The humble grilled cheese sandwich takes center stage

Michael Davidson, aka the GrilledCheezGuy, hosts Behind the Cart in Berkeley this Sunday. Photos courtesy of Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson, 29, is a man with many skills: a scientist by day, he’s the guru of the grilled cheese sandwich by night — and on weekends too.

Davidson works in medical diagnostic development, he’s currently gathering data on women’s health for research studies for his employer, the pharmaceutical giant Roche. Away from his 9 to 5 job he morphs into the GrilledCheezGuy, cooking up his version of that classic American comfort food from a mobile cart, for which he’s won five national awards.

The GrilledCheezGuy's take on an American classic.

He credits Acme’s Pain au Levain, Spring Hill butter, and a combination of cheeses: fresh cow’s milk mozzarella, Cabot aged white cheddar, and Tillamook sharp cheddar for his success.

Oh, and the brick trick his French grandmother taught him, which creates an even, consistent burn and allows some of that gooey goodness to ooze out, adding extra smoky flavor.

The appeal of his cart cuisine? Grilled cheese stands alone as a cheap, easy-to-make meal and a gateway to gourmet food, said Davidson, a self-taught cook, who also sells tomato soup shots, pickles, grilled peaches, and strawberry agua fresca (hot apple cider in the cooler months).

While some edible entrepreneurs view a food truck as the precursor to a bricks-and-mortar joint, many folks entering the food business can’t even afford the cost of outfitting a vehicle and find a cart a more accessible way to launch their culinary careers, said Davidson, who went that route himself with a table, a tent, a portable grill — and a cheap rental car. Since his grub on-the-go has taken off, Davidson now tools around town in his own Honda Fit.

The East Coast transplant caters private and corporate occasions (Four Square are repeat customers), and is a regular at events such as Oakland’s Art Murmur and mobile food gathering Bites Off Broadway, SF Underground Market (before it was shut down), and street-food events. Later this month he and a small crew will crank out cheesy chow at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland and San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival.

Still, he’d welcome the opportunity to find a regular spot in his hometown. For now, he’ll make do with a one-off event. On Sunday, he brings his Behind the Cart brunch to Berkeley (previous events have been held in Albany and San Francisco). Nine food carts will dish up hand-held eats, and diners will play bingo to determine what order the food gets served. Following the brunch, the folks behind the carts will tell tales about their budding food businesses.

In the mix: Inna Jam, El TacoBike, Tea & Good Company, Simply Mochi, Schulzie’s Bread Pudding, 23 MonkeyTree, S + S Gastro Club, and Blank Tea. And the GrilledCheeseGuy, serving up stone-fruit galette instead of his trademark sandwiches. Cost: $40, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m at the Firehouse Art Collective at 3192 Adeline Street. BYO champagne. For tickets visit EventBrite find the menu here.

Berkeleyside caught up with Davidson, who lives with friends near campus, on the eve of the event.

Why a Bingo Brunch with cart food at the Firehouse Art Collective?

At a lot of food truck events you have to wait in long lines. And you don’t get the opportunity to visit with the vendors for long or learn much about them and their businesses. This is a more civilized, social way of sampling street cart food, meeting new people, and mixing with the vendors so you can, literally, hear the stories behind the cart.

The Firehouse Collective is right by Ashby Bart, so it’s a convenient location and it’s a relatively new venue so it seemed like a good fit for a group of relatively new vendors, it’s an incubator space for all kinds of creative pursuits.

What’s this about winning $20,000 and how do you plan to use it?

It’s true, I entered the Bulls-Eye Barbecue Sauce contest collecting signatures on social media and I won $20,000 a couple of months ago. You can real all about it on my blog. Some I’m using to pay off debt, some I’ll put into the business, some I’ll use for a little vacation somewhere. A big chunk goes to the government. My friends call me the slick dealer, if there’s a deal to be had or money to be found I’m on it. I could rent a car for $35 total for the weekend just by shopping around.

What’s the story behind the icon for GrilledCheezGuy?

Six years ago I had a cancer scare — I had a small tumor removed from my salivary gland, which they thought was malignant but ended up being benign. Around that time I connected with an artist over at the San Francisco design firm Gama-Go who was having some personal health issues too. The company offered to do some art for me and I was really excited to have an original image for my logo. They whipped it up; they’re known for animal characters with cigarettes, so that’s what they came up with. It was a tough call but it’s become my logo.

What’s next?

I’m always checking out new venues.  There’s one potential big one in the mix. Stay tuned.

And the next step might be getting my own truck.

Where do you like to eat out around town?

I like the Tandoor Kitchen on Telegraph at Blake, but it has a new name I forget. [Mt. Everest Restaurant.] I order the same thing all the time: palak paneer (spinach and cheese) plain naan, and vegetable samosas. I call myself a vegaweekatarian, I only eat meat on weekends. I like Gather‘s vegetarian charcuterie plate and their  pizzas are pretty good, almost as good as Pizzaiolo in Oakland. Juan’s Place has great chips and I like their red sauce enchiladas. T-Rex for burgers.

When you go home to New Jersey, what food goes with you?

I take Acme bread in my suitcase and carry butter with me on the plane for my grandmother, who says they’re the closest thing to French bread and butter she’s ever found in the States. And I bring back bagels.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related:
Jam maker turns hobby into thriving local business [02.18.11]
With open doors, Firehouse bazaar creates community [08.23.11]

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  • Meliflaw

    Another good addition to grilled cheese-and-bread is a sprinkling of walnuts, especially walnuts that have been roasted in a mixture of butter or olive oil, salt, red pepper, and dried rosemary. Heavenly–and nice in salad, too, and by the handful with a glass of wine:

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/cooking-live/rosemary-walnuts-recipe/index.html

    (Go easy on this recipe’s recommendation for the cayenne, though; half a teaspoon will take your tongue off! They’re even better after being stored in a tin for several days.)

  • Charles_Siegel

    “On Sunday, he brings his Behind the Cart brunch to Berkeley”

    I have looked at the linked page, and I can’t find anything about where this Berkeley event is.  Would someone enlighten us?

  • Alina

    Cost: $40, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m at the Firehouse Art Collective at 3192 Adeline Street. BYO champagne. For tickets visit EventBrite find the menu here.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    Charles: The address and link to buy tickets is in the paragraph following the one you quote from.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-McIntosh/100002647759419 Stephen McIntosh

     Sooo delicious!

    Wink Bingo – http://www.play4bingo.co.uk/wink-bingo/