For Nai Zhao, cheese is synonymous with self-care. “A nice spread of meat and cheese was always my way of treating myself,” she laughs.
As the founder of Portland-based charcuterie delivery service, Charcuterie Me, Zhao is no novice when it comes to the wonderful world of cheese. Every month, she curates crowd-pleasing assortments of cured meats, gourmet cheeses and artisanal accoutrements for her wildly popular monthly subscription boxes.
“I enjoy creating a journey of discovery for our customers,” says the 33-year-old entrepreneur. “Each box comes with a list of ingredients so you can make a mental note when you like something. I source locally when I can, and have been able to work with some amazing producers here in Oregon, including a winery, a CBD chef and a chilli oil company.”
Zhao started Charcuterie Me in 2020. She was inspired by childhood gatherings when her family would share stories around the dining room table, laughing while enjoying a delicious meal.
“My parents immigrated to the US in the ‘80s from their home in war-torn Laos,” she explains. “Both of my parents have a high school education. I like to think my dad taught me how to dream, and my mom taught me how to hustle.”
Zhao’s parents are both from an ethnic minority group called lu-Mien, who were displaced across Southeast Asia as a result of the Vietnam War. As a first-generation lu-Mien refugee, Zhao says that she looks back on her American upbringing as a privilege, and a big reason why she remains driven today when it comes to building her business, and her future.
“What inspires me is building something on my own,” she says. “I didn’t have someone to look up to who looked like me when I was young, so I definitely want to be a positive example.”
Zhao runs the show when it comes to Charcuterie Me, from branding and social media to backend web design. Having launched her business in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s had to adapt to the era of social distancing – a challenge when it comes to food that’s meant to be shared.
To solve that problem, Zhao created the “Selfie” – a handheld cheese and charcuterie cone designed to be enjoyed solo. It’s a simple throwback to her earliest days of indulging in food at home. “When I first fell in love with charcuterie it was a way for me to treat myself. I still love to mix up my plates with new cheeses and old favorites.”
When it comes to adventurous pairings, Zhao is all about fusion, introducing classic Old World fromage with invigorating Asian flavors. “Spread a creamy brie on a cracker, and top it with a dollop of chilli garlic oil. It is so good!”
Looking for new cheeses to explore this holiday season? Try one (or all) of Zhao’s go-to cheeses:
1. Artigiano Vino Rosso
From Italian cheesemaker, La Bottega di BelGioioso, a traditional family business that has been producing for over five generations, Zhao says this artisanal handcrafted cheese is a new favorite.
“It has a surprisingly nutty flavor, but its texture is creamy and crumbly,” she says. “And it’s soaked in red wine, so the rind has a really robust and hearty taste, too.”
2. Triple-cream Camembert
When it comes to her all-time favorite cheese, Zhao always reaches for a classic: triple-cream camembert. Made of 75% butterfat, this cheese has an uber-soft texture with a rich, earthy flavor.
“It’s my favorite spreadable cheese to include in my charcuterie boards and pairs so well with a salty cured meat like prosciutto,” she adds.
When it comes to sharing, Zhao recommends keeping it simple and keeping a surefire crowd-pleasers, like camembert or, alternatively brie, on hand. “While they’re similar, camembert has a deeper, more intense flavor that I think resonates better with people.”
Made with the milk of Manchega sheep, this Spanish cheese delivers a deep caramel flavor, offset with a bit of acidity. “This one is so good on its own or on a cheeseboard,” says Zhao. “I personally prefer a four-month aged manchego, if you can find it.”