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Utah ‘platter maven’ makes edible art with meat, cheese and more

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maven Oak Creative's Adventure Platters come in a biodegradable container. Nicole Simper, owner of Maven Oak Creative, is a self-described "artist, adventurer and avid cheese supporter" who can turn cheese, meat and bread into works of art on a wood charcuterie board. During COVID-19, she is making mini charcuterie boxes for people to enjoy at home. Photographed in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Nicole Simper always hesitated to call herself a chef, but she could rightly be labeled a culinary artist.

Yet platter maven is the title she’s chosen to embrace of late.

Simper is educated in the arts and holds a degree in photography from the University of Utah, but has called the kitchen her workspace since she was 16 years old. She’s served as a culinary assistant on a food-focused TV show, managed a bar and held just about every position in the restaurant industry.

In February 2019, she launched her current project — Maven Oak Creative. It offers artistically inspired meat and cheese boards filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, breads, dips and pickled items fantastically displayed — and typically in large scale.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nicole Simper, owner of Maven Creative, is a self-described "artist, adventurer and avid cheese supporter" who can turn cheese, meat and bread into works of art on a wood charcuterie board. During COVID-19, she is making mini charcuterie boxes for people to enjoy at home. Simper was photographed in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 17, 2020.

“Those two worlds, art and food, kind of created this platter business,” says Simper, who looks at her business as a way to connect people over platters of food to gather and graze around. “I’m very artistic. It’s like a whole creative process to me. That’s how I approach what I’m doing now.”

Simper’s initial focus was on large, artful boards designed to host and feed dozens with curated platters ranging in price from $100 to $450. Each is served on a specially sized Baltic birch wood board built by her uncle.

Her trademark was the decadent grazing tables, though. Starting at $22 per person, party hosts could cover their dining table or island with feet of charcuterie, cheese from around the world, fruits, crusty breads from Bread Riot Bakehouse, pickled snacks by Cache Canning Co., crunchy crackers and housemade dips.

(Photo courtesy of Nicole Simper) Maven Oak Creative offers artistically inspired meat and cheese boards filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, breads, dips and pickled items fantastically displayed.

The pandemic and cautions around large gatherings put those visions on hold, she says. “I’d probably be doing this full time right now had the world not turned upside down.”

Simper remains dedicated to her art and adapted her business to sustain itself over the past few months.

Her primary product now is the Adventure Platter, a set of two individually designed boxes ($45) that can travel easily, whether boating, picnicking, camping or enjoying on the patio.

Inside the eco-friendly container you’ll find meats sourced from A Priori or Caputo’s, cheese from Beehive Cheese or Park City Creamery, fresh fruit from Top Crops, nuts and crackers.

“I never thought I would do something so small, but it’s actually been kind of great because it’s allowed a wider audience,” Simper says. “It’s your own little personal platter experience.”

Regardless of the size of the edible art, Simper’s platters change with the seasons to reflect the best foods available at any given time. Late summer is a particularly bountiful time because she can shop farmers markets and source from more local vendors.

“There’s so much good stuff in season right now,” she says, “stone fruits, cherries, radishes.”

As the popularity of Maven Oak Creative’s platters mushroomed in 2019, people began asking Simper how she put together her stunning presentations. “I don’t really focus on being creative, but some people do,” she says, so Simper began teaching classes to help people create their own delicious boards.

She teamed up with Bitters Lab to host cocktail and charcuterie classes, where guests could learn a new skill and then enjoy their efforts immediately.

“I had to talk to adults about how to be creative,” she laughs. “But it’s just cheese. We’re not Picasso. And if it sucks, you just eat it and try again!”

(Photo courtesy of Nicole Simper) Maven Oak Creative offers artistically inspired meat and cheese boards filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, breads, dips and pickled items fantastically displayed.

Still, her advice on how to build an edible masterpiece does suggest the same care all artists give to their work.

“Consider things that offer different colors, textures and flavors,” she says. “If you’re shopping at the market, what grows together goes together, and then you can add cheese and meat to it.”

Simper considers her platters a feast of the five senses — a delicious experience she creates through her combined eye for art and sense of taste.

Heather L. King owns www.slclunches.com and can be found on social media @slclunches.

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