Interview With A Grilled Cheese Expert

Jason Sobocinski is host of "The Big Cheese" on the Cooking Channel and owner of restaurant/cheese shop Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro in New Haven, CT. We reached out to find out all about grilled cheese because, with the crisp autumn weather fast approaching, we're just going to come out and declare that it's grilled cheese season. Also, it's grilled cheese porn season too. He tells us about experimental grilled cheese, tips for pairing with wine and answers a big question on our minds: France vs. Spain.

In grilled cheese, what is more important: the cheese or the bread?

Hard one. All things are important, but if I had to choose between the two I'd go cheese. It's really always all about the cheese.

With that, name your favorite bread to use?

I like sliced Pain au Levain, a French style sourdough bread, sliced about ¼-inch thick. It's got great little holes that allow the cheese to sneak through as it's melting which is creates a wonderful crispy cheesy crust.

Favorite grilled cheese in a restaurant?

Well I love the one that we do at Caseus....but other than that I had one at this amazing spot outside of San Fran called Outerlands. They do an open faced grilled cheese on house made bread, thick cut with heirloom tomatoes and house made fresh ricotta. They brush it with Cali olive oil and pop it into their oven that has a big cast iron plancha. It gets bubbly, crispy, melty and seriously rocks. Thinking about it I can recall that crackling sound when I took my first bite. Really, really nicely done.

Name a cheese that you just can't mess around with.

Don't mess with Roquefort. It's a pungent amazing sheep's milk blue that needs gentle melting if you're going to add to a grilled cheese. I love using it because of its big flavor, but it has got to be mixed with a great melting cheese like fontina or raclette because it will separate on you quickly and just get oily messy if you're not careful.

Are you over bacon in grilled cheese?

I don't think that I will ever be over bacon in or on anything.....

Worst pairing you have observed?

I tried to combine seared arctic char with herb whipped chèvre to make a grilled cheese sandwich. The cheese melted into a liquid-like hot runny congealed sauce as the oil from the seared fish mixed with it and made a messy, sloppy, not so nice and not crispy at all sandwich. Womp. Failed. I ate it. Was tasty enough but I wouldn't serve it to my enemies!

Why does wine go great with grilled cheese?

A good grilled cheese is loaded with great cheese, hearty bread and crisped up with butter, butter, butter! These are all pretty heavy things and the cheese and butter are fatty. Wine has acidity. When your mouth is full of fat and richness, it's great to take a swig of wine to cleanse the palate and refresh yourself for the next delicious bite of magnificent grilled cheese. Wine is the adult version of tomato soup when paired with grilled cheese. No one is looking, dip the corner of your grilled cheese into your wine quickly, I won't tell.

Favorite wines to pair with grilled cheese?

It really all depends on the season and, of course, what's in the grilled cheese. I love to add fruit, meat (yeah, bacon!) herbs and vegetables to my grilled cheeses. I like to think about the sandwich as a dish. I'm currently working with a great winery in Sonoma called St. Francis. They produce solid everyday wines at a great price that pair wonderfully with grilled cheeses. One of my go-to pairings is their Merlot which is subtle, dry and full of character, matched up with a grilled cheese made on a crusty inverted baguette with creamy brie and strawberries that have been macerated in balsamic vinegar, freshly cracked pepper and fresh thyme.

For other pairings, if I'm going to add fresh chèvre and pears that have been sautéed with honey and pickled ginger, then an unoaked Chardonnay rocks with this sandwich. If it's chilly outside and I have a big Cabernet, I'll try some a creamy blue cheese mixed with a few good melters like Comte or even a sharp Cheddar and add in some stone fruit preserves, like black cherry, to the sandwich. A current favorite is to have a big rich Zinfandel matched up with a hearty grilled cheese sandwich loaded up with Gruyère and pastrami. If there's some smoke in the wine it'll come out in the meat and cheese when you heat them up and get them all melty.

OK, America vs. France vs. Spain. GO!

Are we talking soccer? If we're talking cheese it's pretty hard to mess with the French...but I gotta go with USA on this one. The new artisan stuff coming out is truly amazing. In the last couple of years we're getting more wonderful American producers really stepping up their game. There's no reason why we can't make a melting pot (pun intended) grilled cheese with a rich and creamy French Camembert, a sharp and crumbly American Cheddar, and a nutty aged Spanish sheep's milk Zamarano. Shred them all the same size, mix them together add buttered bread, make a sandwich and melt.

Why are you called the Big Cheese?

I'm very big on cheese. I love it. I live it. I eat it everyday and I consume it in more ways than just viscerally. I'm enamored with the story of cheese, the people and animals that make it, and the science, history and process of changing milk into something preserved, delicious and meltable!

St. Francis Winery is hosting its first "Say Cheese" grilled cheese recipe contest, judged by Sobocinski and winemaker Katie Madigan. You can enter to win big prizes on the company's Facebook page.