A long, long time ago, during the first few weeks of quarantine, I developed a freakish obsession for artfully arranging cured meats, cheeses, dried fruits, crackers, and all other snack-like food items I could find in my pantry. I am now hooked on making cheese boards. Each week I look forward to the weekend when I have an excuse to celebrate, sometimes, literally nothing by making a cheese board. After scouring the internet for inspiration and tips, I decided I had to write an article about what I had learned. So, like any good journalist, I did more research to buff up on my ~cheese knowledge~. During these rabbit hole research sessions, one Instagram account kept appearing: @thatcheeseplate. I thought, “with a handle like that you better have some pretty great plates”. Spoiler, I was not disappointed. In fact, all my newly-grown, cheese-board-making confidence flew right out the window. Desperate to know more, I looked into the account and found the woman behind the magic, Marissa Mullen (@marissamullen).
Coincidentally, at the time I found her, she had just released her first cookbook perfectly titled That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life (which now, only 2 MONTHS LATER, is one of Amazon’s best selling cookbooks). So of course, I got the book and fell deeper into the cheese board rabbit hole. One day, when I was feeling particularly bold, I decided to dm (direct message for those who are Instagram-less) her just to see if I (now a superfan) could get a response. Long story short, I got to sit down with the cheese queen herself and learn more about her empire.
But first a little background on Marissa. Marissa, having graduated from Northeastern University with a B.A. in communications and media studies, and music industry, began her adulting journey into the late-night t.v. and music business. Working for both The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Marissa proved her worth building herself within the music business industry. Then, following her love for cheese boards, she began her journey towards what would become the empire that is That Cheese Plate. Marissa is now the epitome of a “foodie influencer”. Based out of Brooklyn she creates all the cheese content one could ever wish for, even inventing the “Cheese By Numbers Method”. She holds “Build Your Own Board” workshops, private events, and continues to spread her love for cheese across all platforms, including The Today Show, The Rachael Ray Show, Live with Kelly + Ryan, Refinery 29, Vox Magazine and Food & Wine Magazine.
Okay, enough from me, now hear from the woman herself on some of the highlights of her current career, and some tips for college students.
1. How (and why) in the world do you decide to make a career switch from the music business and late-night TV into making cheese plates for a living?
I started the Instagram account @ThatCheesePlate while in college to document my cheese plates I’d create for friends. I’ve always loved cheese, and making these plates was a fun way for me to express my creativity while bringing people together. Simultaneously, I studied music business at Northeastern University, aiming to work in the entertainment industry. After graduating, I ended up working at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as the personal assistant and creative coordinator for the bandleader, Jon Batiste. I loved my job – I got to attend award shows, travel the country, and experience the fast-paced world of late-night television. However, after four years it was becoming unsustainable. We worked 12-hour days (at minimum) and I wasn’t taking proper care of myself. On my days off, making a cheese plate was the only way for me to slow down. A cheese plate is the perfect blend of mindfulness and creativity. I built That Cheese Plate into a brand, using the skills I learned from the entertainment industry. I also created a method called “Cheese By Numbers” to showcase how I create my plates step by step. This method clicked with many people and in November 2018 I was asked to go on The Rachael Ray Show for a cheese plate demo. That was the moment everything shifted. With the influx of press and followers, I felt confident enough to take the leap and quit my day job to pursue That Cheese Plate full-time. I secured a book deal that kept me busy last year while continuing with content creation, travel, and teaching in-person cheese classes.
2. Why pick cheese boards of all part-food preparations to center your life around?
Cheese plates are very versatile. You can create one for any occasion using a wide variety of different pairings and garnishes. Designing a cheese plate is different than other forms of cooking. Because you don’t need to mix or mold together the ingredients while building the plate, there’s a lot of room for artistic creativity with the items on their own. I love playing with different cheese textures, colors from fruits and vegetables, and vibrant herbs and flowers to garnish. It’s so much fun to incorporate your own visual style on a cheese plate, making it a beautiful presentation for any occasion
3. What gave you the confidence and motivation to make it all work?
Believing in my self-worth. It was very difficult to navigate the waters of social media at first. I found myself in many positions where I sold myself short on rates or did too much work for free. I had to shift my mindset from being a personal assistant to a CEO, which took a lot of internal soul searching and work on myself. Once I realized that I was in control over my own life it was freeing to see all of the possibilities ahead.
4. What was the hardest personal or professional obstacle you had to overcome to make That Cheese Plate come to life?
Dealing with rejection. It’s definitely not easy! I was rejected over 20 times from different publishers before my book was picked up. I realized that everything happens when it’s supposed to though, and those hard moments always lead to growth. Because my book was rejected at first, I was motivated to create Cheese By Number’s Instagram account to prove that the concept worked. That’s what led to my first TV appearance!
5. What’s coming next for you and That Cheese Plate?! Any other projects you’re currently (or hoping) to pursue?
I’m hoping once we’re able to travel again I can spend some time in Europe. I want to explore so many places for future cookbook research! I also had my 16-city book tour planned this summer that I had to cancel; I’m hoping to reschedule that for 2021. Travel aside, I am working on some new merchandise, about to announce a monthly contributor project and continuing to develop new recipes and plates!
6. How has the CoronaVirus affected your business now, and how might it (if at all) affect what you do in the future?
A large portion of my company revolved around my DIY cheese board classes called “That Cheese Class.” These were both ticketed events to the public and private classes for businesses. When COVID hit, I had to cancel everything planned, including my book tour. I adapted to this by launching virtual classes and hosting free Instagram Happy Hours featuring special guests. Luckily because of my platform, I am able to continue my business relationships with brands and sponsors.
7. What does a typical day-in-the-life of the CEO of That Cheese Plate look like?
Every day is different, and it all depends on what I’m working on! When I was writing my book, I’d wake up, go to the farmer’s market and grocery store to pick up supplies for the plate, food-style and photograph 3-4 boards for the book in my Brooklyn apartment, take time to answer emails, post on social media and plan upcoming events.
Now that the book is out it’s similar but a bit less hectic. I’ll still try to make around 3-4 plates a week depending on what I’m working on (sponsored content, personal projects, contributor projects), I’ll develop new concepts and ideas, post and interact on social and plan ahead for the next few months.
8. What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Making my own schedule, meeting awesome people, cultivating a community, embracing my creativity with no limitations, and enjoying all of the cheese of course!
9. Favorite cheese plate from your book, or maybe one not from the book!?
I love That Grill Night Plate from the book, featuring grilled halloumi and grilled shrimp with a delicious marinade recipe. Perfect for a summer BBQ! Outside of the book, I really liked my Ghost Brie plate from last Halloween. I cut out a cute ghost in a wheel of brie with a cookie cutter and filled it in with dried apricots. Super festive and fun!
10. Finally, what’s some real advice for a freaked-out college student (like myself) who wants to experience and work in the food industry?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, start small and work in a restaurant (if you can) – I worked in three restaurants in college as a hostess and server and learned so much from those experiences. If you want to go down the foodie influencer route, find your niche! It’s better to be more specific versus casting a wide net. Work hard and be nice to everyone!