards, time to think and…finding ways to be part of the solutions. This happened a lot!”

Change and going with the flow can be challenging, but Lydia is sort of built for it. It’s what paved her way to where she is today. But what kicked off her long-standing love of cheese? In short, her mother.  “Though growing up in Pittsburgh we did not have access to many fine cheeses, cheese was very much a central part of my diet and always my favorite food, even in my early, extremely picky days,” Lydia says. “My mother is an excellent cook and since she has been a vegetarian my whole life [she] has always been a creative and resourceful cook, always on the hunt for new and flavorful vegetable-focused recipes from global cuisines.”

We see where Lydia gets her creativity and resourcefulness! As a child, Lydia may have figuratively traveled around the globe, but in young adulthood she literally did. Remember that fateful trip to Amsterdam? “Living overseas really opened my eyes to the limitless potential cheese had to enthrall and enrapture me. I had fresh goat cheese at the farmers market that had been made earlier that morning and tasted Goudas that were aged, complex, crunchy and refined in a way that I had never experienced,” Lydia says.

After Amsterdam, she returned to New York City and the arduous pursuit of acting, but her love of cheese followed her back across the Atlantic. “On hard days,” Lydia says, “after the grind of the audition and inevitable continuous rejection…I found myself seeking solace in my neighborhood cheese shop where they always offered me exciting tastes of new and unique cheeses that always amazed, delighted, and comforted me.”

As luck would have it, they were hiring, and Lydia needed supplemental income. The owner asked if she would like to try out a stage shift. Lydia says she only had one question: “How much cheese am I allowed to eat?”

“I didn’t realize it at the time,” Lydia says, “but [this] started [me] on a professional trajectory that would take me to where I am now 15 years later trying to understand and explore the world one bite at a time…With every importer or farmer, I was able to have a formative discussion [and] deep meaningful conversations that transcended cheese.”

One of her favorite and most memorable explorations? A couple of years after the Parma visit, Lydia was again in Parma for Cibus Connect, an International Food Exhibition that takes place every year. Lydia’s mother flew in and the two took a Tuscan road trip. Carrie arranged a mother/daughter visit to the Garfagnana (Tuscan mountains) to meet Verano Bertagni, Lydia’s mom’s first visit to a cheesemaker.

Lydia was touched at how welcoming the family was. At Carrie’s suggestion, Lydia and her mother also visited another producer of Rogers Collection, Castello di Ama, a Tuscan wine and olive oil estate dating back to the Etruscan era which also offers villa accommodations, tastings and tours with designs and installations from some of the world’s most influential artists. “I am so glad [Carrie encouraged us to go], because it was a highlight of our trip!” Lydia says.

“The unifying thread to everything I loved and studied is a way of interpreting the world,” Lydia says. “A work of art is a lens through which someone expresses their world view. Philosophy & science is a way of expressing your understanding of how the world works, acting is a way of stepping into via emoting and expressing someone else’s perspective, and each bite of cheese is a window to understanding someone’s unique expression of their land and animals and ultimately a reflection of their values.”

Rogers Collection is honored and excited to virtually collaborate with Lydia. She brings so much knowledge, energy and vibrancy to her teaching approach–we can’t wait for all the adventures together, along with all of you. “I consider myself fortunate to have visited many of the Rogers producers. And I could not be more excited to share those experiences and the stories each product represents,” Lydia says.

Written by Leska Tomash