Tasting boards loaded with extraordinary cured, cooked, and smoked meats and wonderful artisanal cheeses bring to mind Medieval French feasts in the winter after pig slaughters and truffle hunts in the fall. The French may have taken charcuterie, (from chair cuit, or “cooked flesh”) and cheeses like this to culinary heights, but finding ways to preserve meats and dairy before the days of refrigeration has been around for thousands of years. Sausage, for instance, was a staple from before 500 BC in ancient Greece and so were goat’s-and sheep’s-milk cheeses.
Brian Howard, the ambitious 32-year-old executive chef who runs the award-winning Comme Ça restaurants of Las Vegas and West Hollywood became entranced with the romance and challenge of charcuterie as he was moving up the ladder at acclaimed restaurants like Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro on the Vegas Strip and nu sanctuary in L.A. “I fell in love with [charcuterie] and began playing around with it at home,” he says. “It’s a lost art that a lot of chefs are getting back into now,” Howard says. “[Chefs are creating] new-world flavors with old-world techniques.” Howard has always appreciated a good cheese, too, so pouring his heart and soul into these complementary offerings made sense.
At his Vegas base, he fills each slate or specially sealed walnut Board of the Beast with 50–60 percent house-made charcuterie, composed of whatever his chefs want to use from the market on a given day. Each cheese board, known as Five French Cheeses in Vegas and Artisanal Fromage Plate at the West Hollywood flagship (which reopens in the spring following renovations) changes seasonally but usually includes fresh, aged, and smoked cheeses using cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk. Most come from France, but he also throws in delicious French-style cheeses made by U.S. purveyors like Zingerman’s Creamery in his native Michigan. Howard aims for an artful mix of “textures and temperatures” on each board and fills remaining spaces with grilled baguette slices, cornichons and homemade pickles from in-seasonal vegetables and fruits such as peaches, cauliflower, and smoked jalapeños and with classic French “mustard fruits” (a relish of fruits like huckleberries cooked with mustard seeds, Dijon mustard, vinegar, oil, and herbs). On cheese boards, Howard adds fresh fruit, fruit compotes, and even fresh honeycomb.
To assemble your own meat and cheese boards, head to the best cheese and meat shops in your area or order online. (Whatever you don’t use should be stored in the fridge.) This is humble food, so present each serving simply with good bread, pickles, a green salad, honey, and Dijon mustard. Accompany with wine or beer.