Shane Kearns cradles a chunk of Spanish blue cheese that he's picked up from an extensive, almost intimidating spread of cheeses at Heinen's. He sizes up a nearby block from Orwell, Ohio, cheesemakers Mayfield Road Creamery, musing aloud, "Pepper havarti. It has a nice little bite to it. But my go-to cheese is sharp cheddar. Simple, but flavorful."
Welcome to Kearns' playground. The Solon native first cemented his gooey obsession when he began blogging about toasted cheese concoctions on his website, Grilled Shane (grilledshane.com). It was enough to catch the eye of Adams Media, publishers who recruited Kearns to pen his own cookbook, Melt: 100 Adventures in Grilled Cheese (Barnes & Noble and Amazon). Today, as he peruses the display, Kearns pays particular attention to the scattered Ohio choices that increasingly have begun to appear over the last year. And for good reason: In the near future, he hopes to open his own shop that specializes in local cheeses.
"When you're making a grilled cheese," he says, pointing to Hiram-based Mackenzie Creamery's chocolate and raspberry chevre, "you have to ask, do you want the cheese to support the other ingredients or do you want the cheese to be the star?"
Kearns inked his book deal in December 2011 and the heat was on: His publishers wanted a manuscript with 100 new recipes by early March. The assignment called for 50 sweet and 50 savory creations.
"I was walking through the grocery isles making lists, just looking everywhere I could to find inspiration. I started pushing the definition of grilled cheese," Kearns recounts with a smile. "Sometimes I think the more bizarre, the better."
Naturally, the book is best at its least conventional. For instance, in one case, Horseradish white cheddar and avocado is tucked between two waffles, while eggs and feta slide into crescent rolls.
As he rounded out the last of his creations, Kearns found himself increasingly seduced by the sweet side, a line he'd only crossed once before with a popcorn dish. The book employs the use of dessert cheeses, such as mascarpone slathered on buttery slices of pound cake.
"Those get a lot of oohs and ahhs," he admits. "People like grilled cheese, they just don't know everything you can do with it."
Never did that fact become more obvious than when Kearns hit the road on publicity tours. Not only was the demand high for grilled cheese, but more and more people were asking about sourcing from local cheesemakers. Upon returning to Cleveland, he created a series of sandwiches highlighting Ohio-based cheeses on his blog. But at the time, he often found it difficult to obtain the regional varieties with ease.
While on the road, Kearns stumbled upon Beecher's, a Seattle-based cheese shop with a New York City outpost. That store's model helped energize his plans for his own storefront.
Unsure of his next move, he reached out to Mackenzie Creamery, which led to making a connection with the Ohio Cheese Guild, an alliance of more than a dozen cheesemakers. It has helped him to network with other farmers and set up more tours, such as his recent visit to Cleveland's own Lake Erie Creamery.
That is, when he's not busy scouting prospective locations for his store.
"There are all these good local cheeses — and more places are popping up — but some makers are too small for a big store and they can be really hard to find," says Kearns. "I'd love to have a unique relationship with the farmer, be their middle man. It makes the product that much better when you know the care that goes into it."