John Ash owes his illustrious culinary career to his grandmother's grilled cheese sandwich. "It was probably the first memorable food that I had. Mine was done on Wonder Bread with Velveeta or something like that, but it's one of those things you can eat," says the chef, cookbook author, culinary teacher and owner of the nationally acclaimed Santa Rosa restaurant that bears his name. It's a scorching July evening on the Windsor Town Green, and farmers market booths crowd either side of the adjacent street. Despite the heat, Ash toils away next to the griddle in his Hot Cheese booth, forever sophisticated in a white button-up shirt. An '80s cover band belts "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" as he leaves the booth for a picnic table in the shade where he sits down to discuss street food, the culinary business and why everyone loves a good sandwich.
Ash remembers his grandmother teaching him how to prepare grilled cheese. Growing up, he experimented with endless variations on the traditional grilled cheese, adding fruits like sliced apples and bananas, and even slathering the bread with peanut butter.
"Food memories somehow get implanted, and it's probably a principal reason why I ended up in the food business," Ash says. "It's just so magical." In collaboration with SRJC culinary instructor Mei Ibach and Bruce Riezenman, the executive chef behind Park Avenue Catering Co., Ash pioneers gourmet grilled cheese as street food at Hot Cheese, a regular booth at the Windsor farmers market since the June start of the summer season.
When Ibach pitched the idea of street food to Ash and Riezenman, Ash was adamant about doing grilled cheese. "I think grilled cheese is one of those nostalgic foods that we all grew up with. It just resonates," he says, adding, "We all want our mom still here making food for us."
But if not Mom, why not John Ash? He takes great care to procure only the finest local ingredients for his exemplary sandwich line. When asked what kind of cheese he uses in the sandwiches, he hesitates. "I can't tell you, or else I'd have to kill you," he laughs. "We fooled around with it for quite a while. At first we were just going to do slices of something really great that we liked. But we found it didn't melt, it wasn't as gooey, stringy and all that stuff. But what we're doing for the classic grilled cheese sandwich is a mixture of six different Sonoma County artisan cheeses that we grate separately." His only hint? Most of them come from Petaluma's Spring Hill Cheese Co.
Hot Cheese orders its bread custom-made from Full Circle Baking Company in Penngrove. "We like them so much because they're organic," Ash says. "They grind their own grains from scratch. To grind fresh grains and then make bread out of it, it's so much better. It just has so much more flavor. And what we're looking for in the sandwiches is a nice crust, a nice texture to it and a nice body so that it holds together and it gets very crispy and delicious." Ash talks about bread like a wine connoisseur analyzes his drink.
Even the butter has received the utmost care and attention. "We use clarified butter, and the reason for doing that is you take all the milk solids out of it and then it doesn't burn, especially if you're trying to do several at a time and they're in various stages of cooking," Ash explains. "It's a tradition, interestingly, that shows up in other cultures, most specifically in Indian cooking. In India, it's called ghee."
On this particular evening, Hot Cheese's menu board describes four distinct versions of a grilled cheese sandwich. There's the classic grilled cheese ($7) with the signature blend of six artisan cheeses between two organic pieces of bread, golden with a warm sheen of butter. The Reuben ($9) preserves the same cheesy goodness as the classic but also boasts pastrami and sauerkraut. As the two top sellers, these options remain consistently available. The other two offerings change each week.
Ever the fount of abundant creativity, Ash recalls, "We actually started out with too many [variations]. We decided that for the ease of people ordering having four is about the right number, but we have a couple of them change each week so people will come back and say, 'Oh, what do you have this week?'"
The current answer to the question is a fresh tomato and bacon sandwich ($9), which this writer opts for, and a novel sweet grilled cheese ($6), complete with strawberry, whipped cream, apricot preserve and the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella on egg bread—with cream cheese and a bit of the secret cheese blend, of course.
Sandwiches are served with a bowl of spiced tomato soup, a cup of brilliant green and thinly sliced pickled zucchini and a serving of cole slaw with an Asian twist.
Ibach unofficially works the booth's public outreach. "Hot Cheese! The best grilled cheese!" she yells to passersby. Born and raised in Singapore, Ibach tasted her first grilled cheese at a Western-style Singaporean restaurant in her 20s. Her fond childhood food memories revolve around noodle dishes, Singapore's grilled cheese correlate. She moved to America to become a movie star but eventually changed her mind, enrolled in culinary school and began a career as a chef. Although her formative years in Asia preclude her from nostalgic reminiscence about the staple American comfort food, her emotional history with street fairs inexorably tie her to the passion of the project.
"I grew up eating street food in Malaysia and Singapore," she says. "The street food is phenomenal. This is what we do as soon as the sun sets. Everybody would set out their booths and just sell one thing. We'd just cruise around and eat all night long. I always wanted to do this street-food thing.'"
Ash interjects: "What's really interesting—Mei reminded us of this, it's a terrible generalization, but it's actually true—that Asians are often lactose-intolerant, so cheese is not a big part of their growing-up experience. So the fact that she's joined us—"
"Against all odds!" Ibach crows, raising both fists in triumph. Both chefs erupt with laughter. "If I can eat grilled cheese, anybody can eat grilled cheese!"
This sense of playfulness permeates the tent. Ian "the Flipper" Christopher works the griddle with culinary precision and fancy moves. "I'm learning how to flip the sandwich up and over the [structural bar of the] tent," he says with a twinkle in his eye. He overshoots and the sandwich smashes on the concrete. Shrugging it off, he says, "It was burnt. I was trying it last week, and I was making a bunch."
