What says a childhood winter day more than a grilled cheese sandwich? For Spencer Rubin, who grew up in Montclair, it was one of his favorite memories of lunches his mother prepared for him. Even when he began working in the restaurant industry, Rubin still thought about those sandwiches.
The Melt Shop was born. With a menu of special artisan grilled cheese sandwiches, the Manhattan eatery, now in two midtown locations, has garnered praise and awards from the industry, foodies and the press. Both seem to love not only the luscious and unusual sandwiches on the menu but that they are all priced under $10.
Baristanet caught up this morning with Rubin, a 2004 graduate of Montclair High School, who was recently named to the Forbes list of 30 Under 30 Food and Wine folks to watch.
Q – Congratulation! Did you know you’d be on the Forbes list?
A – I knew I was nominated, but didn’t expect to get it, so I’m really happy! It was a thrill and a great surprise.
Q – Did you always know you’d work in the restaurant business?
A – When I was at Cornell University’s hotel school, I made up my own restaurant development major, combining food and restaurant courses with real estate classes. I thought I’d work in fine dining – but then I took a restaurant development course and got interested in premium fast casual restaurants with high quality food. It felt like that might be prefect thing for me. I do love fine dining for the food, but the experience itself doesn’t suit me. I’m a casual guy.
Q – Did you work at any restaurants here in Montclair?
A – Yes, at Raymond’s, which has been my favorite restaurant since I was 8 or 9 years old, and still is. In fact, he (Ray Badach) has played an important role in my career; he’s been a great role model and mentor to me. When I was in high school, I took advantage of an internship program option in the last semester of senior year. I did that at Raymond’s, so I was in his kitchen for the four months, cooking and learning.
Q – Montclair is certainly spoiled with choice when it comes to restaurants.
A – That’s so true. Montclair is the best food town in Jersey – it even gives the city a run for its money.
Q – Do you get to try any other local places when you come back to visit?
A – I don’t get back as often as I’d like because I’m so busy, and both of my folks and my brother work in New York City so we get together there. I moved to the city right after graduation from college. I live in the East Village now, and both of my roommates are close buddies from Montclair; I’ve known one of them since I was four, and the other since I was seven.
Q – Tell me how The Melt Shop got off the ground.
A – After graduation I went to work for a restaurant development company, Aurify Brands, hoping to one day develop a new concept restaurant. During a brainstorming session, someone was eating a grilled cheese sandwich, and I thought about how much I loved them. My mom always made it for me on white bread (or whole wheat if she could sneak that by me), with regular American cheese – a ton of cheese! – and she’d smoosh it w/a plate so the cheese would melt. I’d absolutely love it. That was it – I was off on a tear, I couldn’t get the ideas out fast enough.
A – For a basic sandwich, you only need three key ingredients: really good salted butter, really good sliced bread (I’d get it at Whole Foods or from a bakery; something that’s baked fresh), and cheese.
I’m not a cheese snob – if you like the taste and it melts, go for it. If you want to try something new or different, ask the people behind the cheese counter; tell them you want something flavorful with a good melt factor. To make the sandwich, shred about 3-4 ounces of the cheese with a grater; butter the outside of two pieces of bread, then pile on the cheese. I like a lot of cheese! Close the sandwich up and place it in a preheated skillet, then put something on top of it to weight it, like another pan or heavy plate. Cook it about two and a half minutes on each side, checking periodically to see if the cheese is melting.
Q – What if I want to try something a bit more unusual?
A – Cheese pairs well with fruit, so you could try pairing a fig jam with goat cheese on raisin walnut bread; now that’s a unique delicious grilled cheese you can make at home with no fuss. A variation of that might be apricot jam or preserves with Manchego cheese and prosciutto – that would be tasty.
Q – What’s on tap for The Melt Shop brand in the future?
A – We have one more site on the horizon for Manhattan, and are currently deciding between two different locations. I want to be able to get to each one and keep an eye on them. Long term, I plan to turn this into a big high growth restaurant concept. We’re on to something w/our branding and our product and I know this is something people will enjoy around the country, maybe even internationally. And hey, if I can do even a small fraction of that big dream, I’ll be happy.
Q – Any chance of seeing a Melt Shop in Montclair one day?
A – Montclair would be the perfect place The Melt Shop. I think we’d do great in New Jersey, but first we need to grow in the city before moving to outer boroughs, Jersey, or Long Island; we’re not quite there yet.
Q – Why do you think a grilled cheese restaurant has caught on?
A – What I think is great about The Melt Shop is that it’s a really cool brand but it’s very approachable. You can feel you are in a totally unique, cool and hip environment, but you don’t get that weird feeling you sometimes do when you go to a cool new restaurant but it’s so pretentious, you’re afraid to even open the door and go inside. Here, anyone is invited – it’s great for kids too, and adult too (we have beers on tap!).
The Melt Shop’s two current Manhattan locations are 601 Lexington Avenue (Midtown) and 55 West 26th Street (Chelsea).