If there’s one chef who knows his cheese, it’s Eric Greenspan. A former winner of America’s Iron Chef title — the equivalent of winning Masterchef Professionals — the chef is even prouder of being pronounced California’s official grilled cheese champion since winning a cook-off several years ago.
It was an experience which was to entirely change the culinary focus of Los Angeles-based Jewish Greenspan; who has worked with some of the world’s greatest chefs, from Alain Ducasse and Joachim Splichal to El Bulli’s Ferran Adria.
He has recently become more interested in street food than fine dining, adding a cafe devoted to toasted cheese sandwiches and a fusion food truck to an empire, which includes his newest LA restaurant, The Roof On Wilshire.
Perhaps because of his impressive history — not just TV cookery show fame, but his stints working with the world’s greatest chefs — Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, which started serving up in April, was one of the most hotly-anticipated restaurant openings in Los Angeles. It sits next to Greenspan’s first fine dining outlet, The Foundry, on West Hollywood’s trendy Melrose Avenue, and is attracting rave reviews.
Cheese, explains Greenspan, has been his first love ever since he started his professional career as a “short-order” cook in the California university town of Berkeley, dispensing tasty fast food.
That love became a passion when he discovered the possibilities of Taleggio more than a decade ago.
“It’s got a simply gorgeous, gooey, melty texture as well as bags of flavour, and I’ve never got over it,” he explains. “I use it in my signature sandwich recipe along with an apricot-caper compote which contrasts perfectly
“But I’ve forced myself to look beyond my favourite Italian cheese to a multitude of local varieties — there’s so much artisanal production here in California. If you are going to have a grilled cheese sandwich shop, you have to have plenty of variety to offer, and I’m planning to promote a different local cheese maker every month with a different bespoke sandwich.
“Will I let in other foreign cheeses? Inevitably - I’m also liking the nuttiness of Jarlsberg and thinking it’s the Taleggio of the north.”
The rather exotic toastie with which he won the California Grilled Cheese Invitational is still the one closest to Greenspan’s heart:
“I love capers, and I love the way they work with apricots, and how the sharp-sweet compote I make from them punches up the creamy pungency of the taleggio.”
He also admits to being “obsessed” with celery.
“I make a carrot and celery coleslaw specifically to pair with smokey blue cheese in a different sandwich. But that’s not going to be the only way you see me putting celery together with cheese -— it’s a match made in heaven!”
Then of course, there is cream cheese — a staple in virtually every Jewish fridge on the planet. It may not be on the menu at Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese — at least not until he adds cold sandwiches to the menu — but it does feature in the menu of his even newer enterprise, the new El Nosh food truck which has just started hitting Los Angeles streets.
El Nosh is a collaboration between Greenspan and fellow Iron Chef contestant, Puerto Rican chef Roberto Trevino. They decided to test out their passion for putting a Latino take on Jewish comfort food, first in Miami, then New York — two cities with massive Jewish and Spanish-speaking populations.
The pop-up restaurants sold out in both cities, but now that Greenspan needs to spend virtually all his time in California, El Nosh has evolved into a food truck on the west coast. It tours haimishe neighbourhoods like Santa Monica and Studio City from time to time, and has a regular weekly home at the Downtown Flea, LA’s newest Sunday market.
“There’s more synergy than you might think between Jewish and Latin food,” he explains. “You’re serving people who like their taste buds tickled with salt and spices, and who appreciate comfort food served in hearty portions but lightened up with raw or pickled vegetables. And in both cultures, food is synonymous with love, so I can’t imagine a more natural fusion.”
Those customers’ taste buds are tickled by the likes of pastrami and pickled cucumber croquetas and latkes made of yucca root rather than potatoes. The cream cheese? In the true spirit of El Nosh it makes its appearance in a smoked salmon quesadilla rather than the traditional bagel.
Eric Greenspan's Grilled Taleggio sandwich with apricot and capers
15 dried apricots
1 tbsp nonpareil capers
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
8 slices dark raisin bread
5 tbsp butter, at room temperature
4 small handfuls rocket
225g taleggio cheese, rind removed, at room temperature
4 pinches fleur de sel or sea salt
Place apricots in small saucepan and add water just to cover. Bring to full boil and immediately remove from heat.
Mix in capers, mustard and olive oil. Pulse in blender to chunky consistency; set aside.
Spread one side of each bread slice evenly (to the edges) with ½ tablespoon butter.
With buttered sides down, top four slices with 2 tablespoons of apricot mixture, a handful of rocket and equal portions of cheese. Top with remaining slices, buttered side up.
Place large frying pan over high heat, and melt the remaining tablespoon of butter.
Reduce heat to low and add sandwiches.
Cook until browned and crisp on both sides, about 2 minutes a side.
Transfer to a platter lined with paper towels, and sprinkle each with a pinch of fleur de sel.
Cut in half and serve.