Thank you to Lesley Stowe Fine Foods for sponsoring this post.
This week, I started thinking about cheese plates for a crowd. Which is appropriate after meeting Lesley Stowe last weekend and hearing about her history in the food business.
Over drinks at the Westin hotel in Seattle, Lesley told a number of food bloggers her story. She has a quiet, intentional demeanor, like she’s always listening. It makes sense for someone who has spent decades behind the scenes, working with food. As a former caterer, dessert chef, and specialty food storeowner, she learned by listening to customers, and to the market. What do people want? How can we create something to fill that niche?
It impressed me that hers is no study in how to go corporate. Like many accounts I’ve read about hardworking chefs, Lesley created her signature product almost by a fluke. It was the 1990s, the era of the bagel chip, and she had created a loaf made with graham flour to go with another dish. She decided to see what would happen if she sliced it thin and baked it.
The result was a cracker, one so thin and crunchy that it was soon in high demand. She needed two people to dedicate their time to making and packaging the new snack food in order to keep up. Raincoast Crisps were off and running.
Her story challenges the myth of the overnight success.
“You have to keep reinventing yourself,” she says.
She certainly has. Lesley studied at Parisian cooking school La Varenne then moved to Vancouver to set up a cooking school. They did the food circuit: catering, take-out, and creating desserts for local restaurants.
The cooking school gave her sea legs and informed her next business venture. This one hit a nerve. Seeing no source for fine foods in the city, she became a food pioneer, opening a specialty food store. At the time, good chocolate, quality olive oil, gelato, and artisanal breads were a novelty to shoppers. Being the only source in Vancouver, the business caught on. The creation of Raincoast Crisps added to her success.
When the Whole Foods in Madison, Wisconsin called and asked if they could sell her crisps, she said she could feel her heart pounding. Since then her product line has expanded and the crisps are now available not only throughout Canada but in the U.S. as well. They’re continuing to innovate: just this week I received samples of her new flat breads.
Lesley says she loves that their crisps are all made by hand, resulting in varied shapes that showcase the ingredients inside. It’s not uncommon to see a cross-section of a hazelnut, or a gap between a cranberry and a pumpkin seed.
“That’s what’s special about them,” she says. “It would lose charm and integrity if they all looked the same.”
They wouldn’t be as photogenic, either.
A good food story always makes me enthusiastic. Thinking about how I would craft a cheese plate for a crowd, I lost my head a little bit. When I got home from the co-op and counted the things I wanted to try with the crisps, there were nineteen ingredients.
A little over the top, maybe. But it gave me plenty to choose from and if I were preparing for a feast in the near future, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
I arranged salmon and pepper jack for something savory, whole plums and green beans for snacking. For something sweet, I mixed cream cheese with grapefruit zest and honey.
When everything was arranged, it felt right, like an offering to my guests. Here is an opportunity to come up with unique combinations, and chance to reinvent their own pre-dinner snacks each time they reach for a crisp.
Pictured: Northwest smoked King salmon, kiwi berries, Steamboat Island Goat Farm Pepper Jack, Seed Raincoast Crisps. Fennel, green beans, plums. Concorde grapes, Fig and Olive Raincoast Crisps, nectarines, pears, Tunawerth Creamery Nettle Gouda, grapefruit spread, Salty Date and Almond Raincoast Crisps.
¼ pound cream cheese
1 teaspoon grapefruit zest, grated fine
1 teaspoon grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon lemon juice
pinch of sea salt
Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl. Serve chilled with Salty Date and Almond Raincoast Crisps.