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.
How are you going to sell the cheese that you’ve purchased?
“The only way you can have a great cheese program is if you’re moving through a lot of cheese,” Risoli warns. Before ordering a bunch of local or international cheeses, you need to have an idea of how you’re going to drive sales. On Tuesdays, Risoli hosts “Cheese Tuesdays,” a weekly dinner featuring a themed cheese plate and wine pairings. “Cheese Tuesday started 15 years ago as a way of introducing diners to different cheeses,” he explains. It also helps him move through some of the cheese offerings. The tasting menus at L’Espalier also feature a cheese course for the same reason.
Is there going to be a dedicated cheese person?
Another one of the biggest pieces of advice that Risoli gives is to decide who is going to be in charge of the program at the onset so there’s no confusion. “You need to have someone in charge of the program that can handle that responsibility,” he says. Having one point person means that the list has some consistency and there’s one point person for any staff questions or issues.
How are you going to educate staff and diners on the cheese program?
“We’ve all been to a restaurant where you ask about cheese and no one has any idea what’s on the cheese board,” Risoli laughs. At L’Espalier, since cheese is such an integral part, the management team treats it as if it were wine or any other part of the dining program and provides continuous education on new offerings, history, etc. “That education is so important because it helps us push the cheese and please our guests.”
Risoli has found that education for diners is also important. He created a “cheese map” to go with cheese courses so diners can learn a little more about what they’re tasting. “After I put together their plate I make a ‘cheese map,’ where I list cheeses by milk type, name, producer, and the flavors,” he says. “Guests can consult the map while they’re eating the cheese.” Afterwards, he checks in to see what cheeses the guests liked and didn’t like. “I always make notes on what our regulars like so I can remember for next time,” Risoli says.