Eight years ago Michael Davidson moved to the Bay Area from New Jersey, microbiology degree in hand, to work for a medical diagnostic company creating better screening methods for HPV diagnosis and prevention among other things. Just over a month ago, in mid-May, he quit that job to sling sandwiches as The Grilled Cheez Guy. This is the story of how he went from scientist by day to moonlighting as a nationally recognized, award-winning Grilled Cheez aficionado and pop-up pioneer by weekend.
Michael’s grilled cheese journey started with a contest. Five years ago, Eli’s Mile High Club, a bar/resto and music venue in Oakland, had advertised a Grilled Cheese making contest on LaughingSquid.com that Michael just happened to see.
“I totally liked to cook, it looked like fun,” he said.
So he decided to enter the contest. To give his entry some flair, he decided to bring a brick with him because whenever his French grandmother had made pressed sandwiches at home, she used a brick to press them. “I thought it would be a fun gimmick,” Michael said.
But despite the brick gimmick, Michael lost the contest.
Not to be deterred—and spurred on by a self-described “competitive nature”—Michael decided to enter the same contest, this time held in San Francisco’s Delores Park, the following year.
The second time, he won.
As the newly crowned winner of the San Francisco contest, Michael was immediately invited to a national competition being held in Los Angeles about three weeks later. So he and his now signature brick went and won that contest, too—in the “Missionary” category, which consisted of “nothing fancy. Just cheese, just bread, just butter,” Michael said.
Right about the time Michael began winning these grilled cheese competitions, a friend who was involved in Oakland’s First Friday Art Murmur suggested Michael start serving there, as well. So he started doing a pop-up at the Stork Club “and that’s how I started,” he said.
Word started to spread and soon Michael found himself not just winning contests and trying his hand at pop-ups but catering weddings. “By fluke,” he says, someone he met at the Art Murmur hired him to cater a wedding for “big time people at Twitter.” From there, everything began to congeal for him, so to speak.
“Ever since then, business has just come to us,” Michael says. Prior to leaving his job, Michael was getting between six and eight grilled cheese gigs each month by world of mouth only, which was starting to be a lot along with full-time work, he said. “It was getting crazy, but I enjoy it,” he said.
When he felt the Grilled Cheez Guy could be a viable business that he could make a living at, Michael made the move from biological science to food science. “I do joke that I can now make something I can eat rather than have to wear gloves and a lab coat to deal with,” he said. Even sans lab coat and gloves, he does see affinities between the two things. Food, Michael says, is an applied science. Just as in the lab, you can fix things and tweak processes to make it better. “I like to think we do that with the way we work—it’s to my advantage, my employee’s advantage and for my own sanity,” he said.
Cooking, he says, was also a way to fill a creative void working in a lab had left him with.
“Being a scientist is great. I’m a nerd, I love my numbers, I like everything about it, but I was a research development scientist so I was in the labs and it’s just not as engaging with people. I’m a people person, and I was lacking that. Grilled Cheez Guy kind of built that up. The expression of creativity is also not something that you’re getting in a regulated lab, so that was why I expressed myself with Grilled Cheez Guy in that way. More and more I realized, I loved that more, it was completely viable and I could be my own boss, and here we stand,” he said.
Before that fateful contest, Michael says he was not particularly into grilled cheese. Rather, he just enjoyed cooking and would regularly host dinner parties at his house. It was the contest that chose the medium of creative expression for him, he said.
“I did not choose this path, it chose me,” he said. “It could have been a lot of different things that I entered, but it was a grilled cheese contest.”
Although Michael said he did work to perfect his sandwich before entering the second contest, he believes much of the reputation he’s gained came just from having won a cooking contest in San Francisco. Heading into the contest, he knew that winning a contest in such a food-oriented city would give him immediate street cred. “That meant something,” he said. “If I could cook the best grilled cheese, it might be a way in to this food scene.” And it was.
