Monte Cristo, “Seattle’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese and Mobile Mets,” is a homegrown restaurant on wheels featuring unique and flavorful grilled cheese sandwiches made with hand-crafted, artisan cheeses and breads. Monte Cristo also serves hearty soups and a diverse assortment of gooey, salty, crunchy, warm and melty, cheesy foods.
This beloved sandwich has been updated, modernized, localized and revitalized by celebrated chef Danielle Custer, and Royal Gunter.
Monte Cristo co-founder Danielle Custer has made a name for herself working in some of Seattle’s finest professional kitchens over the last 15 years or so – chef de cuisine at Fuller’s at the Sheraton Hotel, 727 Pine, and TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1996, while working in Dallas, she was named among “America’s Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine in 1998 and earned a “Rising Star Chef” nod from the James Beard Foundation in 1999.
Like so many other of history’s “Eureka” moments, the name Monte Cristo started with a conversation between good friends. Custer was chatting with a friend, Rebecca Staffel of Deluxe Foods over a glass (or three) about their respective new business ideas – local jams and grilled cheese truck in this case – when a pause in the convo was broken by the words “Monte” and “Cristo.”
“I said the words “Monte Cristo” out loud and right then I KNEW that was the name for the truck,” recalls Custer. “The funny thing is I don’t even like Monte Christos. In fact, I was strongly opposed to having one on the menu until I started telling friends the name of the truck and was more or less swayed by popular opinion.”
Ask Danielle what makes for the perfect grilled cheese sandwich and she’ll tell you that while it all starts with great cheese, it’s hardly the whole story.
When I was a kid, my favorite breakfast was blue cheese on pumpernickel toast. For Monte, “it’s in the interesting combinations of cheeses that create unique nuisances and that along with great bread, a touch of sweet and savory; good acid, and a perfect balance of spice. And, of course, the perfectly paired glass of wine to compliment.”
And about the Monte Cristo “Monte Cristo” sandwich? “After considering the conscientious – and not-so-conscientious – objectors to my refusal to include a Monte Cristo on the menu, I went off to work developing one “in the inspiration of French toast my Mother used to make topped with powder sugar and lime juice, not syrup” that ended up unique, close to me and what I think is truly delicious – sweet / savory and a childhood memory all wrapped into one delicious dish. Come tell me what you think!”
Royal brings nearly a decade of experience as a culinary professional to Monte Cristo, having begun cooking in pro kitchens at age 14. But the sum total of his cooking expertise can be traced to cooking eggs and sausage in the kitchen in his family’s Atlanta home. He’ll tell you the fire initially drew him to the stove.
That attraction led him to study at the Art Institute of Atlanta’s culinary program. After graduation, Royal set out on a path that would see him develop his style, “a mix of fine dining and classic French with a touch of Southern soul.” He satiated members of Atlanta’s Druid Hills, and Cherokee country clubs before moving on to work as sous chef at Twisted Oak, in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, REM, the Black Crowes, and B-52s*.
After a brief stint in Boise, he finally found a place to call home in Seattle as chef de tournant at Bis on Main in 2008 before moving on to a position as café chef at Russell Investments, managed by Bon Appétit Management Company. This is where he and Monte Cristo partner, Danielle Custer, first crossed paths.
“Brian Wilbur, Northwest Regional Manager for Bon Appétit, approached me about working with Danielle toward the end of 2011,” Royal recounts. “We met, in December 2011 and have been contemplating gooey cheesy goodness ever since.”
Now you can find Royal piloting Monte Cristo through the Seattle streets. Ask him for a business card and you’ll know you’ve met Monte’s Executive Chef/"Grilled cheese guy."
*Not among Royal’s favorites
Bon Appétit Management Company
is an on-site restaurant company offering full food-service management to corporations, universities, and specialty venues. Based in Palo Alto, CA, Bon Appétit has more than 500 cafés in 32 states, including eBay, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Getty Center.
All Bon Appétit food is cooked from scratch, including sauces, stocks, and soups. A pioneer in environmentally sound sourcing policies, Bon Appétit has developed programs addressing local purchasing, the overuse of antibiotics, sustainable seafood, the food and climate change connection, humanely raised meat and eggs, and farmworker welfare.