A couple summers ago I traveled to London and forever changed my culinary outlook on life. My greatest discovery: cheese, charcuterie, and wine should have their own section of the food pyramid. A combination that makes for the perfect meal at any point the day, it’s an unwavering trend for menus around the world. Whether I’m sampling one of the many boards across the city or compiling my own spread in the kitchen, I’m always making new discoveries. New to the scene of dairy and meat pairings, I decided to get an insider’s perspective on what it takes to make the ultimate cheese, charcuterie, and wine experience. I turned to The Grape owners Brian Luscher and Courtney Luscher to hear their take on what they like to call “Adult Lunchables.”
Lauryn Bodden: Have you always been big into the world of charcuterie?
Brian Luscher: For years, the Grape’s charcuterie board was what was available and manufactured. When I bought the restaurant, charcuterie and sausage had always been somewhat of an allure to me, particularly with specials of what I could make. Way before the trend, I would make head cheese and people would look at me like I was nuts. Now, I don’t know many people who wouldn’t at least give it a try. That speaks a lot for what the culture in Dallas has become. Shortly after buying the restaurant, I looked at the menu and felt like there were only a few “chef-made” items, and the rest were sourced. So, I said, you know what? I’m going to make everything. If it’s on a burger, like bacon or ham, whatever it is, I’m going to make it all.
I thought to myself, what would be the best representation of the world of charcuterie to put on our board? To me, I wanted to show a little of everything, well-executed. Then, I heard someone say “It’s a nice list, but not that exciting.” It’s exciting as hell! It scared the heck out of me that I was going to do it all myself with no safety net. We were making this claim and I will not say I was the first, but it was a very new thing.
We did a smoked whole-muscle ham, a country paté like a country terrine chicken liver mousse, pork rillettes, dry-cured, which is what I call a California sopressata, and rabbit mortadella, amongst other things.
I felt it was a good representation of five to seven different styles. Then our Sunday brunch took off with our burger. We were making all our bacon, sausage, and ham for brunch, which allowed me to make the claim, “if you see it on our menu, we make it.” Whether it’s dried, cured, or fresh (a fresh sausage is like a breakfast sausage). Cured and smoked meats, the pork belly for the ham, are all whole muscles. I was and am very proud of it. Is it the most adventurous or cutting edge or esoteric thing out there? No. But you can order any one of them and it’ll be a hit. It’s a solid board.
Courtney Luscher: 2007 was when we bought the restaurant and he was a chef prior to that. He was putting that kind of stuff out there before really anyone was trying.
What’s great about our charcuterie is it is very much in line with what the Grape is. The Grape is a classic, urban-style bistro. It’ll be 42 this year, and when you think of classic mom-and-pop, European-style bistros, the dishes should all be classically executed. Along the same line, everything must make sense when you’re putting a charcuterie board together. You want all those classic, traditional, delicious things you remember, whether its from your childhood or traveling. We could do something kooky and that would be fun, but it doesn’t really fit with what the Grape is about. That’s why people come here for that comfort. That’s why this place has been around; it’s what we do. You start getting out of what your restaurant is and it doesn’t make sense.
LB: What about cheese?
BL: When it comes it comes to our cheeses we have goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and cow’s milk cheeses in two categories. Within those categories we list the most mild to the most flavorful. When you’re looking at the menu, you don’t have to know everything and you can be more adventurous to try other things. That’s another important thing, trying to turn someone on. I always have funky things in the back in my little cubby that I would save for those people super into it or chefs that would come in that I would want to turn on to new things. Charcuterie is neat because it allows you to use whole-animal butchery. To use the bits and pieces that are falling off, if you will, and not just the middle of the animal. It’s an adventure because there are millions of things you can do.
I remember going to culinary school a million years ago and charcuterie class was intimidating. I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was like black magic or sorcery. So, I kind of taught myself through trial and error over the years and now I have to explain it to a waitstaff that is not really well-versed in it. That’s one of the most important things. You have to be able to teach your team to be able to turn somebody on because if someone asks, “What’s this?” or “We’re into it, what do you have?” then you need to be able to meet their needs.
LB: And wine?
CL: As far as pairing, I do all the wine. Just looking at the chalkboard, we have about 24 different wines. That’s always been a big element to me: to have a wide variety with wide price point to pair nicely with our food. Each week I ask my staff what wine would pair nicely with certain dishes. Same goes for the charcuterie. You can get into detail with wine and cheeses, such as a really fantastic blue with a port, or so specific like a triple cream and some bubbles. The same goes on the flipside, like a rosé with one of the hams or a sparkling Italian red with a paté or terrine.
LB: So what do you do when someone comes in and wants a cheese and charcuterie plate?
CL: It’s all about understanding what few wines work well with a variety. If you go with all cheeses, then I would say an off-dry Riesling, or my personal favorite, bubbles (you can never go wrong). You wanna pop a pricey bottle of champagne? Go for it, but a great Prosecco or sparkling from California, like Schramsberg, goes perfect. Our Schramsberg Mirabelle Rose with any board is killer. It’ll carry the spectrum. With cheeses you want a crisp white, like bubbles or a Riesling. When rich, salty, creamy cheeses all meet together, you want something that cleanses the palette. With charcuterie you want bubbles, another kind of Riesling style, or just something low-alcohol, high-acid. Is there one perfect? No. In my opinion, you have 3 types of wines that can run the gamut on a complete cheese and charcuterie board: Riesling, bubbles and dry rosé. Slam dunk.
