“That cheese plate will change your life.”
Okay, okay, I can feel you rolling your eyes at me, thinking, “Well, that feels like a bit of an overstatement.” And maybe it is. Or, maybe, there’s some truth in this idea. Because here’s what I believe: cheese plates are self-care.
These days, in our Instagram-laden world, self-care usually means applying a face mask, cutting out carbs, sipping green juice, or spending Friday night in a bathtub full of flower petals. It’s usually tied to a feeling of restriction or a temporary fix. But let’s be real: a sheet mask and green juice can only do so much. True self-care is something different, something deeper: we care for ourselves when we allow ourselves the time, energy, and space to practice or learn about—or indulge in—the things that we love most. These are the things that bring us joy and make us feel connected to our most authentic selves and to others. For me, that thing has always been cheese.
In college, my friends and I had frequent wine and cheese parties, attempting a stab at newfound adulthood. Our ancient Boston apartment lacked a living room, so the kitchen was the heart and soul of every gathering. Although we had limited funds, we found ways to come together over hunks of cheddar and some prepackaged meat. I discovered that crafting these cheese plates for my friends was a great way for me to get creative while trying new and interesting flavors. Similarly, photography was another artistic hobby of mine, and I began to learn more about the world of social media as I earned a degree in music business and communications. As food accounts became a growing trend on Instagram, I decided to start my own account to showcase my creations, and ThatCheesePlate was born. Over the years, this evolved into a monthly event called “the cheese party”: I built elaborate cheese plates while everyone gathered in my tiny apartment, sharing stories and catching up. The cheese plate was always the most popular guest at the party.
Then I got my dream job in the music industry, which meant countless late nights and weekend travel. Limited free time was my norm. When I did have time off, making a cheese plate was my relaxing activity of choice. It was always so satisfying to see a design come together out of wedges of cheese, slices of salami, and the colorful produce I’d find at my local market. I learned that the simple act of slicing cheese could be meditative. I found sacred space in the kitchen of my humble Brooklyn apartment. Full of natural light, it became my sanctuary after a long workweek. I loved to spend Saturday afternoons decompressing while I arranged and photographed my cheese plate creations. There’s something cathartic in creating an intricate and beautiful plate, which my friends and I in turn would completely devour.
As my plates became more elaborate, I realized how much time the building process could take. You need to prep the cheese, fold the salami, and deliberately cut the produce. Taking the time to follow these steps forced me to slow down, a welcome change from how I spent the weeks at my day job. Every time, I was instinctively following a step-by-step process, filling in elements by sections. I asked my friend Sara Gilanchi, a talented illustrator, to sketch one of my plates numbering the illustration with 1
as Cheese, 2
as Meat, 3
as Produce, 4
as Crunch, 5
as Dip, and 6
as Garnish. Thus, the Cheese By Numbers method was born.
This process was deceptively easy, yet sticking to it elevated my plates to a new level. I decided to launch a second account on Instagram called CheeseByNumbers to document this method in further detail. I’d photograph and post each step in the process, starting with the cheese arranged on the plate, followed by the Salami River (more on that later!), and so on. This process really resonated with people. Creating a cheese plate seems intimidating at first, but Cheese By Numbers makes the building process simple and accessible. This account started to shift into something bigger than I anticipated.
Over the next few months, I felt the increased momentum of what I had built. I balanced television appearances, press inquiries, and food events with my already-demanding job in the entertainment industry. Simultaneously I launched That Cheese Class, a “build your own cheese plate” workshop. The Cheese By Numbers method encouraged the class members to get creative and break outside their comfort zone. I really loved my job working in music, but I started to feel as if my heart really belonged to what had just been my side-hustle: cheese. Building plates and teaching workshops made me feel both creative and grounded—two feelings I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I started to wonder, What if I could do this full time? I decided to take a leap and quit my day job. And that’s when it hit me: That Cheese Plate changed my life.
I wrote this book as a template and a guide, but feel free to get creative and substitute items that work for you. We will start with the basics and will then journey through the Cheese By Number method, starting with cheese, followed by meat, produce, crunch, dip, and garnish. In each chapter we will dive deeper into these six steps, introducing Cheese By Number maps and a variety of simple recipes to elevate your plate. My hope is that you can feel a sense of ease by taking the guesswork out of a timeless appetizer. You don’t need to be a professional food stylist or chef to make a cheese plate—you can easily create something beautiful to impress your guests and yourself!
So take your passion and run with it. Do what inspires you. Growth takes time, and the process is the most important part. Hopefully this book will help you slow down a bit, appreciate what’s around you, get motivated, and make That Cheese Plate.
Copyright © 2020 by Marissa Mullen; Illustrated by Sara Gilanchi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.