To Michael Davidson, aka the Grilled Cheese Guy, the secret’s in the brick. This local purveyor of gooey, honest-to-goodness grilled cheese sandwiches cooks his comfort food under a brick wrapped in foil—the pressure, he says, ensures the sandwich cooks evenly and has his signature, perfectly crisp exterior.
“My grandmother lived with us when I was growing up, and she always used the brick, so I thought it would be kind of handy for this kind of cooking,” says 28-year-old Davidson. “She had the brick in the cupboard, and any kind of sandwich she made she pressed down with it.”
Davidson grew up outside of Princeton, New Jersey, and moved to Oakland four years ago. While he’s never worked as a professional chef—Davidson is a scientist by trade, and currently works a 9 to 5 job in medical diagnostic development—he says cooking with friends and family has always been a favorite hobby. When he heard about a regional grilled cheese competition at a local bar a few years back, he was inspired to check it out.
“I lost, and went home sad that year,” he said. “A year later the regionals came back to Dolores Park, so I went and I was extra prepared and I got first place.” A grilled cheese guru was born.
Today, Davidson is one of the newer entrants into the East Bay’s street food dynasty. He vends his sandwiches under the Grilled Cheese Guy moniker for $3-$6 under a 10 by 10 foot pavilion tent at events like Art Murmur.
He also does a fair amount of catering, and was once commissioned to make a grilled cheese wedding cake. “Out of the blue, a woman contacted me and said, ‘I’m having a wedding, and we want you there,’” says Davidson. “I worked on designing a grilled cheese wedding cake for them, complete with tomato and basil roses. It was a huge success.”
Usually, however, Davidson is pushing classic, simple grub—three cheeses, butter and bread. After his victory in the 2009 regional grilled cheese contest, Davidson set to work crafting what is, to his mind, the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
The most important ingredient is the bread, he says, and for that, Davidson immediately went to an East Bay staple. “I found Acme Bread, and right away, I was obsessed,” Davidson says of the baking company, which originated in Berkeley. “The only thing I’ll use is their pan au levain. Every time I go home, I have to bring Acme or my grandmother will literally freak out.”
Next, Davidson found salted European-style butter from Spring Hill Cheese Company in Petaluma at his local farmers’ market. All he needed now was the cheese.
After testing several combinations, Davidson came up with a three-cheese blend that became his go-to: a sharp cheddar, an aged white cheddar and a mozzarella. The trick with the cheese, Davidson says, is to make sure it’s sliced nice and thin—he’s seen fellow competitors flail because their thick cheese slices won’t melt. Blend these cheeses with the bread, the farm-fresh butter, and the brick, and you’ve got yourself the sandwich that earned Davidson a new title a few weekends back: first place at The National Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles.
This wasn’t the first time Davidson competed in the Invitational, but it was his first time entering as a professional (there is a separate category for “amateurs”). While he placed in many categories, Davidson scored the number one spot in the “Missionary” category (that’s a euphemism for simple and traditional) with his sandwich, “The Brick’s Trick,” which is the sandwich he sells when vending in Oakland.
Davidson says knowing his grill—it’s the kind with a real, live flame—allows him to exactly replicate his recipe every time, so his repeat customers can enjoy the same product over and over again. “You have to be the master of the grill to get a perfect grilled cheese,” said Davidson. “I do it enough now that I can look at the flame on my grill and know that it’s at the perfect temperature.”
Davidson is looking into purchasing a food truck to supplement his tent—when that happens, he’ll be likely to start testing new ingredients and variations on his classic grilled cheese. For now, he’s branching out into other culinary adventures. In late May, he and four other food truck proprietors will host the first their first underground dinner together in San Francisco—they’re calling it “Behind the Cart.” The street food vendors will take a night off from casual fare to make a seven-course, sophisticated meal for those with tickets. More information on how to get in on the action will be available on Davidson’s Web site this weekend, and he’ll be selling discounted tickets to the event at May’s Art Murmur.
With success in the grilled cheese business like this—Davidson counts Oakland Mayor Jean Quan among his sandwiches’ many fans—who needs a day job? Davidson, who has nerve damage in his hand from a bike accident, says his current gig in the science world is demanding considering his injury, and is hoping to be able to switch into Grilled Cheese Guy mode full-time in the near future.
“If I can succeed at this, it’s going to save me from this very hand-intensive work that I’m doing now,” Davidson said. “Plus, the one thing the science world is missing is people, and I love interacting with people.”