Up to now, The Grilled Cheez Guy has been primarily a catering and pop-up business. To cook their sandwiches they either have to use electricity onsite and fire up their electric panini presses or, if there’s gas onsite, they have griddle and they’ll use that. Michael and his staff have appeared at everything from Off the Grid, birthday parties and street vending to public and kids events and catering a guest chef corporate lunch for the likes of Twitter.
Michael says his menus vary by client depending on what they’re looking for. One thing he loves about Off the Grid, he says, is that he can change up the menu however and whenever he wants each week. “We’ve been playing around a lot there,” he said.
Michael’s menu consists of everything from a “classic” grilled cheese combination of aged white cheddar, yellow cheddar and mozzarella on Acme levain to more meat heavy sandwiches with ham that he serves when catering events with Drake’s Brewing. He also likes to plan his menu by season depending on what’s in the stores and farmer’s market. This Easter, for example, they made an asparagus grilled cheese. Sandwiches in regular rotation include Le Frenchy (a deconstructed French onion soup sandwich with caramelized onions, mozzarella, pecorino and gruyere); Spicy (pickled jalapenos, pepper jack and muenster); the “Cheatsa” (a sandwich made on Ciabatta that tastes like a pressed pizza); and the English Toastie (chicken apple sausage and Irish cheddar with whole mustard seed mustard soaked in Guinness). Since the Grilled Cheez Guy is still a relatively small operation right now, they typically stick to two sandwich offerings per event to keep things simple and to scale.
His latest creation is “grilled cheese nachos,” a concoction of rustic baguettes pressed thinly and served with Sonoma pepper jack cheese, cream cheese, sriracha, a pepper and spice blend and a little mayo smashed and served like chips in a basket with some sour cream, guacamole and salsa. “You’re eating them like nachos and they’re good and people very, very much like them,” he said.
Because grilled cheese is an American classic that most people make at home, Michael says the onus is on him to make having a grilled cheese sandwich not only an experience, but something that stands out.
“You want to be different. You have to be—grilled cheese maker or any of these people including myself—you want your customers saying ‘wow, this is something I could not make at home,’ because we’re already making something classic that they could make at home. My level [of success] is that I have to have one person at every event say, ‘that was the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had.’ Then we have a good day.”
Finding something that stands out can include a lot of things. One of the things Michael is concentrating on is finding pairings for the sandwiches. In fact, his pickles won Best Pickle at Oakland’s Eat Real Festival last year. They also usually serve either tomato or vegetable soup with the sandwiches, or as Michael calls it “Sip and Dip.”
Funky condiments are his next frontier, he said. He wants to have a very artisanal condiment caddy with condiments from local food artisans such as Brown Dog Mustard or Kelly’s Jelly in Oregon. He’s also pickling his own jalapenos. Michael says he decided to focus on condiments and pairings both to get creative and as a way to up-level the sandwiches.
“For a while being in this food scene, I was a little jealous and wanted to be all high-end fancy, but then one day I finally accepted that that’s not what we’re supposed to be, we’re the Grilled Cheez Guys and people just want a good grilled cheese. We want to be fun and different and creative—that’s what I’m good at. So I started working on things that we can still manage as a pop-up. Adding on other foods is more unmanageable. Condiments are easy to bring, and it’s fun the different things you can do,” he said.
Now that Grilled Cheez Guy has gotten to a point where the business is viable and he has a team that can work different events, he plans to focus on expanding the business, perhaps by either going into a food truck or brick and mortar establishment or by looking for a more permanent pop-up gig. Along the way, he’s also been involved in the underground dinner scene, so he plans to devote more time to that as well. A burgeoning science/futuristic fiction writer, he also plans to spend more of his time writing.
“Ideally if I could cater lunches and do a lot of volume just doing lunches, that would be great,” he said. “Having my own shop eventually would be vital. Before it gets too expensive, I’d definitely like to try.”
