Aug. 3, 2011 at 2:39 PM ET
Can a grilled cheese sandwich made at a restaurant beat a good ol’ homemade, American cheese-and-white-bread classic whipped up by the loving hands of mom (or yourself)? Absolutely not, says food writer Josh Ozersky. In a Time magazine column, Ozersky bashes the concept of a grilled cheese centered eatery, saying bluntly that “this restaurant concept will never work out.” He goes on to assert that grilled cheese “may be the most perfect of all American foods” and fussing with the traditional style is a recipe for a disastrous meltdown. In this excerpt, he explains why:
…as the judges recently told another aspiring grilled-cheese franchiser on America's Next Great Restaurant, to carry the weight of a restaurant concept, the sandwich needs to have what entrepreneurs call "added value": something that will make it worthwhile to the consumer to seek it out instead of just making it at home. So, inevitably, the white bread gets swapped out for some fancier, coarser, denser substance that will obscure and distort the sandwich's taste. The American cheese, whose supernatural meltability, evenness and quick-setting viscosity make the whole thing possible, gets replaced with waxy, greasy cheddar, smoked Gouda or whatever; and the thin, even coat of fat, which suffuses the delicate airiness of the white bread, gets tinkered with as well.
There are several grilled cheese purveyors around the country, from food trucks, to restaurants and even a former “guerrilla grilled cheese" monger who had loads of customers fiending for his sandwiches. We asked a few of them to share why they think they can hold up to Mom’s cooking.
Cheeseboy, Boston, Mass.
“We actually agree with many of the points in the article -- grilled cheese is a perfect food and that is why we've modeled the Cheeseboy business on classic, old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwiches,” says spokesperson Hilary Allard. “We've just opened our fourth location and plan to open five more this year. To Mr. Ozersky's point, the universal familiarity of grilled cheese has supported our success -- it's a touch of home comfort in the middle of the day that customers can enjoy at the office, at the mall or on a train.”
American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, San Francisco
"We brand ourselves as a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant," says co-owner Nate Pollack. "What we serve is difficult to make; It's not just bread, butter and cheese." One of the restaurant's most popular sandwiches is the Jalapeno Popper, which features French levain bread, salted butter, local Monterey Jack cheese, local chevre and an apricot-jalapeno relish that takes three days to make. For grilled cheese purists who would say his sandwiches aren't technically grilled cheese, Pollack says, "That's a totally valid opinion. But it's still a delicious sandwich. If your definition of grilled cheese is white bread, butter and American cheese, then you shouldn't be going to a restaurant for that -- it's very difficult for a restaurant to compete with grandma for a sandwich she can make in a few minutes. What we do is very labor intensive and something most people can't do at home."
Queens Kickshaw, Long Island City, New York
“The first question that comes to our mind upon reading Ozersky's piece is, what is homemade?” says Jennifer Lim, who co-owns the eatery with her husband Ben. “For Ben, homemade meant his stepfather's grilled cheese sandwich was an open face with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and sauerkraut. We're sure that there are many mothers and fathers who continue to experiment with different varieties of grilled cheeses. We try to make our sandwich elements from scratch as much as possible, using good quality ingredients. Our sandwiches have been inspired by the great variety of cuisines in Queens. We offer people variety, from the classic grilled cheese (cheddar and mozzarella, with tomato soup) to open-faced sandwiches and fresh veggie accompaniments,” she says, adding that “Creativity is key in life.”
The Grilled Cheese Truck, Los Angeles
We definitely agree that it can be challenging to deliver the perfect grilled cheese," write owners Michele Grant and Dave Danhi in a statement. "But we would also assert that the idea of what makes a melt perfect can be subjective – while all of them start with those three magic ingredients: bread, butter and cheese, for each person, the elements that make a grilled cheese that takes them back to their childhood can be (and often are) very different." And as for sticking only to those three ingredients, they add that, "We think this is a pretty limited (and limiting) view. First off he’s left out the most important ingredient; the ingredient that grandmothers and mothers have been including for decades and we put first into every melt we make -- the genuine love for this all time favorite comfort food. We make each sandwich just the way grilled cheeses have been made for decades -- on a griddle (no fancy microwaves or panini presses) and work hard to make sure that each sandwich had that perfect crunch when you take that first bite. That’s what keeps each one of our 70,000 plus followers coming back again and again."
What do you think? Can restaurants make a grilled cheese that's better than what you can make at home relatively cheaply? Will hungry (or lazy) customers keep clamoring for more?