A grilled cheese revolution

Our stomachs must love the times we live in. At least here in Toronto, it seems as though every week there’s a new restaurant opening with some new expression of cuisine or a novel type of fusion food to leave your mouth watering. Chefs all over are taking restaurant staples like hamburgers, sliders, sandwiches, omelets, salads, burritos and tacos and giving them their own personal twists. They are reimagining these basic foods as a foundation for something far more flavorful, something far more grandiose and something far more memorable. Above all, they are giving customers a reason to return.

When I was writing the latest “In vino veritas” post about beer and cheese pairings, it really got me thinking. Cheeses are so intricate, complex and diverse they deserve their own post — multiple posts, even. I have to pick one topic to discuss, though. So I pick the grilled cheese.

Any restaurant or kitchen can prepare a basic grilled cheese sandwich — butter the bread, slap some processed cheese in the middle and throw it on a fry pan. If you aim to do the same as any other eatery, then how will you stand out?

One option at this point is to eliminate the grilled cheese from the menu. If everyone else has it, why bother competing with the herd? This may be a viable alternative as it leaves resources open for other menu items, but I wouldn’t discount this pan-fried sandwich so quickly. It’s relatively easy to prepare; it has low ingredient costs; it makes for a great late-night snack; and it’s as popular as ever, especially when paired with tomato soup (a winter classic). So rather than being interchangeable with any other restaurant on the grilled cheese front, elevate it to gourmet levels.

What is “gourmet” exactly? Everyone correlates it with high-quality craftsmanship — both in ingredient sourcing and preparation methods — but I also see it as a marker of creative expression combined with the Midas touch of marketing. The creativity stems from your chefs insofar as they are able to blend complex and obscure elements into a symphony of pleasurable flavors. It is indeed an art — anyone can throw disparate ingredients together, but the magic is in making them work.

Then comes the marketing angle. When you think of cheese, top of mind are probably cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, feta and maybe blue or goat. Setting aside tastes for a moment, these words don’t excite. They’re predictable. For example, consider the recent shift in restaurants from mayonnaise to aioli. If you look at how both sauces are prepared, for all intents and purposes they are the same. But most people don’t know that. As such, aioli is a more marketable term than mayonnaise because it has an unfamiliar zing to it. You must do the same with your grilled cheese if you want it to be perceived as gourmet. Also watch for adjective use: “aged smoked cheddar” sounds more sophisticated than plain old mozzarella.

Even with a clever shift in lexicon, however, the grilled cheese is not widely regarded as an epicurean meal. Hence, upgrading it to the gourmet stratosphere will be a welcome surprise, breathing new life into your menu assortment. Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:

Fancy cheeses and breads

This is a no-brainer; in order to craft a high-quality sandwich you need cheeses of outstanding pedigree and, as a good marketer will insist, ones with names that aren’t immediately recognizable. Don’t neglect your breads, either; people will know the difference both in taste and in texture.

Fun toppings

Go beyond bacon and tomato additives. There are countless other meats, veggies and sauces that you can throw in to spice up this snack. A few of my favorites are spinach, honey, turkey, prosciutto, hot peppers, bacon jam and sundried tomatoes.

Hybrid meals

Given that the grilled cheese works swimmingly with tomato soup (especially when you dip the former in the latter), it’s also time to upgrade your soup selection. What other broths or bisques would it pair with? Lobster grilled cheese with clam chowder, anyone? Moreover, consider putting a “melt” on the menu — an open-faced sandwich with cheese on top.

Challenge your chefs

In the end, it boils down to how empowered your kitchen is to experiment and introduce bold flavor combinations to your customers. To motivate your team, consider making it a contest with the victorious sandwich not only gracing the menu but also having the winner’s name attached to it.