You'll find nerds in nearly every milieu. Computer nerds. Comic nerds. Food nerds. Cheese nerds. Cerrillos resident Lauren Stutzman falls into that last category, though "nerd" might not even be strong enough a word. Can an obsession be good? If so, Stutzman's commitment to cheese is obsessive, but she's looking to share through Picnic, her catering, events and everyday cheese business that adds artistry and deep consideration to the simple yet powerful charcuterie board. With an ever-rotating combination of cheese, meats and fruit, Stutzman's boards and plates are gorgeous—educational, even. She's also focused on working with small cheesemakers and suppliers, and to acknowledging the colonial roots of the overall cheese business.
Stutzman grew up in Albuquerque, but spent over two decades in Vermont after graduating from Goddard College. There, she worked in foodservice and developed an appreciation for the wide world of cheese (Vermont's a pretty major dairy state), but she still dreamed of the desert. When Stutzman returned to New Mexico in 2013 and realized her restaurant days were over, she toiled for a time at the now-defunct Cheesemongers cheese shop that was once downtown on Marcy Street, but something didn't sit quite right.
"I was very disappointed with the way Cheesemongers was handling questions of misogyny and racism within their ranks," Stutzman says. "It became evident they had a racist, misogynist person working there, and the owner didn't do anything but chalk it up to 'quirky old man.'"
Knowing she hoped to leave, she learned as much as she could from her fellow former employees Oisín Young and Lilith Spencer (the latter of whom, Stutzman says, should be considered the creator of the charcuterie board as know it today), all the while designing her own take on the art form.
"My thing was that where the shop was located keeps certain people in Santa Fe, otherwise known as locals, from shopping there, and as much as people tried, the vibe of Cheesemongers was that certain people couldn't be there," Stutzman tells SFR. "When I realized I could make the cheese plates pretty decently, I realized I would like to reach a wider audience, and I wouldn't separate my politics from the business."
It's ultimately a small thing, Stutzman says, but each plate comes with information about where the cheese is sourced from, and what Indigenous lands its maker is occupying.
"Land acknowledgments are mainly performative," Stutzman notes, "but if you're taking it a little further and maybe making the effort to make friends with your neighbors…in New Mexico, we're lucky enough to do that, and Indigenous movements everywhere have made it easy to find out whose land you're on."
For example, she says, Colorado's Haystack Mountain makes some of her favorite cheese, particularly the long-aged goat milk cheese, but that doesn't change how the business sits on lands belonging to the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute and Očeti Šakówin tribes. Still, she says, Haystack's cheesemaker Jackie Chang has created a variety someplace between cheddar and chévre, and Stutzman's got it, among others.
The ultimate goal is simple: Share cheese.
"Once you learn the cheese basics, you can start to curate cheeses that you think people on a larger scale will love and enjoy, and you can add in some of the weirder stuff, and people tend to be open to it," Stutzman explains. "Cheese is such a cool product, and the makers of cheese all over the world, especially smaller producers, are very committed and dedicated to supporting the ecosystem."
Using those smaller makers all but ensures a quality product as well. It'll sound obvious once you hear it, but happier animals makes for tastier milk and, in turn, tastier cheese. These things tend to happen with smaller producers, and Stutzman prefers hers to come from makers with facilities that support happily grazing animals. Beyond that, it's like a trial and error game with Stutzman soaking up info, tasting everything she can and soliciting customer feedback about what tastes or works best. Each plate is a stunning and geometric triumph. If that sounds melodramatic, you've probably never seen one of Stutzman's cured meat roses (literally thinly sliced meats arranged in the shape of a rose). Plates are designed to maximize variety and flavor profiles that build off one another, and each is a carefully considered combination. Also, there's chocolate sometimes.
"When someone contacts me, I just ask if there are any things they absolutely don't want," says Stutzman. "An amazing thing about New Mexicans is that people around here are a lot more open to trying stuff, so I design it off what's good and cheeses I want people to try."
The process has proven popular. Picnic is a one-woman operation, but Stutzman recently acquired space in the CHOMP Food Hall (505 Cerrillos Road, 660-5146) in the Luna Center. Picnic has been a delivery business since its inception two years ago, and Stutzman still adheres to that model—but with a physical space, customers can pick up orders whenever, and people who find themselves craving a cheese plate can grab one at their own convenience.
"I'm still trying to feel out what the demand is for the grab-and-go stuff, but Tuesday through Sunday you can grab a little cheese plate and you don't have to get in touch with me," she says. "If you want something bigger, though, get in touch with me."
With all this cheese talk flying around, what words of wisdom might Stutzman have for the budding cheese aficionado?
"Don't ever look at the pound price," she advises. "Realize you can ask the cheese people at Whole Foods or the Co-op or even Smith's…if you see a piece of cheese outside your budget, don't be afraid to ask if they'll cut it into a smaller piece. You can go in with $10 and try five different cheeses."