April 12th is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day. As a person for whom a nice grilled cheese is one of my go-to comfort foods, I felt that this was one of those holidays that deserves a card and a feast and a grilled cheese sandwich tree with lights strung on it. Then the grilled cheese sandwich emu would fly around the world delivering sandwiches to all the good girls and boys, except for those who believe that vegan cheese is cheese. Seriously, someone out there is trying to make hemp cheese right now, and there is no reason to celebrate that. But although the movement to make it a bigger holiday is currently small (basically just me), there are things we can all do to move it along. And among those who are doing their best for the cause are Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak, who are the folks behind a wonderful place in San Francisco called The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, which has two locations in the city.
I recently interviewed Heidi about why, how, and what caused her to realize this dream of making the world a better place through grilled cheese. Her answers revealed a person who is somewhat obsessed with most everyone’s favorite sandwich; as shown by the fact that she responded to my interview request with “Happy to help! Grilled cheese is my jam — er, so to speak.”
TM: Tell me your earliest memory of eating a grilled cheese?
HG: Oh wow. I remember being at my piano teacher’s house, and she would always make us snacks, and sometimes it was Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese. I took piano lesson from her from about when I was 5-8 years old or so. She was a very old-fashioned European lady, and I guess that was traditionally what they did as a part of lessons.
TM: What led up to creating a restaurant focused around grilled cheese?
HG: It all started about 15 years ago, with some friends from LA, one of whom was a comedian. He threw a party that he called the Grilled Cheese Invitational, as a joke. It was basically a grilled cheese throwdown battle. I was known as a good cook; a home cook then, but now professional. So I took it really seriously. I tested out options; optimizing the sandwich for months. I won the first year, and the second. The third year, I lost because I took a big chance making one that was really out there. It had cheddar cheese ice cream with pound cake for the bread, and a peanut butter spread. Then I gave it a quick toast on the outside. I guess it was a little too much, but the next year I took the championship back by making a sandwich on Ciabatta bread with boschetto cheese, bacon, and crème fraiche.
TM: Man that sounds good. Now I’m hungry.
HG: And then a friend from NPR’s Market Place did a piece on it, and it cemented my reputation as the grilled cheese lady.
TM: What is the one thing that divides the mediocre grilled cheese from the best grilled cheese?
HG: Bread first, then cheese. The bread’s texture is really important. We use a good loaf from Tartine, and Country Bread from Acme that has a juicy crumb and great crust. We leave it until it is a day old, so it gets a little harder. Then a nice cheese like Gruyere as a base for the sandwich.
TM: What is the oddest grilled cheese on your menu and why does it work as a good sandwich even so?
HG: Like Stunt food, kind of? Something to draw attention. Hm, maybe the mac n’ cheese sandwich, which has a guaranteed creamy gooey-ness. We make it with a base of cheese on the top and bottom, and then the mac n’ cheese in the middle–
TM: Like for structure?
HG: Yeah, and then garlic butter with bacon and jalapenos. It is really good.
TM: Is there anything more indicative of the phrase “comfort food” than a good grilled cheese and bowl of Tomato Soup?
HG: Maybe mac n’ cheese. Those things are evocative of childhood and comfort.
TM: What would be your ultimate grilled cheese and the setting in which it would happen?
HG: HM. My favorite grilled cheese would be made with these three California cheeses: Fiscalini bandage wrapped cheddar, San Joaquin Gold, Toma cheese from Point Reyes, a nice California sourdough, and also Bellweather Farms Carmody cheese. The setting would be on my own back deck, the view is really nice.
TM: What does grilled cheese remind you of?
HG: Nostalgia. Like I said, kind of that idealized version of childhood.
TM: Thanks for talking with me, this was fun, but now I am incredibly hungry and I can’t leave to go eat for another couple of hours.
HG: [laughs] Thank you.
So there you have it, folks. People that are doing their part to make sure that there will always be an amazing sandwich for this day, made of pure joy and happiness, covered in rainbows and the sweet breath of unicorns. Or at least made of scrumptious bread and amazing cheese, which is basically the same thing, when you really think about it. There is just something special about the concept of this particular sandwich, and Heidi and Nate are the kind of folks who can prove that to you in all of the sandwichly glory that you can stand.
As a final note: If you aren’t hungry now, you didn’t click on any of the links in the article. I suggest you go back and do so.
All photos are courtesy of Nate Pollak.