If the “Queen of Cheese” were a real title, we’d have to bestow it upon Linda Hopkins, co-owner and founder of the Scottsdale-based cheese and charcuterie delivery business, Harmony Boards. Using only the highest quality meats, cheeses, fruits and seasonal vegetables, Linda takes already delicious ingredients and pairs them in a way that transforms a party appetizer into a literal work of art.
Her boards are stunning, and you can see with your own eyes that Linda’s zeal for entertaining is executed in everything she does. From the perfectly placed ribbon of prosciutto to the dried herbs sprinkled delicately on top, her attention to detail is mesmerizing. The passion she injects into each order is the same passion that launched her into the food industry in the first place, taking her from a student to an eventual cooking school master. “Cooking has always been a part of my life. As a child, we weren’t allowed to have store-bought sweets, so I quickly figured out that if I baked cookies for my three sibling and myself, I could help satisfy our intense desire for sugar! As a young adult, I attended cooking classes, and eventually began teaching classes,” Linda remembers fondly.
While the recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced Linda to pivot and temporarily halt her board production, she’s been able to refocus her energy on her 11-year-old cooking blog, LesPetitesGourmettes.com, where she posts healthy recipes for salads, soups, stir-fry and more.
JA: Why did you decide to become a chef? What lead you down this career path? How did you develop the idea for Harmony Boards?
LH: After attending cooking classes, I eventually began teaching my own classes. First at Barbara Fenzl’s Les Gourmettes Cooking School and then opening my own children’s cooking school, Les Petites Gourmettes Children’s Cooking School, which I ran from 1995-2013. The idea for Harmony Boards began developing in my mind as Barbara was about to retire and close Les Gourmettes. In the spring of 2018, I saw a post on Instagram from Lady & Larder, a charcuterie/cheeseboard company in Los Angeles, and immediately knew that was going to be my new passion project, my next career, my new path. Harmony Boards launched in October 2018.
JA: What a career change! What’s your favorite cuisine to cook when you’re not creating party boards?
LH: I love the classic techniques and flavors of French cooking.
JA: Do you have a favorite mouth-healthy ingredient to cook with in springtime?
LH: Sugar snap peas, asparagus, artichokes, arugula and strawberries are among my favorites. And of course, cheese. All that calcium is very mouth-healthy.
JA: Yes, more cheese please! Are you noticing trends in restaurants or in the way people are dining and eating?
LH: The push toward a more plant-based diet, but I really don’t see that as a trend as much as a new way of life. Although, I love bacon too much to ever become a vegetarian and cheese too much to go vegan. As such, I do my best to limit animal meats to once or twice a week, but I don’t limit my cheese intake. I just keep it in moderation.
JA: Speaking of moderation, or lack there-of, what’s your favorite food to eat?
LH: Ice cream! That could be attributed to that deprivation during childhood. We did not own an ice cream maker, so ice cream was always the ultimate treat. It still is for me. Some childhood things stick with you forever.
JA: With everything going on in the world right now, how do you stay healthy? What do you do for your health and for self-care?
LH: Walking is my main physical activity, always striving for my 12,000+ steps. Water, water and more water is my other target each day. To de-stress, hot tea and warm baths are my go-to.
JA: When you think of all the amazing chefs and restaurant owners in your industry, who do you admire? Who inspires you?
LH: I admire so many people for many different reasons. But my food queen is one of Arizona’s more celebrated chefs, Charleen Badman of FnB in Scottsdale, who is the newest James Beard award-winning “Best Chef of the Southwest 2019”. Having owned and operated Arizona’s first and longest running children’s cooking school, Les Petites Gourmettes, for 18 years, I admire her love, dedication and devotion to teach Arizona school kids about gardening and cooking healthy. Her food is amazing, and she is a beautiful soul.
JA: When you’re at work, what are you happiest doing?
