An Award-Winning Cheesemonger Shows How to Make a Next-Level Cheese Plate

Lilith Spencer explains how she builds her gorgeous cheese platters

By Alex Testere

Published on June 29, 2017

Lilith Spencer's platters feature the best charcuterie and cheeses from all over the world, like Bijou (goat, Vermont), Cabra Blanca (goat, Colorado), Tomme Corse (sheep, Corsica), beef saucisson (Larchmont Charcuterie, New York), and sopressa veneta (Creminelli Fine Meats, Utah).

There are few better ways to get to know a person than spending hours on end together, slicing and arranging piles of artisanal cheese in a small, refrigerated room. And that's how I came to know Lilith Spencer, back when we were cheesemongers together at BKLYN Larder, and before she went on to become a champion.

In my opinion, she's always been a cheese champion, but it became official this past January when she took home first prize at the San Francisco Cheesemonger Invitational, an event renowned in the cheese world (a very real place, I assure you) for putting only the most dedicated cheesemongers through a rigorous trial of impeccable wrappings, blind tastings, cutting to weight, and of course, assembling their own "perfect bite."

Competing, let alone winning, takes a tremendous knowledge of cheese in all its various forms. But more than just smarts, becoming a cheese champion also takes a certain level of artistry and showmanship, and since Lilith moved out west to Santa Fe last fall, she’s been taking her creative vision to the next level with—you guessed it—cheese platters.

A variety of accompaniments is key, and this platter features Barrio Brinery pickles, dried Angelino plums, Rick’s Picks Smokra, olives, grapes, radishes, mustard flowers, Marcona almonds, Heidi’s Raspberry Jam, Lusty Monk Mustard, and Pommery honey mustard.

"I've always been creative," she says, "but it took me a long time to find my ideal medium, which turned out to be food." As a result, her vibrant, mesmerizing cheese platters (which she posts frequently to her Instagram) are an accomplishment of color and composition, but it's not just about the visuals. "Since winning the CMI, I've been more deliberate than ever about what goes into each platter," she explains. "There has to be real intent behind each arrangement, or else it's just a beautiful mess."

Working at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, she's got a lot of cheese and charcuterie to choose from, from staples like Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin and Fra'Mani Meats Salame Toscano from California, to more curious selections, like Smoking Goose's Rabbit & Pork Cheek Pâté from Indiana, and Vulto Creamery's Miranda, a funky little number from upstate New York whose rind is washed with locally produced absinthe. And after she chooses the meats and cheeses, it's all about the accompaniments: "A guest will assume that items placed next to one another are meant to be eaten together, so I'll use that instinct to my advantage and introduce unusual flavor combinations to the spread." The cheeses must also be sliced, crumbled, or cubed, depending on the style, which contributes its own challenge to the final arrangement.

For how much work goes into one of her platters, they almost seem too beautiful to eat—but just almost: “It’s counter-intuitive, but the ephemeral nature of it really soothes me. I’ve struggled with perfectionism all my life, but just knowing that it’s going to be eaten gives me the green light to take more risks.” If you ask me, I’d say those risks paid off.

Follow Lilith's Tips for Your Own Champion Cheese Platter

Vibrant, contrasting colors will take you far. Here, Julianna (goat, Indiana), Bay Blue (cow, California), Zamorano (sheep, Spain), and Alpha Tolman (cow, Vermont) join Pork Pistachio Pâté (Olympia Provisions, Oregon) and Salame Toscano (Fra’mani Meats, California). Then Marcona almonds, fresh tomatoes, chokecherries, dried cherries, blackberries, grapes, pickled cauliflower, plums, Friend in Cheeses Carrot Marmalade, Heidi’s Raspberry Jam, American Spoon mustard, Sierra Nevada beer mustard, cornichons, and South African cucumber round out the plate.
  1. When it comes to picking cheese, trust the experts. A good cheesemonger can help you pick out cheese based on the details of your event, so when you go shopping, share your big-picture vision—what the crowd will be like, what food will follow your cheese course, what you'll be pouring—and let them lead you towards the most on-point pairings. Those of us who work behind the cheese counter know what works and are more than happy to share our discoveries with you.
  2. Don't serve cheese straight out of the fridge. Cheese's texture and flavor is best closer to room temperature than fridge-cold, so let it soften for 30 minutes to an hour before serving. While it warms up, assemble your mise-en-place. Portion out your cheeses (your monger will happily advise you on whether slices, crumbles, or cubes are best), gather all your pairings, and group the items that go together nicely. Any fresh fruit or vegetables should be cut already; any small bowls or dishes that you want to use should be filled with their respective morsels. Set your slate up in the center of your workspace and surround it with your ready-to-go materials.
  3. Fill out your spread with some basic, versatile bites. Nuts, dried fruit, pickles, and olives are super reliable once you've picked out a couple of special items to be the stars.
  4. Place your biggest items first, then group your pairings. Cheeses will serve as anchors on your plate, so space them apart from one another and give them plenty of room. Next, place your accompaniments closest to the cheeses with which they pair the best—this is your hint to everyone that they're meant to be enjoyed together, like pickles and a dish of mustard snuggled up to a mound of crumbled farmhouse cheddar, or sweet-tart sour apple livening up a creamy cheese. The board-wide scattering of nuts, olives, and dried fruit makes it clear that those bites will work in any combination.