BL: We haven’t even gotten into the beer world. There so many great local things going on in regards to beer. Something that’s got a little more malt and a touch of hops. Even though a ton of hops is fine, something closer to a Belgian-style ale is definitely friendly.
CL: I was reading an article about liquors and spirits that pair well with different cheese and charcuterie. It’s always about what wine pairs best with what, and people often forget about beer and spirits in different cocktails. You naturally think, oh, beer and hot dog, or beer and barbecue, but there are fantastic beers out there, especially on the local front. These local guys are rolling out fantastic products on the market that are so food-friendly. When you find that right beer with that right food, it can be just as fun as wine. I love wine and that’s more of my deal, but I’m trying to get back into the realm of beer. You cannot dismiss how well beer can pair with cheese and charcuterie.
LB: I would never say I am a beer or wine connoisseur, but I love hearing others talk about it and learning what I can from them.
BL: It’s a very important point that you bring up. You know what you like. When we talk about a professional food-service environment, we have to be able to train our staff to read what level of experience our guests are looking for. Instead of shoving down our guest’s throats, “This is what we do and you’re going to like it, and if you don’t like it, then maybe you just don’t understand it.” For me, the experience here at the Grape is to turn people on. Some people want to get turned on. Some people want to just have dinner on a Sunday night. Some people are coming in for wine knowledge or food knowledge. Some people are foodies. For some people, this is the fanciest place they will go. Whatever that is, I’m proud of the fact that our front-of-the-house staff is versatile enough, aware enough, and have been trained enough in product knowledge to turn somebody on to something different or new or just simply similar to something we may not have that they want.
CL: You can’t tell somebody they’re wrong just because they like something different. Everybody’s palate is different. Everybody is going to taste things differently. To have an air about you to make a comment to someone that they don’t get it or understand it is just quite stupid to me. If we all tasted things the same how boring would that be? I find it cool that I can read five wine reviews on the same glass and say, “I’m not getting that note of flavor but OHH I’m totally getting that!”
BL: It makes for great opportunity to start conversation. We want to set people up for an enjoyable experience. We’ll put things out for our staff with a couple pieces of one thing and four or five wines to see how things taste. Sometimes what we think would be the perfect pairing just doesn’t work. It’s all in theory.
CL: The most important thing I think from our standpoint is genuine hospitality. There’s thousands of options for people to go for dinner to get great food, but I think service, the environment, and what you’re creating for your guests makes a difference. We want people to feel comfortable and welcomed. Brian always says, “elbows on the table, your feet kicked out, laughing because you’re having a good time, and rosy cheeks from maybe a half glass too much wine – that means people are comfortable.”
LB: So, what’s the starting point when helping guests create their board?
CL: You need to know all the components. As soon as you get that basic information of they like X, Y, Z and maybe not blue cheese, then you have all these ideas of where you can guide them through the choosing process. It’s important when you are putting together a plate to mix things up. You want a variety of a couple different styles to get the full spectrum. We have a three-choice or five-choice for our board but I always like to suggest a five-choice, because then you can mix it up. Plus we have the chef’s choice of cheese and charcuterie that changes each week. Nine times out of ten, people love the idea of the chef throwing something together for them.
The first place you always want to start is what you like and what you enjoy. The cheese and charcuterie can be daunting. You have this whole area of the menu with no description, so if you’re not a food nerd or a beer nerd or wine nerd, this so intimidating stuff.
BL: It’s commonplace for people to not know; that’s what we’re here for. When it comes down to it, what is it really? It’s just cheese and crackers. It’s just grown-up lunchables. We want to explain it with that kind of ease instead of imposing this information on someone.
I think it starts with product knowledge and training our staff to turn someone on. The staff will even put in their suggestions. They get psyched to even throw together their own board for guests. It’s much like getting a wine list thrown in front of you. It’s intimidating. Well, we like to help by asking those qualifying questions, and then we know which direction to head you in. it’s not just about selling you that $200 bottle, or in this case, about putting the most exotic thing in front of you.
CL: That’s what makes it fun. People letting you do something for them gets you excited. You’re excited because they’re excited. You’re in the experience together.
LB: If people are putting together something at home where do you suggest they go to find quality products?
BL: Go to places where people are passionate and know what they are talking about. Scardello for cheese. They’ll take you by the hand and start asking those questions instead of rolling their eyes. Even Central Market has an impressive selection of meat and cheeses. Kuby’s has a wonderful selection of meats and they are more than happy to tell you about what they’re doing over there. Mr. Kuby is a master sausage maker from the old country. Up against him, I know nothing. Anybody in town who thinks they have it on lockdown needs to go work with him. Rudolph’s has some good stuff as well.
Get a couple sausages, get a variety, get something that you know will be a home run, that everyone will like, and get something a little kooky that goes outside the comfort zone. Chances are it’s not going to suck. Same goes for cheese. But wherever you go, ask for suggestions. Get some accompaniments like olives, nuts, acidic tart fruit like green apple, some briny pickle, and spend some money on some mustard. Get a French Dijon, a grainy mustard, or even stop at Green Grocer and pick up some of our mustard we make in-house.
CL: One tip I like to throw out is “what grows together, goes together.” You might find yourself craving a wine from Spain or craving a cheese from France. Well, the most logical route to take is pairing those things with items from the same country. Start out with that wine from Spain and build a board including cheese and charcuterie from the Spanish region.
You can find really great options at Specs, Total Wine, or wherever you buy your wine, and you don’t have to spend a fortune. It’s really easy to go buy a big fat expensive bottle of wine, but it’s harder to find great deals on quality wine that will accomplish what you’re looking for in that whole pairing world.