The Cheese Plate: Portland's New Cheese-Themed Food Cart

Portland's food carts have gotten a lot of press lately. In particular, Dana Bowen's article "Food of the People: Portland's Food Cart Revolution" in Saveur's most recent issue (June/July 2012) has been instrumental in elevating Portland's food cart scene to true foodie status.

As it happens, I recently learned of a new cheese-themed food cart opening soon in Portland. Turns out that Carina Rumrill and husband Nick Dickison, currently sous chef at Portland's Ciao Vito, are the great minds behind the venture. Carina was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about what they're dreaming up for their new baby, The Cheese Plate.

The Cheese Plate will host a soft opening on Last Thursday (June 28th, 2012) at NE 23rd and Alberta in Portland and opens officially on July 6th. Read on to see what's on the menu and more -

How did you come to the idea to do a cheese-themed food cart? And what led you to start a food cart as opposed to a cheese shop or something along those lines?

The idea to focus on cheese came from a real true love of delicious cheese. Every party we have, every picnic, cheese is upfront and we find it so indulgent, special and full of culinary possibilities. For years my husband and I have been making chèvre truffles and people just go nuts for them. So originally we talked about a food cart offering cheese truffles only. But then we quickly realized what we wanted to do was a bit more involved than that.

We love great cheese, but we’re not cheesemongers or cheese experts and don’t have an interest in becoming that at this stage (Although we desperately appreciate the individuals who are!). We love what we love and we listen to what other people recommend. But running a cheese shop wasn’t an interest of ours.

The appeal of the food cart was the relatively low risk involved. Additionally, philosophically we love the idea of food carts. When you go to a food cart, you’re most likely being served by the owner or someone very close to the owner. The owners work so hard to perfect a few products that are from the heart. And the customers get to benefit from wonderful, local inspired food at a really great price.

Both you and your husband come from culinary backgrounds - how do you think that experience will channel into this new venture?

We’re actually a perfect complimentary match for this. I have loads of experience with customer service and the restaurant business…and eating food! I’m a consummate foodie, studied culinary history in college, worked in restaurants most of my life in many positions: server, bartender, wine director, manager, general manager; I love to cook and try new food. And my husband Nick has such a well rounded culinary background. He’s done everything in the kitchen and done it really well. He’s worked in some spectacular restaurants and catering outfits in San Francisco and Portland as line cook, sous chef, head chef, you name it.

I also have quite a bit of managerial experience; restaurant management, non-profit management, and I served as managing editor of a small magazine and have some marketing experience. So the combination between our sets of skills is incredibly complimentary for this type of undertaking.

Your website mentions the celebratory nature of cheese ... say more about the connection you see/feel between cheese and celebration.

I always throw these epic birthday parties every year. My birthday is in August which itself is already a celebratory month. And we would often have the party in some great park: Dolores or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; or a rose garden here in Portland. And the rule is everyone has to bring their favorite cheese to share. Not just something okay, but something GREAT, their absolute favorite. And I have the best images of people just running around trying this, trying that, “Oh, try this one with a strawberry!” “Try this one with some chocolate!” We just love that.

What are you planning for the vegan side of your menu, since cheese obviously isn't vegan?

Both my husband and I have both spent some portion of adult life being vegan. For years I personally was vegan every other day (that’s all I could commit to!) and then for a few other years I would be vegan for months at a time. It was a bit harder for Nick cooking in restaurants but he too had several stints of being vegan. We really support the choice to be vegan and we want to make sure people who are vegan can enjoy themselves at our cart. We originally wanted to offer a vegan cheese plate made of the best sliceable vegan cheeses we can find (there are some really good cashew cheeses, in particular Dr. Cow which offers a line of aged cashew cheeses). But after tasting the best in what is available for sliceable vegan cheese we decided to pass on this idea.

There are some GREAT “cheesy” vegan recipes made with cashews or white beans or tofu or nutritional yeast and nut/soy milks. There are excellent vegan cream cheeses and sour creams. So we plan to always offer some vegan “cheesy” options. A big feature on our summer menu is our picnic plate, from which you choose items such as “wild mushroom and kale pâté with seaweed caviar,” “melon with ginger sea salt,” “today’s pickles,” etc. to make your own plate. Six of the ten items offered are vegan.

What are some of your favorite cheeses (local or otherwise)?

We’ve fallen totally in love with cheeses from the Pacific Northwest. We have found some absolutely gorgeous cheeses here. In particular, Willapa Hills cheeses out of Washington. They are just on a different level and everything we have tasted from them is like cheese gold. Their “Two-Faced Blue” is sublime. We are completely obsessed with Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue. Willamette Valley’s “French Prairie Brie” is such a delicious and approachable party cheese. There are so many local goat and sheep cheeses that are really excellent.

I’m from Vermont originally so we are partial to cheeses out of Vermont. There’s nothing like Grafton Village cheddars. Their Sage Cheddar is impossibly delicious as are most of their cheddars.  And Willow Hill Farm out of Milton, Vermont. Wow. The best sheep cheeses we have ever had.

We are suckers for Brillat-Savarin or Pierre Robert triple creams from France and we adore Roaring 40s blue cheese from Australia. We also love quite a few Swiss Gruyeres.

Most importantly - when do you open and what's going to be on the menu?

We are going to soft launch at this month’s Last Thursday on Alberta, June 28, 2012. We will have just gotten onto the lot at NE 23rd & Alberta so we won’t be ready to fully open doors, but we plan to offer a couple items from our menu: our fromage fort and our fudge brownie with blue cheese and port wine drizzle.

We will open on July 6 during the day and have a grand opening party in the evening. The 23rd & NE Alberta lot, next to Townshend’s Tea is a new lot with four fantastic carts and a terrific produce stand, so the July 6 opening will also be a big celebration for the entire lot.

As far as the menu: our namesake item is obviously a cheese plate and we believe it is an excellent cheese plate. It will feature three Oregon cheeses, our own fromage fort, three chèvre truffles, a seasonal jam and cart-made crackers for $8. At this point, we plan to exclusively feature Oregon cheeses on our cheese plate. But we are open to adding more geographically diverse cheese plates as we mature and get more feedback from customers about what they want. We really believe in what Oregon has to offer, we’re committed to making a home here and we’re invested in the state tremendously. So focusing on the products and produce of this area in particular and the Pacific Northwest in general is important to us.

A cheese-focused sandwich that reflects the seasons will always be a feature as well. For our summer menu we are offering a Garden Sammich that has chèvre and a delicious romesco sauce, baby beet greens, heirloom tomatoes, shaved red onion, and our cart-made pickles, on Fleur De Lis’s stunning focaccia bread.

We love being creative and pushing ourselves to make most things we carry from scratch, but we also really believe in supporting others. There are some amazing small businesses in Portland offering incredible products and working their butts off doing what they love. So we don’t need to make our own kombucha when we have Brew Dr. around the corner or our own bread when bakeries like Fleur De Lis are in operation down the road or our own kale chips when Pacific Northwest Kale Chips are making the best kale chips we’ve tried. However, we will make plenty ourselves, from the jams, to chutneys, to pickles, to crackers – we’re even making our own goat cheese that we’ll use in many dishes of the summer menu.

We'll also be offering items for take-home and use at parties, picnics, cheese plates, etc. like jarred pickled eggs, pickles, chutneys and jams. Packaged fromage fort, cheese stuffed olives, popcorn & hazelnut party mix and other items from our menu will be available as well.

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The Cheese Plate Food Cart located at NE 23rd and Alberta in Portland (next to Townshend's Tea)

[photo courtesy Carina Rumrill]