Through this journey, Michael has realized that although he has both the creative and the scientific sides, his creative side is dominant. Science was what he did because he liked it was good at it and it was safe and career-oriented.
“The more I realized it, it just wasn’t satisfying to me,” he said.
Now his creative side can get what it needs from a variety of outlets—from his grilled cheese making, from cooking at underground dinners or even through his writing.
“It’s been a wild trip. I never would have thought Grilled Cheez Guy would allow me such an ‘in’ in the food scene. You kind of think of it as ‘oh, grilled cheese,’ but I’ve got to hang out with a bunch of chefs and go to a bunch of parties. I went to Taste of the Nation this year, they invited me. It’s been a wild trip. I never expected to have that ability to really get involved here and dive in with such a little, little thing that started in a bar with a contest years ago, so I’m very appreciative and it is a lot more than it looks like. It’s a lot more valuable than anything monetarily, to me, than anything I could hope for. It’s been a great trip.”
What drew you to food?
My family. My mom and my grandma are French, we always had dinner, we always sat down together for dinner. That’s what always brought us together. For half of my life, my grandmother lived with us, too, which was a luxury some families don’t have, so we got to have French cuisine almost every night. I often would hang around the kitchen with her and learn, and I guess that food bringing us together has stuck with me forever. In college, I was the kind of “mom” that made all the food for all the guys when we all got together and now our dinner parties are called family nights and someone’s the chef and cooks all the food throughout the night. So I just believe food brings us together, and my family taught me that.
Why grilled cheese?
You can blame that on LaughingSquid.com! I don’t know what else to say, it chose me—I’m eternally grateful, but it was my competitive nature and a website.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
The local food scene obviously. My fellow food vendors. I guess restaurants I eat at, magazines—Saveur, what else am I reading right now? Bon Appetit, Lucky Peach. Then I would say some websites I read regularly—Food52. I kind of love media, so I grab things all over.
I have to also add that, it’s a freak thing that living here, I’ve always had a chef in my life, and what I mean by that is a friend that’s a chef somewhere in the scene, and we’ve become very good friends. In a lot of the cases, the minute they disappear, whether they got a dream job or went back to Santa Fe to open a restaurant (one went back to Ohio to open a restaurant), within two weeks another one shows up. So those people have been big mentors to me.
It’s been great. Not only have they been chefs, but they’ve been in the kind of transition where they’ve had the time to work with me. The one guy [Joel Coleman] was about to take Plum actually, and he didn’t because he took a trip to Asia and started being really influenced by Asian culture. So instead he started doing Kitchit, and I started doing Kitchit with him and we did some dinners together it was amazing. I’d never really gotten into Asian cooking, and he really showed me all these things. The other guy from Ohio, he worked at Boulette’s Larder at the Ferry Building, and he learned a lot there and he just could cook everything and cook it well, so I just liked working in the kitchen with him. He was efficient, he was the first to keep us organized. I’d never worked on a mass scale, and he was there at the beginning and he really taught me a lot of great tricks. That worked out really well.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building the business and what advice would you have for others?
I would say be a ‘yes’ man. Be open to everyone, you never know who you’re talking to. In the food scene, you have all these customers and you really can’t tell who they are just by how they look or what they’re buying, and you never know who it is. And really they can end up being some very important people who can always help you, so you might as well treat every customer like an all-star. It matters. Some people told me that in the beginning, and I’ve lived like that most of my life, so it’s a little bit of both [the advice I’ve gotten and the advice I’d give.]
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
It was my job, and I just overcame that. It’s now just going to be, I guess, taking it to the next level. You can only do so much at this level without a commercial kitchen, whether that be a truck, a permanent pop-up spot or brick and mortar. Each one of the levels [thus far] has been a big jump and the next is just higher and higher, so it’s going to be what happens in the next six months, for sure. I can’t wait any longer, the people of Oakland tell me I can’t wait any longer, it’s now or never basically and I believe that in some ways. They’re talking about the market—actually pricing [for space in Oakland]. I, also, from a grilled cheese stand point, I saw the grilled cheese trend start, and I said to my parent’s it’s going to get popular, you might want to help me. We’re not a family with tons of money, so it’s not like they could do a lot for me, but I saw the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen happen, she was in the same contest, I saw The Melt guys start, I did some crazy things to try to stop him, I’ve seen all these things going on.
