April 21, 2016

Grilled cheese is the ultimate comfort food. It’s quick and easy to make, requiring only a few basic, inexpensive ingredients. However, many restaurants have taken that gooey formula and stepped it up several notches. Anyone attending culinary academy can appreciate the ways these chefs have revolutionized a childhood lunchtime favorite with fresh ingredients and unexpected flavors. This bare-bones dish leaves plenty of room to bring in savory, sweet or salty tastes, resulting in grilled cheese that adults will line up to eat.

Grilled cheese is both simple and an exceptionally versatile dish.

Grilled cheese is both simple and an exceptionally versatile dish.

Chef-made grilled cheese
Any child can make a grilled cheese with white bread, a slice of American cheese and butter. Still, as Serious Eats pointed out, there’s plenty of room to experiment with more creative ingredients without losing that essential identity. Regardless of what else one chooses to throw on there, a sandwich can still be considered a grilled cheese as long as it involves melted cheese and sliced bread that is cooked on both sides using a flat, greasy surface.

Many chefs have taken up this challenge, putting their skills to work developing intriguing, gourmet-inspired ways to jazz up this old favorite. In some cases, this is simply a matter of replacing dull refrigerator staples with some more exciting elements, including high-quality bread, unusual cheeses and delicious condiments. For instance, Anne Burrell suggested substituting in Talleggio, a pungent, semisoft Italian cheese. The sandwich is assembled on rye bread with bacon, Dijon mustard and slices of Honeycrisp apples.

Other chefs test the limits of what grilled cheese can be with surprising additions. Jeff Mauro presented a hybrid of two comfort foods with his jalapeno popper grilled cheese. He advised tossing the jalapenos with olive oil, salt and pepper. The recipe also calls for combining aged cheddar and mascarpone to achieve extra creamy results.

Cheesy successes
The versatility of the grilled cheese has made it a specialty for numerous restaurants. All over the U.S., chefs have developed inventive takes on the sandwich to appeal to dining enthusiasts and late-night snackers alike. The key to success is piling on interesting additions without drifting too far from the basics that give grilled cheese such widespread appeal.

Heidi Gibson of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco was seven-time champion of national grilled cheese competitions before making the classic sandwich her career. The shop boasts some elaborate and inventive creations like the mac ‘n’ cheese grilled cheese, in which the pasta is placed on sourdough with garlic butter. The Reuben Adams brings grilled cheese to the deli with pastrami, stone ground mustard, bread and butter pickles, garlic butter, house-made Russian dressing and a sauerkraut made with Brussels sprouts on rye.

Cleveland-based Melt has developed a devoted following with its wide range of sandwich options, beginning with a basic grilled cheese called the Kindergarten. From there, the menu gets a lot more interesting, including items like the chorizo and potato. This sandwich features spicy sausage, potato hash and sharp cheddar. Otherwise, you might opt for the signature Parmageddon, with potato and onion pierogi, sauteed onions, sharp cheddar and a sauerkraut featuring vodka and a special mixture of spices.

Melt Shop in New York City has also come up with some unique taste contrasts. The truffle melt comes with truffle oil, arugula and Havarti cheese on sourdough. The Big Skinny features grilled mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, red peppers, sherry vinaigrette and mozzarella. Founder Spencer Rubin discussed the flavor profile of his preferred offering with Mental Floss.

“I always love salty and sweet combinations,” he said. “My favorite sandwich on our menu is the Maple Bacon with aged cheddar, brick spread, Applewood smoked bacon and maple syrup. The combination is insane.”

These inventive grilled cheeses have influenced chefs at a wide range of restaurants. For instance, Chicago gastropub Hop Leaf brings together inspiration from two childhood favorites with its CB&J. This sandwich combines house-made cashew butter, fig jam and raclette cheese on sourdough. It’s pan-fried and served with Stilton macaroni and cheese for an added dose of gooey comfort.

The crowd-pleasing grilled cheese is a perfect starting point for experimentation. It seems that chefs will continue to find new ways to make this beloved sandwich fresh and exciting, showing those in culinary arts programs how the simplest dish can lead to endless variations.