|Composed Cheese Course
Beyond just being crave-worthy, cheese can help round out a meal, replacing dessert for diners who prefer savory over sweet courses at the end of lunch or dinner. A universally loved product, cheese does equally well at the high and low ends of the spectrum, from the humble mom and pop café to the most elegant fine dining restaurant.
From fromage blanc ice creams to cheesecakes, chefs often incorporate cheese in their dishes to lend a salty and gently acidic edge to both desserts and savory dishes; at the 2008 South Florida Rising Star honorees dinner, Host Chef Jonathan Wright at The Setai used Wisconsin Black River gorgonzola for a peppery spin on a twice-baked cheese soufflé. One creative and more complex incarnation that we’ve continuously seen is the composed cheese plate.
Not content with your average traditional cheese course, Pastry Chef Catherine Schimenti serves a composition of three cheeses at San Francisco’s Michael Mina, constantly rotating her selections. Recent combinations were Capricious, Apple Membrillo, and Sicilian Pistachio; Coolea, Pickled Date Carpaccio, and Lavender Honey; Bayley Hazen Blue, Pomegranate, and Red Shiso. Michael Mina is known for its trio dishes, so the plate of three cheeses was a natural companion for Schimenti’s dessert threesome.
For Schimenti, the cheese course was not created exclusively for profitability, but at three one-ounce portions of cheese per plate, it compares very favorably to the expense of maintaining a cheese cart. Despite the fact that less cheese might be served on such plates than the one and a half to two-ounce portions per selection that are standard in the industry, the other plate components like membrillo, arugula, and lavender may even out any difference in profit margin.
Not yet the industry norm, composed cheese plates are most widely incorporated before dessert, or instead of dessert. San Francisco Pastry Chef Carlos Salgado started serving a slightly warmed Bellwether Farms Carmody with black pepper-flecked pastry, lavender onion, and arugula as a cheese course on the cheese and dessert menu at Commis, but finds that customers frequently request it as an appetizer. The motivation for his dish was less conceptual, though. “I love cheese and cheese plates, but I wanted something that expressed a little bit more technique, so rather than presenting portioned cheeses, I wanted to do something with more components, temperatures and a salad, because when I don’t go for sweet after my dinner, I definitely go for the cheese,” Salgado says.
He is quick to point out that profitability is not necessarily a factor with such dishes, as his involve quite a bit of time and technique. Profit loss through waste is substantially reduced by replacing a cheese program with a composed cheese plate because displaying a half a wheel of dozens of different cheeses is no longer necessary. Instead one can rotate selections more regularly, avoiding spoilage, another of the big contributors to loss of business in the industry.
At Madrid Fusion 2009, Chef Sébastien Bras of Bras recalled a nostalgia for his childhood snack of jam and cheese that inspired a dish of local fresh white cheese sweetened with dark jam, accompanied by dried milk skin, puréed citrus and niac, a Bras-created seasoning blend. This architecturally-plated cheese creation is a prime example of the thoughtful cuisine at the Bras family restaurant in Languiole, France, where menus are splashed with proverbs and dishes are philosophically driven.
2009 Seattle Rising Star Pastry Chef Matt Kelley, while at the healm of Rover’s in Seattle, composed a cheese plate with three small squares of rosemary-walnut crusted goat cheese, interspersed with red beet foam, anchored by lemon coulis and finished with a sprinkling of candied walnuts. Kelley portioned this dish for one person, rather than as a full course for the table, and though he doesn’t currently serve it as an appetizer, considered adding a microgreen salad with lemon vinaigrette to the plate in order to make it more apt for a start to the meal.
Whatever shape they take, and whatever the motivation—be it financial or fantastical—composed cheese plates give pastry chefs and pastry cooks a chance to flex their savory muscles and accommodate the desire that some customers have for a savory end to the meal. And even if the food cost per plate is unchanged, cheese plates encompass a substantially lower overall running cost than an entire cheese program. This makes them a good option for the pastry chef looking to incorporate cheese in his or her menu without having to ‘buy the cow,’ so to speak.