When I was young, grilled cheese sandwiches were simple — white bread, processed cheese and butter. And we loved them. We never considered altering or adorning them in any way because they were perfect as they were, and any attempt to improve upon them would have obviously been futile. Over the years, I've watched in amazement as many of my other childhood favorites have risen from simple standing to the hot, new food trend of the moment. Bacon, cupcakes, doughnuts and hot dogs are each examples of foods that were in the past never given a second thought, but today, updated and altered, they are appearing on menus everywhere and receiving universal adulation. So it's really no surprise that the trend du jour is none other than my old standby, the grilled cheese sandwich. Much like the hot dog, that has metamorphosed from leftover, mystery pig parts ground en masse by assembly line workers to sustainably raised, choice cuts of heritage pigs who were fed macrobiotic-organic diets, before being read their last rites and humanely laid to rest, the grilled cheese sandwich has moved into the 21st century as well. Sure there are a few rebels out there who still do it the way mom did, using processed cheese (although I'd being willing to bet theirs is made from organic milk), but the vast majority of today's grilled cheese maestros are taking their fair share of artistic license and allowing what once described a very specific combination of ingredients, to have a much looser interpretation.
Establishments proclaiming their dedication to the art of the grilled cheese sandwich are starting to appear everywhere. One of these has actually taken two trends (the mobile food truck and the grilled cheese sandwich) and combined them into one very popular entity, cleverly named, The Grilled Cheese Truck. There is also a newly opened restaurant in San Francisco, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, that dedicates most of its menu to the concept and features such renditions as aged white cheddar, artisan ham, house made apple mustard and rosemary butter and fontina, gruyere, roasted mushrooms, gold potatoes with melted leeks and thyme butter.
The Pop Shop in New Jersey features 33 different types of grilled cheese sandwiches on their menu, bloggers such as imagine a different world of grilled cheese devote all of their energy to the topic and, not surprisingly, an annual grilled cheese competition, The Grilled Cheese Invitational, is held every year in Los Angeles to a consistently enormous turnout. This year’s winner was none other than the aforementioned American Grilled Cheese Kitchen.
As a professional chef I find these fleeting food trends interesting and amusing to follow, but often more about hype than substance. I do, however, respect anybody who is passionate enough about something to dedicate so much effort to it and as long as they have an adoring public willing to pay for it, I say "why not" In the meantime, I am anxiously awaiting the resurgence of the Jello-mold.