Chances are good there’s been at least one grilled cheese sandwich on your menu during our very unusual spring. With many of us craving comfort food to fight off the blues that can come with social distancing, grilled cheese is a nostalgic favorite.
You could even argue that grilled cheese is America’s favorite sandwich. Kevin Cregan, president of the Atlanta Sport and Social Club and founder of the Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival, would agree.
The Atlanta Sport and Social Club is 7 years old, created to “get adults off the couch and in a place where they could meet each other,” said Cregan. They started with sports leagues and moved into doing more social events. Twice a year, the company hosts a retreat in the North Georgia mountains. On the menu for lunch one year? Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
“Every single one of us ordered the same thing, the sandwich and the soup. We talked about how we like to make our own grilled cheese and then we collectively thought, ‘What if we have a contest?’ After all, we’re event producers. Our first grilled cheese festival went viral with 20,000 people attending in 2017.”
This year’s festival was scheduled for April 12, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced a change. The festival is now scheduled for Sept. 12.
Cregan says the biggest challenge at first was getting restaurants to think it was a good idea to participate. Now they love coming, even if they don’t have grilled cheese on their regular menus. And the amateur division draws participants who want hang out with the pros. “It’s a simple way for someone to show off their culinary skills. They love competing for the title of best amateur grilled cheese in the city.”
When Cregan makes grilled cheese at home, he goes simple. “I like white bread, Kraft singles and a couple slices of bacon.”
Daniel Ray, who won the amateur contest last year, has a completely different philosophy of grilled cheese. “I’m not classically trained as a chef, but from years as a restaurant manager, I know how to put things together. And I know that better ingredients make better food. I wanted to create ‘fine dining’ grilled cheese, ‘craft’ grilled cheese.”
He’s played around with coq au vin grilled cheese and duck confit grilled cheese. His wife Stacey encouraged him to enter the amateur competition at the Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival, and so he created the sandwich he calls the Torched Sicilian, a recipe he’s sharing with our readers.
He and Stacey, along with daughters Violet and Stella, formed Team Grilled Cheese and showed up at the festival prepared to make 100 sandwiches. Each attendee at the festival gets a quarter sandwich, so that was 400 servings. “We ran out after an hour and a half. That was a huge testament I was doing something right.”
Now he’s operating Cheez’d and Confuzed, catering grilled cheese parties around the city, and hopes to open a grilled cheese mobile operation in the next few months.
Last year was also the first time Emily Chan of JenChan’s Delivery Supper Club in Cabbagetown entered the competition. “A friend suggested it, and since we had just started the Supper Club, the timing was perfect.”
The Supper Club, named after Chan’s wife Jen, started, as the name implies, with supper parties for friends that grew into preparing and delivering food that grew into pop-ups that grew into a storefront. Their dine-in options are closed right now, but they are open for delivery and takeout.
A favorite from their pop-up days is their Mongolian Beef Cheese Steak, and at first, the idea was they would enter that in the competition. “But I went to Ireland and loved the flavor of their cheddar. I decided to make a sandwich that called for three kinds of cheddar, a real international collection of cheese. We think it has the same message we have with all our food. Eat supper together. Eat your grilled cheese together.” She named the sandwich The Sláinte and shares the recipe with our readers. It won first place for the best classic sandwich last year.
She and Jen, along with son Mik, have been working on ideas for this year’s festival. “I’ve made this at the restaurant. It’s Hunter Cattle grass-fed brisket, brie, Emily G’s Pear Honey and arugula, with a garlic schmear. I made it the other day and we sold out.”
Her advice for the best grilled cheese sandwich? “Don’t overthink it. You can use fancy bread, but regular grocery store bread isn’t a barrier to a great grilled cheese sandwich. My trick? Use mayo instead of butter to brown your sandwich. Just be careful because it can burn a little faster than butter.”
Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival
11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 12. $21. Atlantic Station, Pinnacle Lot, 240 20th St. NW, Atlanta. atlantagrilledcheese.com.
Four Atlanta chefs share their recipes for award-winning (and award-seeking) grilled cheese sandwiches.
Daniel Ray of Cheez’d and Confuzed won the amateur contest at the 2019 Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival. Everything you need for his sandwich is normally available at Publix. He’s partial to Boar’s Head products (the cheeses and pancetta) and the Gourmet Garden herb pastes found in the produce section. The Tuscan Boule bread is a round white loaf sold at Publix.
He named his sandwich for himself (he’s Sicilian) and for the “torched” finish he puts on it. He tops the grilled sandwich with BellaVitano, a cow’s milk cheese made in Wisconsin (despite its Italian name), then uses a plumber’s torch to melt and brown the cheese. We’ve adapted his recipe so you can brown your sandwich under the broiler.
“Sláinte” means good health in Gaelic, and the sandwich was good luck for Emily Chan of JenChan’s Delivery Supper Club in Cabbagetown. It won first place for the best classic sandwich at the 2019 Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival.
Chan believes a balance of cheese and other elements is critical. “Too much cheese can ruin a grilled cheese sandwich, just as too little cheese can.” The total amount of cheese in the sandwich should be about 2 ounces.
She dresses up the sandwich with a drizzle of honey-mustard-mayonnaise made by mixing 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise with a generous squeeze of local honey and another of Dijon mustard. Then she adds Sriracha to taste. She puts the mixture in a squeeze bottle to make it easy to drizzle, but says you can spoon it on or put it in a plastic bag and trim off the corner to squeeze it on your sandwich.
Dixie Q’s Brisket Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Onions and Poblano Peppers
Scott Serpas, pitmaster and owner of Brookhaven’s Dixie Q, won the Judge’s Choice Award at the 2019 Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival with this sandwich.
The star of the sandwich is the smoked brisket, which you can order for carryout from Dixie Q. If you want to make your own, you can follow his recipe. He takes a 12- to 14-pound trimmed brisket and seasons it on all sides with kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Then it’s smoked over hickory and oak for 12 to 14 hours or until tender. He says, “Once you have all of the ingredients ready, it’s time to make ‘the best grilled cheese’ you’ve ever had!”
Cooks & Soldiers Iberico Ham and Black Truffle and American White Cheddar Bikini
The 2020 Atlanta Grilled Cheese Festival will be the inaugural event for Cooks & Soldiers. This sandwich is on their menu during normal times, but is also available as a carryout item during this time of social distancing.
To make it at home, you’ll need to make a trip to a specialty grocer like Whole Foods for the Iberico ham and truffle pate. Truffle oil is available now at many mainstream grocery stores, if they have it in stock.
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