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Grilled Cheese Goes Gourmet

Moving Past the Confines of the Cafeteria into Modern Kitchens across the West

Caitlin M. O'Shaughnessy

While grilled cheeses are considered standard fare on diner menus throughout the country, more recently they have been showing up on the plates of gourmet establishments. Not only are chefs offering their own unique takes on this old lunch menu classic, but this childhood staple is taking center stage with creative, new combinations, as kitchens embrace comfort food in both casual and fine dining establishments. From San Francisco’s American Grilled Cheese Kitchen to L.A.’s Grilled Cheese Truck to the 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational that attracted thousands of fans with lines over a mile long earlier this year, the irresistible combination of toasted bread and melted cheese has made its way from the confines of the cafeteria and is warranting the attention of chefs all over the West Coast.

At The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco, Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak serve between 300 and 400 grilled cheeses every day. After winning the Grilled Cheese Invitational more times than any other contestant in its history, (her favorite entry was “a homemade brioche with Manchego cheese and Jamón Serrano, dipped in French toast batter, grilled and topped with pumpkin orange marmalade and an orange rum sauce with powdered sugar and raspberries”) Heidi realized that even though her background was in engineering, her passion and talent for creating unique and delicious grilled cheeses was impossible to ignore. With menu items like the Mousetrap (Tillamook sharp cheddar, creamy havarti and Monterey Jack on artisan sourdough), the Don Gondola (aged provolone, sopressatta salami, roasted tomato, pesto, and garlic butter) and the Jalapeño Popper (chèvre, Monterey Jack, applewood-smoked bacon, and apricot-jalapeño relish), this grilled cheese-obsessed restaurant is at the forefront of this cheesy trend.

Chef Dave Danhi shares Heidi’s grilled cheese passion and developed an on-the-go option with The Grilled Cheese Truck, which travels around Los Angeles serving upwards of 800 melts a day. After having been a chef for almost 20 years, Danhi was also inspired by his experience competing in the Grilled Cheese Invitational; the mobile kitchen’s most popular dish is “the one I entered at the GCI. The Cheesy Mac and Rib (aka: Fully Loaded). Southern macaroni and cheese, pulled barbecued pork and caramelized onions with sharp cheddar cheese. The dry rub for the pork, the mac and cheese and the barbecue sauce recipes are all ones that I’ve been perfecting for over 15 years. It’s an original sandwich that piques the customer’s interest.” Though grilled cheeses have been popular in America for over 80 years, Danhi’s truck strikes the balance between comfort food and innovative flavor combinations like the Harvest Melt, which includes roasted butternut squash with sautéed leeks, balsamic and agave syrups. As he puts it, “It was the perfect storm; a way to ‘go out’ and have some restaurant-quality food at half the price in a fun environment.”

A new take on a classic sandwich

While it’s hard to imagine a more perfect combination than melted cheese sandwiched between two perfectly toasted slices of white bread, chefs have been tweaking “the perfect grilled cheese” with unexpected additions and artisan ingredients with great success. Cameron Fomby, of Counterpoint in San Diego, describes the trend saying: “The most popular grilled cheese is both traditional and modern; it is two slabs of a Pullman Loaf (from local bakery Bread & Cie), slathered with French sweet butter, almost a quarter pound of Cahill’s Irish pub cheese, (it’s a glorious cheddar-ish cheese whose curds are pressed with an Irish porter ale that is dark brown and it melts like something out of a cartoon), and then two thick pieces of fried bologna.”

Similarly, Christophe Depuichaffray, the Executive Chef of the InterContinental Hotels of San Francisco and the restaurant Top of the Mark, explores a new take by integrating goat cheese and Spanish-influenced flavors into his sandwich. Top of the Mark’s lunch menu features a “Humboldt Fog grilled cheese, which is more of a contemporary sandwich with local cheese and products. It is really popular for lunch. I think it is an especially interesting combination with Mediterranean flavor, as we do it with sundried tomatoes, sky hawk olive oil, and a membrillo quince paste with toasted walnuts and honey.” 