More of Lilith's Champion Platters

This autumnal platter features Cabra Raiano (goat, Portugal), Tomme Corse (sheep, Corsica), and Vella Dry Jack Reserve (cow, California—with the rind left intact for show), as well as dried and fresh figs, grapes, date-walnut cake, peaches, golden plums, and pistachios as the accompaniments.
Experimenting with different spiral and radiating patterns makes for unique pairings as well as stunning presentation. Here, Formaggio Bagoss (cow, Italy), Suffolk Punch (cow, Vermont), Asher Blue (cow, Georgia), Quadrello di Bufala (water buffalo, Italy), and Berkswell (sheep, England) are matched with dried Angelino plums, nectarines, black cherry jam, olives, grapes, plums, dates, pistachios, Marconas, and Sierra Nevada beer mustard.
Different cheeses can be cut and displayed in different ways, like the Fleur de Maquis (sheep, Corsica), Jemez Springs (cow, New Mexico), Pleasant Ridge Reserve (cow, Wisconsin), and Bonde d’Antan (goat, France) in this platter.
It's not all about symmetry. Lilith's platters move in lots of directions to stimulate the eye (and the palate). Here, Bayley Hazen Blue (cow, Vermont), Queso Verano (sheep, Vermont), Miranda (cow, NY), Flory’s Truckle (cow, Missouri), Brabander (goat, The Netherlands), and Caprino Fiorito (goat, Italy) are rounded out with assorted charcuterie, fresh tangerines, persimmons, and Miyoung's Farm kimchi.
Dips and spreads go great with meats, so Lilith arranges them in little bowls across this charcuterie platter, with Sopressa Veneta (Creminelli, Utah), Rabbit & Pork Cheek Pâté (Smoking Goose, Indiana), Beef Saucisson (Larchmont, NY), Salame Toscano (Fra’Mani, California), and Rosemary Ham (Fra’mani, California). The spreads are garlic artichoke tapenade, McQuade’s Apple & Ale chutney, American Spoon mustard, Friend in Cheeses onion jam, Quince & Apple’s Tart Cherry White Tea jelly, and Southwest Chutney Juniper Red.
The best pairings are often the most surprising. Blood orange slices, spiced pecans, and smoked pickled okra are just a few of the accompaniments on this platter with Thomasville Tomme (cow, Georgia), Stawley (goat, England), Maggie’s Round (cow, Massachusetts), Sofia (goat, Indiana), Bresaola (Larchmont, NY), Coppa Americano (La Quercia, Iowa), Pig & Fig Pâté (Smoking Goose, Indiana), and Chorizo Rioja (Olympa Provisions, Oregon).
This art deco-inspired platter uses a variety of different cheese styles to create different sized triangles arranged in dynamic patterns. Here, Ros (sheep, Spain), Monte Enebro (goat, Spain), Camembert della Alta Langa (cow, goat, and sheep; Italy), Stawley (goat, England), Maggie’s Round (cow, Massachusetts), and Zimbro (sheep, Portugal) pair with Marcona almonds, olives, Treat Bakeshop spiced pecans, prunes, Membrillo, port soaked figs, Rick’s Picks Smokra, angelino plums, pistachios, and dates.
Eye-catching Delice de Bourgogne (cow, France) rounds stand out among Parmigiano Reggiano (cow, Italy), and Grazalema Payoyo (goat, sheep, Spain), with Pig & Fig Pâté (Smoking Goose, Indiana), Bresaola (Larchmont, NY), Lonza (Red Table, Minnesota), and Finnochiona (Creminelli, Utah), as well as fresh oranges, olives, watermelon radishes, carrots, grapes, kiwi, and pistachios.

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