Cheese programs offer restaurants another opportunity to convey to their guests what their restaurant is about. “You can use the cheese program to help create an identity,” says Louis Risoli, fromager and maître d’ for L’Espalier in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. “It can show uniqueness and passion to your guests when done right.”
Few restaurants are as committed to their cheese programs as L’Espalier, and the program is an integral part of the dining experience. “People often tell me that it’s their favorite part of a tasting menu,” Risoli says. When a guest orders a cheese plate at L’Espalier, Risoli personally picks which cheeses and accompaniments to add to the plate and delivers it to the table. “We have a cheese trolley that I use which is exciting for some guests — and intimidating for others,” he says.
Risoli has worked at L’Espalier for 35 years and inherited the role of fromager from a manager who was there before him. “The person who was leaving basically passed it on to me, and I didn’t know that much about cheese at the time,” he remembers. “I started by talking to as many distributors as possible and tasting as many cheeses as I could.” Today, the cheese program is known as one of the best in the country thanks to Risoli’s carefully curated program of cheeses from New England and beyond.
While every restaurant can’t run the same scope or breadth of program as L’Espalier does, there are ways to make sure that a cheese program is as excellent as it can be. Here, Risoli walks through some of the questions every fromager or chef should ask themselves when building a cheese program.
First, start with your why.
“The first thing I would ask is, ‘Why do you have a cheese program?” Risoli says. It’s a given that guests want to have the option, but what does having the program do for your restaurant and its identity? What do you want your cheese program to add to your restaurant’s menu? “At L’Espalier, we have a strong focus on local ingredients so it makes sense to have local cheeses.” The cheese program always features options from Massachusetts and other parts of New England. “People are absolutely delighted to try cheeses from New England,” he adds. Knowing the why will inform the ethos of the program.
How and where are you going to get your cheese?
There are many ways to get the cheeses that you want for your program, Risoli says. “If you’re working with a particular region or style of cheese, you need to know if there is a distributor that can get those for you.” You can also source straight from farms, but keep in mind the time commitment that it will take to do so. “If you’re going to work with farms directly then that’s going to take you going to the farms to see what they have and pick up orders,” he says. “You can also work with cheese shops and they can usually put together a great program.” Assess how much time you can dedicate to the program and decide which method works best. [Read more…]