When Mell's Cheese closed its doors a couple of weeks ago, manager Mike Keuler found himself in a situation that inspired immediate action: owner Paula Dick "had to get rid of her product," he says. "For a cheese shop to close right before the holidays is tragic. I bought her inventory, which gave me the starting blocks to do what I'm doing now."
Keuler used that supply to launch So Damn Gouda, a delivery cheese-tray service that he operates out of a Stapleton commissary kitchen. Place an order via his website, and a tray of artisan cheeses plus accoutrements and meats (if you desire) will be delivered to your door.
Keuler is no stranger to the delivery business; the former Olympic skier launched a home delivery service that dealt in healthy meals a couple of years ago, which grew into GoBistro, through which he made healthy meals at a central commissary kitchen and then sold them to customers out of takeout windows. He got out of that business, he says, because he couldn't find enough small locations from which to sell his products. "We needed 200-square-foot spaces," he says. "Those really weren't out there, and when they were, the price was crazy. We never got the scale to make the model work."
He says he next wound up at Mell's because cheese is a passion and the backbone of his career: After a two-year stint with Frasca, during which he managed meats and cheeses in the kitchen, he managed the cheese department at the Hampden Avenue Whole Foods. When Mell's shuttered, he realized he had the delivery experience to at least sell through Dick's remaining inventory. "Initially I thought it might be seasonal," he says, but once he started putting together the plates and working on creating a brand, he decided to see how business could evolve, even beyond the holidays. "There's uniqueness and culinary experience to the brand, so there's no reason that it can’t sustain," he says. "It might be part-time as I enter the new year, but if I’m going to try to create a brand around it, there's no reason I wouldn’t do everything I could to make it successful."
Motivating him is the fact that there are few people in the business putting together well-wrought artisan cheese boards, and even fewer of those who deliver. "I'm trying to appeal to the people who would get something at Whole Foods," he says. "You don’t get it on a plastic tray; it comes on a baking sheet. It's not flimsy, so it can be a centerpiece for a get-together. My goal is that if you want the best cheese plate or board for weddings or special occasions, I want to be the guy for that."
Right now, So Damn Gouda sells a line of four cheese trays, themed by country of origin, that come in three different sizes; you can also add meat to any of them. Keuler says no two cheese boards are alike; even if they're of the same size and from the same category, the composition changes based on what he has available and what complements his selected cheeses.
But he always builds his trays on a few key principles, which he says anyone can follow for good results: "Cheese plates should be treated like any culinary dish. You want crunch, sweet, sour, savory and freshness — all the elements of a great dish."
Stick to a theme, he says, like Italian or Spanish cheeses, and consider what you're going to be drinking as you round out that theme. "If you're drinking a big red wine, a creamy Brie isn’t your best bet — that's just heavy on heavy. If you're going with creamy Bries, get some sharp wine or bubbles to cut through fattiness. Counteract whatever that cheese is doing." Reds do well, he says, with Spanish-style cheeses. Beer goes with sharp cheddar. Blue cheese is nice with Hungarian Tokaji, a white wine with nice acid and, often, a bit of a sweet note.
Once you've settled on something, look for variation in texture of your cheeses over variation in the type of milk used to make the cheese. "Try one soft, one semi-hard or semi-soft, one hard, and one blue, or you can sub blue for one of the others. It's less about the milk and more about the style." Think about variations in savoriness and sweetness; ideally, you want a range of flavors. And if you really want to wow your friends, look for cheeses with flavor crystals: aged Goudas, Parmigiano-reggiano and aged alpine cheeses like Gruyère. "Flavor crystals are always a win," says Keuler.
If you're adding meat, stick to your theme. "Delicate cheeses go with prosciutto because it has a subtle flavor," he says. "Don’t go for Calabrese salami — it's too spicy. But if you’re doing hard Spanish-style cheeses, spice and savory goes really well. Keep the cured meats basic but well done."
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Accoutrements, like what you're drinking, should counterbalance the cheese. Some of Keuler's favorite pairings include honey with blue cheese, fresh raspberries with Brie, apples with Gouda and pickles with Taleggio, but, he says, "don't be afraid to experiment."
And to really ace the spread, serve the cheese at the correct temperature and with a subtle cracker. "If you're spending the money on good cheese, you don't want it to be overpowered by a cracker," Keuler points out. For the proper temperature, he says, leave hard cheeses out for twenty minutes to an hour before serving, because it lets the flavor open up. Soft cheeses, he says, are a bit easier — you can serve them straight out of the fridge, or a few minutes later.
Too complicated? Keuler can put together a cheese tray for you within 24 hours — and if you order today, Wednesday, he can drop it off before noon on Thanksgiving.