Scientist By Day, Grilled Cheese Champ By Night

by Sarah Henry on September 16, 2011 · 27 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,food events,street food

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 cold 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.

A tower of grilled cheese goodness.

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.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on The Bay Citizen.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl September 16, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I grew up eating grilled cheese but haven’t had it in years. Time to get out the good butter and the brick!

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2011 at 7:20 am

Indeed, Sheryl, Funny how we go on cooking and eating jags, isn’t it?

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Kerry Dexter September 17, 2011 at 4:46 am

his menu soulnds like a brilliant idea for a food truck, although I’d have to add onions and mushrooms myself. thanks for the story behind the grilled cheese, Sarah.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..music and healing: September memories

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2011 at 7:21 am

those additions do sound good, kerry.

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NoPotCoooking September 17, 2011 at 5:09 am

Love the idea of using a brick. There was some tv show on FoodNetwork recently where people were competing to get their restaurant funded. One of the contestants wanted to have a grilled cheese restaurant. He didn’t win though.

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2011 at 7:22 am

Grilled cheese and mac&cheese seem to be having some kind of renaissance right now. Perhaps recessionary times call for low-cost comfort foods.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 17, 2011 at 7:50 am

There’s a restaurant here in Ohio getting a lot of buzz–all focused on grilled cheese too. I’m going to have to check out his blog to figure out the brick technique–it does sound like a good way to get the cheese crispies on the outside, which is my favorite part.

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Sounds like you’re not alone, MKES, since the GrilledCheezGuy has met with such success.

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Alexandra September 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I visited the SF bay area 15 years ago, and even back then, was impressed by the food savvy. I remember the Cheeseboard Factory, among other things. I hope to re-visit my friends in Mill Valley soon. They are always impressed by what I know from reading your blog. Now I can tell them who makes excellent grilled cheese sandwiches!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..The Turtle that Crossed the Road

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Sandy, quick correction before the collective gasps in horror: I think you mean the Cheeseboard Collective, right? The group I wrote about recently, selling cheese, bread, and other baked goods for 43 years now and counting.

Glad you get to impress your Mill Valley pals with your local knowledge.

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merr September 18, 2011 at 7:34 am

Though I don’t make grilled cheese that often I still LOVE IT! It’s one of the most perfect comfort foods I know, yet so much more!

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Agreed, merr, haven’t had one in an age and yet I love them so.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. September 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm

It’s awesome to know that a real live professional grilled cheese maker loves the same cheeses I do for sandwich-making – Cabot and Tillamook make me ever so happy.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Double-Wide Meals at Cozy Cottage

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:15 pm

You’ll have to try Michael’s version, Casey, next time you’re in town.

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Jeanine Barone September 19, 2011 at 11:40 am

Grilled cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods. Wish we had a mobile truck offering grilled cheese here in NYC. We have all manner of trucks but none with grilled cheese.

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Coming soon, no doubt, Jeanine, coming soon.

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Michael Davidson September 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thank you all for the support.

We are working on getting a food truck. It is all I want for Christmas!

Michael

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Sarah Henry September 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm

My pleasure, Michael. Hope Santa brings you what you wish for. If not, there’s always Kickstarter, right?

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Susan September 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm

We have a grilled cheese truck in Boston, too. Grilled cheese is just one of those foods that even as you mature and refine your palette, you can still love, especially when they involve gourmet ingredients like this. Yum!
Susan´s last [type] ..5 Sites for Discovering Local Food Events

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Sarah Henry September 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm

No argument with your thoughts here, Susan.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Here in NZ they don’t do “grilled cheese” as such, but you can occasionally run across a mean “toasted” cheese sandwich, especially ones with onion. Wow, I really need some lunch!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Do you suffer from Hafta Syndrome?

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Sarah Henry September 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm

At home we call them jaffles — don’t we? — it’s been so long since I ate me a grilled cheese in Sydney I’m not 100% sure. Now I’m hungry and homesick.

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Living Large September 20, 2011 at 7:40 am

Never was a fan of my mother’s grilled cheese, but they were just plain Jane ones. I’ve heard there is quite a competitive thing going on with foodies and grilled cheese. This will probably be the next food show! :)

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Sarah Henry September 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm

LL you may be shocked to learn that there are entire restaurants, competitions, and cookbooks devoted to all things grilled cheese. Comfort foods make a comeback during cash-strapped times, for sure.

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Dan Alpert September 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm

CONGRATULATIONS!!! Just read on Berkeleyside about your award — very well-deserved in my opinion! Must be nice to have you good work noticed!

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Sarah Henry September 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Thank you so much, Dan, you are too kind. I so look forward to foraging for fruit with you again one day soon. The story I wrote on the work you and Natasha do remains a favorite of mine.

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Melanie Haiken September 30, 2011 at 9:17 am

I cannot imagine who he has time to do all this and hold a day job too, but more power to him, and lucky for his diners! I absolutely love grilled cheese; I hope I have a chance to check out his wares at Hardly Strictly!

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