By Emilie Murphy
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

Cheese Changemaker

If you’ve ever tasted a particularly soft piece of brie or a buttery mozzarella, you might have paused for a moment, savoring the way the flavor melts in your mouth. Perhaps, after sampling a tangy piece of roquefort or nutty bit of gruyere, you’ve dreamt of that same cheese over the following days. Maybe some of you have even entertained thoughts of opening up your own cheese shop or running off to a farm and spending your days separating curds from whey. I can’t be alone here, right? After a particularly good meal, I sometimes think to myself, wow, that was life changing. But what happens when a food actually changes the course of your life? That happened to Marissa Mullen, and her latest book wants to help others do the same. 

Growing up in Fairfield, CT, Mullen attended Fairfield High School before heading to Northeastern
University. Upon graduation, Mullen went to work for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Along the way, she developed an interest in cheese and, more specifically, constructing mouth-watering cheese plates. This interest inspired her to create the hugely popular Instagram account @thatcheeseplate back in 2013. For the most part, @thatcheeseplate was a side hobby, and the end goal was never to become an influencer or land a book deal or get on television. Instead, “the main inspiration was bringing people together through these works of cheese art,” explains Mullen. “It was almost this meditation that rooted me in the present moment. It became my form of self care in a sense.” 

From Passion Project to Profession

As Mullen tells it, she’s embraced social media from the start. “Ever since I was young I had a Myspace, a Tumblr…I’ve always loved documenting my life in one way or another.” What started as a passion project, a way to connect with food and with others around her, has become a widely recognized brand that boasts a combined following of over 400,000 across two Instagram accounts — @thatcheeseplate and @cheesebynumbers — and more on platforms like Facebook and Tik Tok. 

But a business doesn’t blossom overnight, and Mullen spent years growing an organic following one cheese plate at a time. When she started in 2013, @thatcheeseplate was the only cheese Instagram on the platform. “In college, in class, I would go through the hashtags “cheese,” “cheese board,” “cheese platter” and like all of the photos in the hashtag. I got a lot of followers naturally that way,” says Mullen. Her big break came a little bit later when she was asked to participate in a Thanksgiving campaign for Whole Foods. “They paid me with a $100 gift card and I made three cheese plates for them to post on their social media accounts. That started to open up a wider audience for me.” The audience snowballed from there, helped along by an appearance on Rachel Ray in 2018 and the Today Show in 2019.

“You don’t need to be a photographer or a fancy food stylist. You don’t need to be
a chef, you can be a normal person.” 

 

Taking the Cheese Offline

You can tell just by scrolling through the grid of her Instagram pages that Mullen has an impeccable eye and a design sense that extends from the arrangement of cheese plates to the quality of her photographs and, even further, into the aesthetic of her brand itself. It’s unsurprising to learn that Mullen has a background in photography and studied communications in college. She believes that consistency is key in creating a successful Instagram — not only consistency of content creation, but also sticking to a consistent aesthetic and posting authentic content. Even with her success, Mullen still focuses on authenticity as a cornerstone of her brand. “I have always treated That Cheese Plate as a community and I think people like that. You feel like you can be a part of the community and that it’s very inviting.” 

This idea translates into Mullen’s book “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life,” which she photographed entirely herself with an iPhone, and which will be released on May 12. The underlying thread of the book, in addition to an aspect of self care, is that anybody can produce beautiful foodstuffs. “You don’t need to be a photographer or a fancy food stylist. You don’t need to be a chef, you can be a normal person,” says Mullen.

In the spirit of accessibility, Mullen has found ways to bring her company offline and make it physically accessible. She runs That Cheese Class and That Cheese Party, in-person social events centered around cheese. “A goal of mine was to take the Instagram and make it tangible in some sense, so I started That Cheese Class, which is a build-your-own cheese plate workshop. Those are really fun because people get to interact with me directly and build their own cheese plates.” With the current lockdown, Mullen has had to get creative once again with her brand. She has been able to pivot to a virtual setting, continuing to run events and going live on Instagram with cheese plate classes, tutorials and That Happy Hour. 

“I refer to everything on a cheese plate almost as an art canvas because
it’s so visual and colorful.” 

Cheese By Numbers

To make things as simple as possible, Mullen created Cheese By Numbers, “a step by step method to creating the perfect cheese plate.” It even has its own corresponding Instagram (@cheesebynumbers) that now has more followers than Mullen’s original page.

Even for the most culinarily challenged among us, the process is easy. You begin, of course, with cheese. Step two is meat, and Mullen favors “The Salami River” which cuts across the center of the plate and acts as a focal point to build around. The third step is produce — fresh fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, or brined goods like olives and pickles are part of this step. Mullen refers to groupings of produce as “produce ponds.” “This is the time to add some color,” she explains. “You’re almost painting with produce. I refer to everything on a cheese plate almost as an art canvas because it’s so visual and colorful.” The fourth step is crunch — crackers, nuts, or bread, followed by dips and, lastly, the garnish. “Garnish is the way to make your cheese plate stand out. It adds some texture to your plate that you can’t get from the other ingredients.” 

You’ll find all this and more in Mullen’s book, which promises fifty never-before-seen cheese plates complete with a corresponding cheese by numbers map, illustrations and photographs. Mullen also offers her own recipes for various dips and crackers, and other fun elements like “Your Zodiac Sign in Cheese Pairings.” “The narrative throughout the entire book is about how cheese plates are self care,” says Mullen. “Self care is deeper than a temporary fix. You put on a face mask and you feel fine, but if
you find what nourishes your soul and makes you truly happy — that is real self care.” 

And how can we not take advice from someone who has turned cheese into a full-time job?