The choice of cheese is key

Not all high-quality ingredients are created equal in the gooey world of grilled cheese. What then is the difference between a great cheese and a great grilled cheese? The melting factor. At The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, Heidi Gibson recommends “starting with cheeses that are traditionally melted in other dishes to give you some idea of what will be good in a grilled cheese. Hard cheeses don’t melt, and cow’s milk cheeses melt a lot better than those made from other milks.”

Dave Danhi notes that “some cheeses just ‘get hot’ and don’t melt and when customers get a grilled cheese that isn’t soft and melted, they feel that it’s not done.” At The Oaks Gourmet in Los Angeles, owner Greg Morris hosts a grilled cheese night every Wednesday with such enticing combinations as époisses, fontina & black cherry preserves on cranberry walnut bread, in addition to a crispy prosciutto grilled cheese made with fontina, camembert, dijon mustard and topped with a sunny-side-up egg and a Gruyère Mornay sauce. Morris elaborates saying, “If you are trying to make a great grilled cheese, you must remember three factors: flavor, texture and ooze. For a perfect combination, I would suggest a seven-year cave-aged Gruyère for the flavor, a smoked mozzarella for both flavor and texture and perhaps an époisses of brie for ooze and flavor. The great thing about it is there aren’t really too many ways to mess up grilled cheese.”

Aside from evaluating the meltability of a cheese, choosing the right cheese or combinations of cheeses is essential in designing a fantastic sandwich. Laura Werlin, one of the country’s foremost authorities on cheese and the author of several outstanding books including Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stove Top, Grill, and Sandwich Maker and the upcoming Grilled Cheese, Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes describes the art of crafting a perfect recipe: “It’s critical that the sandwich has the proper ratio of cheese to bread and that the bread is crisp. It’s crucial that the cheese (or cheeses – I’m a big fan of using more than one) is a good melting cheese; there’s nothing worse than cutting into a grilled cheese and finding it’s only half-melted. For chefs who are contemplating adding a grilled cheese sandwich to their menu, my advice would be to keep it fairly simple – a grilled cheese doesn’t need 15 ingredients – and keep it seasonal. While I believe that less is more, there’s no reason not to gussy up a basic grilled cheese with winter greens, or summer basil, or fall pears, or pancetta instead of bacon, or leeks instead of onions and so on. One of the best things about grilled cheese is that it starts off fairly neutral – cheese, bread and butter.”

Sue Conley, co-founder of San Francisco’s Cowgirl Creamery, recommends “a Swiss-style cheese, like Comté or Gruyère, because it has a nice stretch when it’s melted.” Cowgirl Creamery’s new Ferry building offshoot, Sidekick, features a Grilled Cheese of the Day as well as “cheese toasties, an open-faced grilled cheese.” While she advocates the addition of herbs, a blend of cheeses and occasionally a tangy mustard or fruit spread, she writes, “Cowgirl’s mission is to introduce and promote the unique artisan and farmstead cheeses to our customer, so we believe in letting the cheese take the lead in grilled cheese.”

Creating a unique, satisfying and ultimately great-tasting combination isn’t just a matter of luck; as Heidi Gibson sees it, it’s more of a science. “When I invent a new menu item, I write a whole test matrix of different combinations. Since I was an engineer, I use those techniques to develop the sandwich by writing a matrix of different cheeses, different breads and different additions and then test, test, test. I start with an idea of an ingredient, like a feta sandwich, or with a cheese type or a flavor like butternut squash, and might take an inspiration from another non-sandwich dish – butternut squash and sage ravioli, for example. After I try all of the different ingredients in the sandwich, it usually takes at least three rounds to get the taste that I want.”

With endless artisanal bread options, cheese combinations and epicurean additions, this comfort food staple has never been more appealing. Having the ability to satisfy even the most discerning diner as an appetizer, entrée or even as a dessert, grilled cheese is an incredibly popular, but simple dish that any chef can enhance with their signature style.

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