Ever the menu MVP, cheese-based dishes are becoming bolder as new vegan options gain traction and throwbacks like fondue and nut-and-cheese balls return.
There are few ingredients that can move from one area of the menu to another seamlessly. Rarely do you see beef on a dessert menu or whipped cream atop your appetizer. But cheese? Its infinite variations in texture, taste, and consistency make for an equally large range of possibilities. In many cuisines, a meal wouldn’t be complete without it.
“Cheese is so versatile,” says Brian Millman, chef at Vol. 39, a classic cocktail bar in downtown Chicago. “It can be used as a finger food while enjoying cocktails, or it can be used to make the flavors of a dish really pop.”
Millman’s menu is never without a selection of rare cheeses, from the always-rotating cheese cart to the vintage-style nut-and-cheese ball that’s quickly become a guest favorite. “Since the nut-and-cheese ball was a centerpiece at so many parties in the ’70s, we decided to give it a little update and serve our own version with pimento cheese that we make in-house and smoked almonds,” Millman says.
The ingredient’s versatility is important to Nicole Guini, pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Blackbird and winner of the 2019 Jean Banchet Pastry Chef of the Year award.
“For the most part, cheese has a salty, creamy consistency, which lends itself naturally to coordinating with sweet desserts,” Guini says. Her dessert for the restaurant’s tasting menu features a feta-dill frozen yogurt with mint, compressed cucumbers, and lemon ash. The dish was inspired by the yogurt-based Mediterranean dip, tzatziki. “Our guests are usually surprised that they enjoyed a savory dessert as much as they did,” she adds.
Guini also encourages guests to push past their comfort zone with the traditional cheese plate. She noticed that when making selections for a cheese course, guests would often order the more approachable cheeses, so she added a blue-veined cheddar to the menu to encourage them to enjoy something new.
But introducing guests to more pungent cheeses can be a challenge in and of itself, says Matt Caputo, owner of Caputo’s Market in Salt Lake City. Caputo is also a certified cheese professional who has his own cheese caves right in the heart of the city.
“Over the years I have helped chefs incorporate cheese boards on their menus hundreds of times,” he says. “The first step is always finding out how much effort is realistic for their operation, and we always offer training for service staff if they want it.”
For restaurants with a dedicated fromager, he or she can recommend more unusual, perishable selections that guests might not know. Establishments without the resources to do staff training typically prefer more recognizable cheeses with a good shelf life.
Caputo also knows that cheese can be the backbone of a lucrative restaurant operation. “A cheese board is a profit center,” he says. “No other menu item is more likely to sell booze than a cheese board.” A great cheese board, he adds, can transform the dining experience.
At Vol. 39, Millman considers cheese board curation to be a fun task that elevates the overall dining experience, especially as consumers become more open to trying new foods. “People are familiar with different types of cheeses now more than ever before and are getting more experimental.”
Cheese boards aren’t the only way to build a profitable menu, though. Paulie Gee’s, a pizza chain with locations in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio, has distinguished itself by developing an entirely vegan menu section. As it turns out, those dishes garner fanfare beyond just vegans and other plant-based eaters.
The restaurant blends commercially available vegan cheeses with its own house-made products like cashew ricotta depending on the desired texture and meltiness for an end result that’s completely delicious.
“Our vegan pizzas are a significant portion of our sales each month, and we’ve built our menu around having a full vegan dining experience that includes salads and desserts,” says Derrick Tung, owner of Paulie Gee’s Chicago location.
Another concept that's all about cheese is the Melting Pot, a chain of fondue restaurants that has been a staple across the U.S. for 40 years. “Fondue is more than just a meal; it’s an experience,” says Jason Miller, the group’s corporate chef.
Melting Pot’s cheesemaker, Emmi Roth, provides blends that have the perfect amount of melt and stretch for the fondue experience. Emmi Roth and Melting Pot have also been increasingly focused on sustainability, with a program called Cows First that prioritizes the welfare of their animals and ultimately yields a better product for the restaurants’ core offering: cheese fondue.
Miller believes that cheese has the power to bring people together.
“At most restaurants when the food arrives, everyone looks down at the food or is on their smartphones,” Miller says. “When our food arrives, everyone is looking up and is genuinely engaged with each other, as well as with the meal.”