In 2013, Marissa Mullen was arranging cheese plates for her friends and classmates at Northeastern as a way to relax during the busy school year. Five and a half years later, she’s making them on TV for celebrity chef Rachael Ray and the hosts of the Today show. How’s that for a side hustle?
Because for now, arranging and photographing aesthetically pleasing boards of cheeses, meats, fruits, vegetables, and jams is something Mullen does in addition to her full-time job, though you might not know it from her tens of thousands of dedicated cheese plate followers on Instagram.
“The cheese plates have really taken off,” said Mullen, who graduated from Northeastern in 2015 and now works as a creative manager for the bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “It really just started as something I would do for my friends and I. It was therapeutic.”
When she’s not working with Jon Batiste, the bandleader, Mullen runs That Cheese Plate, a company she founded in 2013 to serve as a “go-to source for cheese plate inspiration,” she said. The news organization Vox has described Mullen as a “cheese plate influencer.”
She traced the roots of her cheese plate connoisseurship to her childhood. Her father was a self-taught chef and her cousins lived across the street from a dairy farm in Vermont, Mullen said. Throughout college, she worked at The Salty Pig, a restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay that specializes in cheese plates.
“Cheese was definitely my favorite food group growing up,” she said. “And it’s weirdly always been part of my life.”
When her family would host parties, young Marissa was on “cheese plate-duty,” she said.
So, how do you create a beautiful cheese plate?
Mullen starts by coming up with a concept. Say, for example, she wants to create a plate that reflects the flavors of America’s Southwest.
After selecting a theme, Mullen picks the ingredients: prickly pear jam, bell peppers, hummus, and local cheeses and cured meats.
Then she picks a board to hold it all, usually a cutting board or slate slab, and places ramekins on the board first. Then she arranges the cheeses, using her rule of three. “A hard cheese, a soft cheese, and an aged cheese.”
Then she organizes the meat, creating what she calls “the salami river,” a pattern of meat that snakes across the board. Then she fills in any empty space on the board with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and garnishes, and packs the ramekins with jams and dips. Finally, she adds some color and rounds out the display by garnishing the plate with herbs and edible flowers.
“I realized pretty quickly it was the same order of operations every time I made a plate,” she said. So, she made Cheese By Number guides (based on the ‘paint by number’ concept) to help would-be cheese plate creators understand the process.
After Mullen’s created the cheese board, the real fun begins: People start eating it.
“I really enjoy seeing people enjoying the plates,” she said. “It’s like destructive art in its own right.”