LH: My work is creating colorful works of art with cheese, meats, fruits and vegetables in the form of charcuterie and crudités boards. Every aspect of that makes me happy. In my off time, cooking for family and friends and entertaining is my ultimate happy place. I try to make holidays and even everyday entertaining special for my friends and family, creating a new signature cocktail for each gathering, setting a beautiful table, creating parties around a theme and going all in with that theme.
JA: Are you from Arizona? What do you like about living in the desert southwest?
LH: I am an Arizona native. I’ve never lived anywhere else, so the real question is what do I not like about living in Arizona? The answer to that is, by mid-August, I’ve had enough, and I pray for October to arrive ASAP. The heat didn’t bother me at all when I was a kid. We’d run around on the streets barefoot. Arizona kids are tough and resilient! The main thing that I did not appreciate when I was a kid was the beauty of the desert and cactus. I dreamed of living in the pines. Not anymore. I love the desert!
JA: Are there any local ingredients you particularly like to cook with?
LH: All seasonal produce I can get my hands on from the local farmer’s markets are my favorite. But citrus, specifically lemon and Meyer lemon, are my loves.
JA: What’s one thing a home cook can do to up their game and take entertaining to the next level?
LH: Season your food! Taste as you go. You’ll find that your dish usually needs a dash of salt and maybe a squeeze of lemon. Also, use all the fresh herbs you can get your hands on. Herbs grow great in Arizona home gardens. Get out there and plant rosemary, oregano, sage, mint, chives and basil. And remember to taste and season, season, and season your food until it is just right.
JA: What does eating healthy mean to you? Why is it important?
LH: For me, eating healthy means choosing a diverse and balanced group of seasonal and delicious foods that meet but do not exceed what I need to be my best mentally, emotionally and physically. I don’t always achieve that, but it is a daily goal. Moderation, especially with ice cream, is also key.
JA: You seem really invested in shopping locally and incorporating sustainability into your business model.
LH: One way I try to incorporate sustainability into my business model is by accompanying all boards with bamboo utensils delivered in a compostable kraft boxes. Customers also have the option of returning the board for their future orders.
JA: We know that chefs, restaurant owners and the food industry as a whole have taken a beating during this challenging public health crisis. Social distancing has left so many small business owners in a real pinch. Is there anything Arizonans can do to support your business during this environment of social distancing? Can customers interact with you in other ways right now?
LH: I temporarily closed my business on March 17 for all the reasons so many other food-based businesses have closed in recent days. Since I am the only employee and I do not need to interact directly with the customer, my risk was much lower than that of restaurants and bars. But since I don’t have the overhead or payroll of my independent-chef colleagues, I felt it was better to take the option of my food off the table and instead encourage customers to support the independent local restaurants near them by ordering take-out. We want and need those people as much as they need us not just now but when this crisis is over. Even the passing thought of FnB, Rancho Pinot Grill, Tarbell’s, Press Coffee Roasters or Sauce Pizza and Wine not being there when things return to normal is devastating to me and should be devastating to every individual. These types of establishments are the fabric of our community. I recently saw this post on Instagram from a restaurant-owner friend, “Remember all the restaurants and small businesses that you’ve asked for years and years to donate to your clubs, events, and organizations? They’re calling in a favor. Answer the call.” That sums it up for me. If you can afford to eat out, or in this case, take out, do it locally!
JA: What a wonderful way to pay tribute to those in your industry. And we agree, supporting locally owned businesses right now is one small gesture that will make a huge impact down the road.
Do you have any last-minute tips for creating a cheese board at home that will really stun and WOW your family members?
LH: Start simple with a variety of three cheeses. One soft, and two firm like French Brie, English Coastal Cheddar and Spanish Manchego. Position these on the board. Then, add two little ramekins, small bowls or small jars to the board. Next, place two varieties of meat, such as Prosciutto and a sliced salami. Fill the ramekins and jars with jam, honey, pickles or olives, etc. Then, fill in the remaining space with sliced fruits, whole berries, nuts and such to make the board colorful and appealing. Lastly, add a fresh herb sprig and an edible flower or two.