Two of the most evocative words in the language of comfort food are “grilled cheese.”
However discerning their adult palates may be, diners who loved the toasty, gooey cheese bombs as kids still melt at the mention of grilled cheese. And now—to their delight—grilled cheese itself has grown up. Reimagined, reinvented, chef-driven inspirations prepared with upscale and unexpected ingredients on the menus of restaurants, food trucks, and stand-alone grilled cheese shops are drawing in diners by the droves.
“Chefs and operators have been answering their demands for bigger and bolder flavors—which include more boldly flavored and creative grilled cheese,” says Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC. “Grilled cheese is such a beloved dish in America. We’re seeing it going mainstream across the country. This is a prime sales-building opportunity from mid-scale through upscale.”
Grilled cheese is a familiar favorite one that guests know what to expect and is reminiscent to their childhood. Today’s varieties of flavorful cheeses make it easy for chefs and operators to customize their own offerings. By adding ingredients such as wine braised leeks or shaved Brussels sprouts adds a new flavor dimension to a classic sandwich.
Not Your Mom’s Grilled Cheese: Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
The “bones” of grilled cheese— cheese, butter, bread—endure, but creative spinoffs offer satisfying flavor and variety. “Today’s consumer expects greater customization and broader sandwich options,” notes Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of the Chicago research firm Technomic Inc.
- Change up the cheese. Replace American with fontina, Comté, Bel Paese, raclette, pimiento-cheese spread, local and/or artisan cheeses, etc. Layer flavor with a three-cheese approach. Combine cheddar with a boldly flavored cheese (e.g., aged goat or blue, such as Gorgonzola or Roquefort), and a soft, melty cheese (e.g., Muenster, Havarti, young Gouda, fresh or aged mozzarella, plain or flavored cream cheese, Boursin, and even processed American, Swiss, or a Cheez Whiz-type cheese).
- Add more cheese to the outside. Butter and crust the outside of the bread with shredded Parmesan or Romano for added crunch and flavor. “It’s absolutely dynamite and creates huge differentiation,” Ludwig says. “This sandwich will play anywhere.”
- Use innovative fillings. Anything is fair game, but, Ludwig cautions, “don’t use so much of the additional ingredients that the sandwich loses its focus as a grilled cheese.”
- Spice things up. Create signature, plus-one condiments. Go global with chutney, Sriracha, or salsa. Enhance flavor with fruit jam, onion marmalade, relish, vinaigrettes, truffle oil, etc.
- Break away from ordinary bread. Use artisan bread, Dutch crunch roll, Bianca bread, ciabatta, challah, Texas toast, buttermilk biscuits, waffles, foccacia, baguette, or tortillas. Trendy breads such as sliced brioche, Hawaiian or piadina are soon becoming more prevalent on menus across all styles of operations.
Restaurant Grilled Cheese Preparation Tips
Cheese expert Laura Werlin, author of two books on grilled cheese, offers these best practices for great grilled cheese:
- Grate cheese for more rapid, even melting.
- Use salted butter for fuller flavor.
- Substitute plain or flavored oil for butter.
- Butter the bread, not the pan, to reduce the greasiness effect.
- Cover and cook to lock in heat.
- Press and flip at least twice.
Heat Up Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwich Sales
Build grilled-cheese sales in the following ways:
- Create signature grilled-cheese sandwiches. “The way to determine your strategy is to see what your competition is doing,” Ludwig advises. Break away from the traditional pan and flat top grilling and try creating your signature sandwich on a char grill or wood fired oven for more flavor impact.
- Run limited-time offers (LTOs) and daily specials. Update with seasonal ingredients, or tie specials to themes—e.g., National Grilled Cheese Month (April). Be sure to let your staff sample your grilled cheese at pre-shift meetings so they know how to sell your product. Engage the staff to solicit comments from your guests and make changes if need be.
- Menu flavorful accompaniments. Dips for dunking, tiny “shots” of tomato or other soups, and flavorful preserves or syrups.
However you craft these sandwiches, offer customers a shot at revisiting the familiar comforting experience of childhood, but with a flavorful and memorable twist that sets your operation apart from the crowd. For a new and interesting tip, prepare your grilled cheese and use a pastry cutter to make small circles in the sandwich. Then use as a “topper” for soups, such as tomato or cheese or as a salad crouton.