By Tami Vigness
We’ve all been there. A friend or relative is hosting a party and requests that everyone bring a dish to share. Before we’ve even RSVP’d, we’ve opened the Pinterest app, searched “appetizer”, and begun to scour the endless array of the best recipes the internet has to offer. My own Pinterest board, appropriately titled “Apps!”, is filled with delicious-looking photos of dips, canapés, tapenades, flatbreads, and crostini – most of which I’ve never made. Ever the procrastinator, I usually end up tossing a brick of cream cheese, some seasonings, and whatever other random ingredients I have in my fridge into a crockpot, grabbing a box of crackers, and calling it “good enough.”
While I’m not one to ever turn my nose up at a good cheesy crockpot dip, I’ve noticed the offerings at many of the parties I’ve attended lately have elevated in both style and appearance. The familiar lineup of crockpots filled with queso, little smokies, and meatballs have taken a backseat to platters filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, and other accoutrements. These are not just ordinary meat and cheese trays, but rather edible works of art that look almost too delicious to eat. Charcuterie boards, as they’ve come to be called, are arguably the best – and most beautiful – way to bring all our favorite finger foods into one place. Unlike the pre-assembled trays of basic deli meat and run-of-the-mill cheese that you can find at nearly any grocery store, charcuterie boards take the meat and cheese game to a whole new level.
The word “charcuterie” itself is a French term for a method of cooking that was developed out of necessity as a way to preserve meat before the days of refrigeration. Officially, charcuterie essentially refers to meat – typically from the pork family – but, in today’s world, charcuterie has expanded into something far beyond preserved meats and has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. In addition to cured and smoked meats, today’s charcuterie boards typically feature creamy cheeses, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, nuts, olives, honey, and jam artfully displayed on platters or wooden boards. Essentially, “charcuterie” has become synonymous with “food on a board.”
If you’re anything like me and practically break out in hives merely thinking about how to artfully arrange food so that it appears simultaneously put together yet effortless, rest assured that there is help! Alexandra (Alex) Lunseth, owner and operator of Grazing Queens, LLC, has mastered the art of fine food styling and is sharing her passion for charcuterie board design with the community.
Alex’s love of working in the kitchen and preparing food began at an early age. “Prior to the flood, on the weekends, my dad would set up a table at the City Center Mall in downtown Grand Forks, and sell his hot sauce. We’d give out samples and I would help sell the sauce. As a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Alex recalled with a smile. “I think I made my first box of macaroni and cheese when I was four years old and just never stopped.” Growing up, she kept a diary and would record her many creations. “I went through phases – there was the cookie summer, the pasta winter, and soup season,” she laughed.
Fast-forwarding a few years, as a busy mom and co-owner of Lunseth Trucking Company, Alex yearned to get back into the kitchen to hone her creative and culinary skills. The idea of starting a charcuterie board styling business had been years in the making. “I had this idea,” Alex recalled, “but I was so scared it would fail.” When her grandfather passed away from COVID in 2020, Alex had a revelation. Realizing just how fragile and short life can be, she decided that she wanted something more. After designing grazing boards for family, friends, and a few events, she was finally ready to take the leap into launching her charcuterie workshops and teach others how to create beautiful grazing boards on their own. Grazing Queens officially started in October of 2021.
Alex’s leap of faith proved to not only be something she needed on a personal level, but also something that the community needed as well. Mere hours after announcing her first workshop, held at All Season’s Garden Center in Grand Forks just a couple of weeks before Christmas, the event sold out. It was the boost of confidence Alex needed to realize that her business was taking off and her dreams were coming to fruition. Employing the help of family and friends to prepare for the event, Grazing Queens hosted 30 guests at the inaugural workshop, all eager to learn the basics of creating a grazing board, charcuterie techniques, and the art of fine food styling.
Attendees get a hands-on experience at each Grazing Queens workshop. Depending on the size of the venue, anywhere from 30-70 participants are equipped with all the necessities to create a beautiful board of their very own. These colorful and diverse boards, that Alex has fittingly dubbed “rainbow boards”, feature a selection of meat, cheeses, and various other accompaniments in every color of the rainbow, creating both a culinary and visual masterpiece. The workshop begins by going over the basics of building a grazing board, including how to safely handle the knives. “There is a method to the chaos that is the beautiful charcuterie board,” Alex laughed. Generally, each board begins with one item as the central focal point. In some cases, it’s a little pot of honey complete with a wooden dipper; in other cases, it’s a popular charcuterie element that is a staple of many grazing boards: the salami rose. Besides being a delicious addition to nearly any board, it’s a visually appealing component that is surprisingly simple to make. Starting with a small ramekin and a few slices of salami, participants are taught the folding and rolling techniques that make up the rose. Once the rose is in place, attendees learn how to balance out the board with a variety of cheese, fruits, nuts, and spreads. The finishing touch is the addition of edible flowers, free from pesticides and chemicals, that Alex special orders from California for her workshops. Although each workshop covers a lot of information, tricks, and techniques, there’s no need to take notes. “I send a thank-you email to all attendees after each workshop that goes over the map of the charcuterie board and everything we covered in class,” Alex explained. Participants are also provided with a link to review the workshop and make comments.
For anyone who has mastered the basics of assembling a grazing board and is looking to step up their charcuterie game, Grazing Queens offers advanced workshops as well. In addition to the familiar grazing board elements, participants have the opportunity to take their skills to the next level. Advanced workshops teach more complex charcuterie techniques, offer lessons on making dips and spreads, and include other components and ingredients to enhance boards. One of the popular and tasty enhancements is the addition of a feta marinating bar. Salty feta is the perfect cheese to pair with the rich olive oil varieties from local shop, The Olive Barrel. Participants can experiment with traditional and flavored oils to add depth and complexity to their grazing boards.
Grazing Queens charcuterie workshops have popped up in venues all around the Grand Cities. Breweries, coffee shops, garden centers, restaurants, and event venues have all been settings for the workshops. Whether it’s providing the space for her workshops or specialty food items for the grazing boards, Alex is always looking for opportunities to partner and collaborate with more local businesses and suppliers. Grazing Queens has recently become a fixture in downtown Grand Forks with a location at 110 North 3rd Street. Currently, the space serves as a commercial kitchen that is closed to the public; but Alex has high hopes for growing the Grazing Queens brand and expanding the business. She plans to offer unique cooking classes out of the new kitchen space and hopes to explore the wholesale market, providing all the necessary elements to create fabulous grazing boards at home.
Since launching Grazing Queens, Alex has been the inspiration for others to start charcuterie businesses of their own. Rather than seeing it as competition, Alex couldn’t be happier. “I know of five people that started charcuterie businesses after attending my class, and I have never been more humbled, proud, and overwhelmingly happy. My goal from the beginning of starting this small business was to inspire others to create in the kitchen. So, whether you are new to charcuterie, looking to start a business, or currently in business, you are so welcome and encouraged to join us. I will support you and cheer for you!” G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 3, 2023
PHOTOS SUBMITTED By Grazing Queens