I think it’s going to be that. As a business, financially big things are coming. Food truck’s big, brick and mortar’s big. It’s scary.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Making people happy with my food—that’s the simple answer. I want to feed people and make ‘em happy and make ‘em smile. I just always try to make it a little different, a little personable, and it’s so far worked. I want it to be an experience, I think experience is part of the meal. Even as a little grilled cheese guys.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Oh, man, it’s either going to be the nachos—I am so sick of grilled cheese, it’s not even funny—but the nachos really I’ve kept eating them lately. Otherwise it is—when we do them—our fried pickles.
What other local food artisans do you admire?
Fist of Flour, pizza company. Name is James, he started at the same time as me, and he’s done a really good job and he’s always put out a good product. He’s gotten invites to come to SF, but he’s stuck to Oakland. He’s East Bay loyal, I respect it, that’s cool, not many people do that, but he does, and he’s always been supportive of me. He’s been a good guy, he’s good for Oakland and he’s made the jump [from truck to brick and mortar] and he’s been successful and I look up to that. I’ve always admired him, he’s always been a bit ahead of me in the game. He just got his brick and mortar, and I asked him millions of questions [about it.] It’s crazy.
Josey Baker Bread. He was a scientist and literally I met him two weeks before he quit his job and he was like, ‘I’m going into bread,’ and I was like ‘that’s crazy’ and he said ‘you should leave your job, too, I know how bad it is.’ And to see how he went from little Josey Baker Bread to Josey Baker Bread that is in every main restaurant, all over the place, cookbook, State Bird Provision dinners, it’s unbelievable. And it’s inspiring. He worked with me on an underground dinner, and we started around the same time, too. Josey Baker is super inspiring, and he deserves every bit because he’s a good guy, he’s got a good personality, he tries to help others. It’s just nice to see that it works—that the formula works.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
I want to say my grandmother’s cooking. She’d have to make Coquilles St. Jacques, it’s a scallop dish. She will have to make her tomato sauce, even though it doesn’t make any sense with that. It’s amazing. She also makes this almond tart with jelly that is just be best thing in the world, that I have now somewhat mastered. But it would probably be up to her.
Otherwise, if it was someone that I really looked up to out there, Jose Andres would have to come my house and do like a 50-course molecular gastronomy dinner at my house so I could see it all – I love that man.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Oh, yeah. Wherever Chef Kim [Alter] goes, she was at Plum, she’s amazing. Where do I love? Nido is amazing, it deserves all respect. Where else do I love? Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley for Indian, that’s the best. Arinell for pizza, that’s the best. For haute cuisine, I like all Daniel Patterson’s restaurants. State Bird Provisions is cool—story for me, this is totally true, I was catering right next to them the week they opened and I was on my break and I read their menu and I said, ‘look at this place, this is kinda cool’ and I saw them and said, we got some money, let’s go blow it right away, so I ate at the chef’s counter and I was talking to this guy and I was like ‘are you a waiter, you know a lot,’ and he was like ‘no, I’m the owner,’ and he was the guy and he said, ‘this is my wife.’ So then we went back and I told him I was the Grilled Cheez guy and I showed him my trophy and I’d won it that week, and I went in like three weeks in a row because I was catering right there and so they just know me because of that. And now when I go visit them, I can’t believe what’s happened to them, it’s good—it’s damn good, it’s ridiculously popular, oh my god. It’s good, very very good.
The Grilled Cheez Guy
Photos courtesy of Michael Davidson, Grilled Cheez Guy