After about only a month of business, Ash is considering a tent-flip level move in business expansion. "I read this biography of the family that started In-N-Out Burger, which is still family owned, and it was one of those little 'Aha!' moments where I just thought, 'There you go,'" he says. "They just focused on burgers. And they've been phenomenally successful because they've done things that are really quality level. We could do that. This could be the beginning of Hot Cheese stands across the country."
No one would complain. Returning customers line up to order their favorites or try a new variation. "That's the best Reuben you're ever gonna get, pal," says Jim Costa, manager of Toad Hollow Vineyards' tasting room, to a friend eyeing the sandwich stand. When asked how often he frequents the booth, Costa says, "Oh God, every week. Last time I got two in one day. They're fresh, original and the staff is really friendly."
Kathy, another repeat customer, comes back not only for the quality ingredients but also for the Swiss cheese childhood memories the sandwiches evoke. "I live alone, so I don't make them for myself," she says before telling Ibach that she overheard someone at the other end of the market asking, "Where are the grilled-cheese people?"
"We're hot!" Ibach enthuses. "We have flavor and attitude."
Personality is exactly what Ash and Ibach love most about street food. "If you think about cities, especially older cities in the Midwest or on the East Coast, that's all they are: bunches of little food stands. It becomes a real way of identifying a community," Ash says. "Here we are in the wine country, for God's sake. This is supposed to be the ground zero for all things food and wine. It should be happening more."
Ash isn't the only renowned chef joining the street-food foray. "A lot of chefs are moving out of fancy-schmancy restaurants and just doing basically street food," he says. "I think it has a lot to do with the economy. People aren't spending like they used to, either because they don't have it or just because they're being very cautious. There has been a profound change in the food world."
Earlier, he explains the street-food allure. "People are in a different place than when they come to a white tablecloth restaurant," he says. "They're just looking to have fun." According to Ash, the communal festivity of a street market and its wares not only entertains residents but defines local culture. When people travel, "they're really enjoying indigenous foods. Street food is the most direct connection you can get. The only more direct way you could connect with regional food is to go to someone's home. This is the next best thing."
Hot Cheese grills every Thursday at the Windsor Certified Farmers Market through Aug. 26. Windsor Town Green. 5pm to 8pm. They also cook at the Gravenstein Apple Fair, Ragle Ranch Park. 500 Ragle Road, Sebastopol. Saturday–Sunday, Aug. 14–15.
Other flavors to favor
Delicias Elenita I'd been severely under the weather—not sleeping much, not eating much. A stomach bug had laid me out, and all I'd had to eat were two bowls of cereal, all day. The world had that hazy, grim patina that comes from being sick. I'd been miserable.
Delicias Elenita turned things around. Determined to feel better after a night in the East Bay, I drove home wishing with all my might that Santa Rosa's best taco truck would still be open at 1:15am. Blessedly, it was. I ordered three grilled chicken tacos ($1.25 each)—nothing more, nothing less—and when they arrived, like that moment in the hospital when the quiet alarm lets you know you can hit the button for more morphine, I looked up at the full moon and thanked the universe. Sebastopol Road and West Avenue, Santa Rosa. No phone.
Street-Eatz Mobile Kitchen It used to be that food trucks roamed listlessly without schedule, their location and menu ever changing, stopping at building sites and industrial districts with a beckoning honk. In the last few years, though, food truck schedules have grown far more dependable. Some even have websites to update their stops. Still others, like Street-Eatz Mobile Kitchen, announce their daily service spots on Facebook and Twitter. Hitting up industrial zones from the airport to Dutton Avenue to Southwest Santa Rosa, Street-Eatz can also be found Thursdays at Revolution Moto on College Avenue and downtown Santa Rosa at the Wednesday Night Market—and you can even pre-order your meal from their site for pick-up.
Co-owned by Alma Mendez, from the popular La Texanita restaurant, with founder Jill Dorman, Street-Eatz offers a varied and rather vegetarian-friendly menu—coconut curry vegetables, a Mediterranean plate, crunchy agedashi tofu with ginger and onions. An eight-inch foil round of Japanese soba noodles in Asian dressing with vegetables and tofu runs $6.50. Meat eaters can indulge in the likes of pulled-pork sandwiches, chicken pesto sandwiches and carne asada fries, too. With street food set to take off, Street-Eatz leads the way. Various locations in Santa Rosa. www.street-eatz.com.
Rosso Pizzeria Cart OK, so you won't get to enjoy the Sheryl Chapman art, the soccer on the TV above the wine bar, the masterly presence of owner John Franchetti throwing dough or those totally insane modern sinks in the bathrooms. But at Rosso Pizzeria's new cart—a blazingly hot stone oven on wheels—you'll get what truly matters, the pizza! Made with some sort of outer-space, reverse-osmosis flour strategy, Rosso's thin-crust pizzas come out of the small, red, mobile unit with the same taste and texture as when they emerge from the restaurant's oven.
Personal pizzas run about $8–$10, and though there's obviously not as many options as in the restaurant, a quick pizza margherita on the go with that crazy, chewy crust is a nice respite from the grilled-'n'-fried fare at most other carts. Catch them on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Santa Rosa farmers market at the Vets Building on Maple Avenue, and at the Wednesday Night Market in downtown Santa Rosa. Brick and mortar: 53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.544.3221.