My heart sank a little when I read about a new restaurant franchise opening this month in San Francisco. Called the Melt, and founded by Jonathan Kaplan, the inventor of the Flip camera, it promises aerated soups and grilled-cheese sandwiches that you can order ahead of time via a smart-phone app. It's a great idea, like finding a soul mate in a strip club, or electing a government that can simultaneously protect the interests of 300 million people. But like those things, this restaurant concept will never work out. The very qualities that drew Kaplan to grilled cheese its elemental character, its universal familiarity are the very things that will be missing from the Melt.
The grilled-cheese sandwich may be the most perfect of all American foods. I say this with all due respect to the hamburger, pit barbecue, chocolate pudding, fried chicken and any number of other native wonders. I will even go so far as to say that it is my favorite food. But of course, I'm not alone in this. It's everybody's favorite food. That's why Kaplan wants to make it the centerpiece of his new venture, which he told me will be an "amazing fast-casual restaurant experience" that appeals to our nostalgia for this particular sandwich and its ability to make people happy.
But the problem with a restaurant serving grilled cheese is that the sandwich is too simple. It has three elements white bread, American cheese and margarine which are generally held in low esteem by the sandwich-buying public even though these ingredients come together in an amazing bite, simultaneously crisp and soft, double-buttery and starchy sweet, lush and delicate. Who could object to that? But as the judges recently told another aspiring grilled-cheese franchiser on America's Next Great Restaurant, to carry the weight of a restaurant concept, the sandwich needs to have what entrepreneurs call "added value": something that will make it worthwhile to the consumer to seek it out instead of just making it at home. So, inevitably, the white bread gets swapped out for some fancier, coarser, denser substance that will obscure and distort the sandwich's taste. The American cheese, whose supernatural meltability, evenness and quick-setting viscosity make the whole thing possible, gets replaced with waxy, greasy cheddar, smoked Gouda or whatever; and the thin, even coat of fat, which suffuses the delicate airiness of the white bread, gets tinkered with as well.
"Our technology allows us to make the sandwich with very little fat," Kaplan proudly told me the other day. As if that were a good thing! He also claims to have idiot-proofed the grilled-cheese sandwich, using nonstick silicone-coated sandwich presses that can crust up a sandwich in less than a minute, while at the same time shooting microwaves into its interiors, melting the cheese at a rate calculated by Cray supercomputers to coincide with the browning time.
The cooking technology sounds promising enough. The truth is there aren't enough skilled short-order cooks to make the sandwich well. I've spent a lifetime drunkenly pleading with or threatening inept cooks who couldn't be bothered to butter the bread or to brown a grilled cheese evenly. But regardless of whether Kaplan's high-tech panini presses can get their part right, the Melt, which is planning on doing a huge takeout business, will still have to wrap the things up. And that will almost certainly kill them even deader than cheddar cheese and nine-grain bread will.
Grilled-cheese sandwiches can't be wrapped up. That's why they are a dream of home life, an idyll of childhood. Someone (your mom) has to make them, put them on a plate and serve them immediately. The sandwich is only good for three minutes, and can't last even one second once it's been wrapped in any kind of container. The Melt will use unbleached paper, but that won't help even if the sandwich were placed in a box equipped with a dozen tiny exhaust fans, I have trouble believing it would not steam itself to death, because, really, what is a grilled cheese but the quintessence of everything lightest and crispiest in our cooking? The violence done by wrapping it in paper or plastic or tin foil is almost sadistic; you might as well just pour a glass of water on the thing, and then throw it against a wall, before bashing your own head against it in frustration.
Of course, your mom would never do that to a sandwich. She doesn't care about the faux-progressive ingredients, the added value, the canned nostalgia or the need for speed. All she wants is to make it taste good and for you to eat it. If that moment and the meal it represents could be bought and sold, that really would be an amazing fast-casual experience. But fast-casual experiences, by definition, aren't amazing. And perfect foods don't get better when you change them.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.