Consider this an open letter from a disappointed cheese-lover to any and all restaurateurs, chefs, and managers who see fit to include a "Cheese Plate" or something similar on their menu. You may recall a post I wrote about the hit-or-miss nature of restaurants' cheese plates last year - let's just say recent experiences have helped me figure out what's wrong with the majority of what's out there.
To whom it may concern:
As someone who appreciates all things cheesy (80's music, Super Bowl ads, puns in blog entry titles), I would love to be able to sing your praises for going all-out in the introduction of cheese plates to your menus.
It seems like almost every restaurant out there these days is offering a cheese plate, though they're not exactly sure why. Maybe it's the increased interest in artisanal cheeses and local producers. Maybe it's a calculated effort to reach out to diners who are passing on sweet desserts with increasing frequency. Or maybe it's just the fact that most of your competitors are doing it.
I know what our mothers would ask...if all of your competitors jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you? Of course you wouldn't - think of what that would do for business!
Restaurant cheese plates SHOULD be a great way to expand my palate and try new cheeses. But there are problems. And it's not me...it's you.
Simply put, most restaurants either overlook or ignore the fact that the majority of people who are likely to purchase a cheese plate ACTUALLY KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT CHEESE.
This single oversight leads to a host of missteps that range from the minimally inconvenient to the truly ruinous:
- Unhelpful menu listings that offer nothing more than a price
- Servers who can rattle off every ingredient in this evening's specials but who have no idea what comes on the cheese plate
- A boring presentation with minimal accompaniments that fails to deliver on aesthetics OR flavor
- A selection of cheeses that is completely incongruous with the restaurant's primary focus
But there's an easy fix to all of these problems, if you're willing to take the bold step of asking yourself a simple question:
If you're going to offer a cheese plate on your menu, you need to know why you're doing it. Is it to highlight local producers? Is it because you are passionate about cheese and want to share that with your customers? Is it because your suppliers offer some great choices that go well with your menu?
And be honest - if the answer is really "because it lends an air of class and has a high profit margin," own that. But do yourself a favor and think twice about it before you move forward...cheese lovers will know if you're just going through the motions.
If you've asked yourself "why" and you're satisfied with your answer, the next step is to make sure you do things properly. Because I'm not one to complain without offering constructive suggestions, I've taken the liberty of putting together a short checklist that should help you show off your cheese plate to the greatest advantage.
To thine own self be true.
If your restaurant is known for its commitment to local artisans, think about featuring cheeses from small regional producers. If you're part of a famous French chef's empire, perhaps your cheese plate should highlight some of the best French cheeses available stateside. And if you are best known for a cuisine where cheese is used sparingly (if at all), maybe you should rethink the idea of a cheese plate that would only confuse the palate. As much as I enjoy seeing cheese plates on the menu at Spanish, Italian and French restaurants, I find it really hard to get excited about cheese after Thai, sushi or even 'Asian-fusion.'
A great example of this can be found at McSorley's Old Ale House, New York's oldest continually operational saloon. This is a no-frills, sawdust-on-the-floor kind of tavern. Women weren't even welcome in McSorley's until 1970. Even so, their menu boasts a cheese plate that fits their image to a T: a plate with a few squares of all-American white cheese (it used to be Liedenkranz, a Limburger-like spreadable cheese), some sliced raw onions, a mug of spicy mustard and a sleeve of Saltine crackers. You were expecting maybe brie and apple chutney?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
If a cheese plate is going to set me back $12 or more, I'm not going to be impressed with a few hunks of cheese strewn haphazardly across a white plate with some crackers and grapes here and there. Pay as much attention to the plating as you would to the average entree or dessert - think about serving on marble slabs or walnut cutting boards that complement the color and texture of the cheese (both of which should be points of pride if you're serving quality products).
And give a thought to the accompaniments you provide - while some, like quince paste, grapes and crackers, work well with almost any cheese, there are other options that show you really care: sliced apples or pears, dried fruit, toasted nuts, and tangy items like cornichons can complement certain types of cheese very well and reflect an attention to the specific cheeses on the plate.
Knowing is half the battle.
For some reason, the cheese plate remains the 'terra incognita' of most restaurants' menus. More often than not, the components are omitted from the menu and curious patrons are required to ask their servers for details. If you've settled on a static list of cheeses, it stands to reason that your servers should be familiar with what those cheeses are. Sadly, that's rarely the case. And in restaurants where the cheese plate changes on a regular basis, it's almost unheard of that a server be able to offer even an educated guess without heading back to the kitchen to ask.If you want cheese-lovers to seriously consider your cheese plate, this needs improvement.
Local wine bars like Proof and Vinoteca are far better about communicating their cheese offerings (and, in the case of Vinoteca, their various accompaniments) on their menus, and there are some restaurants like Dino that take enough pride in their cheeses to list them for individual or grouped tastings. In the absence of that kind of detail, however, it is incumbent on your servers to be as familiar with what's on the cheese plate as they are with the components of other menu items. This may sound a bit daunting, but it's essential if you're going to convince people who care about cheese that yours is worth their time and money.
What Would Cheeseheads Do?
Put yourself in the place of your customers. Take a look at the menu and ask yourself if you would have any interest in the cheese plate based solely on what you see in front of you. If you're a cheese lover, there's a pretty good chance you won't. So what are you going to do about that? If you can't draw the people for whom a cheese plate is a natural attraction, why offer one at all?
If you keep these things in mind, you're sure to jump to the head of the class when it comes to local cheese plates. With the wide range of cheeses available through local sources, there are plenty of opportunities to put together the perfect plate to complement (and maybe even enhance) your menu and provide diners with a savory way to finish off a great meal.
I'll be waiting.