His childhood was filled with cheese.
“We were surrounded by farmland,” Brian Stockholm says of his northeastern Pennsylvania family home on the New York border. “There was tons of fresh cheese, especially goat and cheddar.”
“I love foods that have stories and memories,” he says. “Grilled cheese sandwiches take everyone back to their childhood. They have history.”
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He also appreciates the blank slate quality of a grilled cheese sandwich and the way it lends itself to creative interpretations. “I want to take you back to that moment when you first had it, but then pull you into the future by making it for you in a way you’ve never had it before.”
And much like his grilled cheese sandwich creations that represent a melding of the past and future, Stockholm’s food truck reflects the culinary path he took to opening Papi Queso. It combines his years of cooking school and his eclectic restaurant experience, both in the kitchen and the front of the house, with his need to carve out a fresh start and do things on his own terms.
Drafted into the kitchen
After graduating high school in 1989, he began working at Francesca’s, an Italian restaurant in Halstead, Pa. He started as a bartender, but his “quicksand moment” came when he was roped into helping out in the kitchen for a big catering event.
He joined the chefs with tall white hats who so enthralled him, and he was a cook from that day on. He devoured every cookbook he could get his hands on and watched cooking shows and competitions, entering some himself and winning two silver medals at the American Culinary Federation’s annual competition.
He showed up early and stayed late, asking the chefs to teach him new techniques and explain complicated recipes.
In January 1993, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He found that the classic techniques he’d learned at Francesca’s served him well, and he graduated in 1995 at the top of his class. He was voted the student most likely to succeed and given the honor of delivering the commencement address.
He dreamed of starting his own fine restaurant, but a CIA instructor advised him not to take any chef positions straight out of school. “I was told to get experience and keep learning.”
Success ... and struggles
And so, he began by working for a chef at a restaurant in Hilton Head Island, S.C. By the second year, he had moved up from cook to chef de cuisine to executive chef. Many of the restaurant’s diners came from Charlotte, and in January 1998, Stockholm moved here.
He worked in a variety of restaurants, including Metropolitan Café, Ballantyne Country Club, Cosmos Café and Noble’s. As the executive chef at Noble’s, where he had 20 cooks working under him, Stockholm says he struggled with refining his own culinary style while carrying out Jim Noble’s very clear vision of technique- and ingredient-driven recipes
By 2009, the stress of managing such a large staff and busy kitchen was getting to Stockholm. He suffered health problems and knew he had to make a change. He took a job as the general manager at Ratcliffe on the Green, followed by another “front of the house” job at Harvest Moon.
Stockholm missed the creativity of being a chef, but he did not miss being in a restaurant kitchen.
The ‘Pig Mac’
The perfect solution presented itself in the form of a food truck.
“I’d been kicking around the idea for years,” Stockholm says. “Gourmet chefs were taking over food trucks, and it was a really exciting, new culinary idea.”
He and fiancée Shelly Odom, 36, whom he met when both were working at Cosmos Café, brainstormed what type of food truck Charlotte needed.
“The answer was clear,” Stockholm says. “Grilled cheese is the ultimate comfort food with a combination of ingredients that hold so many possibilities.”
Today, she manages the window while Stockholm works the griddle. They employ two other full-time cooks and a revolving part-time cook to work the truck with them.
Stockholm’s parents helped him put together the $80,000 he needed to purchase the fully customized truck that measures 23 feet from nose to tail. It has a 14-foot kitchen that includes a 36-inch griddle plus 3 open door refrigerators and one drop top table refrigerator.
The truck was an immediate success, with devoted customers who wait in long lines to buy the Pig Mac – Papi Queso’s signature sandwich featuring grilled cheese with macaroni and cheese, slow roasted pulled pork and caramelized Bourbon onions. Four other sandwiches round out the menu. Stockholm also offers housemade kettle chips and pickles.
The sandwich is a hit with many customers.
“We drive in from Greensboro every week for Food Truck Friday,” says Rachel Rozema, 27, who makes the pilgrimage with husband Steve. “And we always pray that Papi Queso will be here.”
Brandon Bell, 27, is in line in his white chef’s coat. “I’m a cook at Jack Beagle’s in NoDa,” he says. “I come get the Pig Mac whenever I have free time. I can’t even describe it. It’s just the perfect combination.”
Stockholm does his prep work at Carolina Commercial Kitchen, where he rents space and equipment. Each week, he uses 350 pounds of cheese, 80 pounds of butter (he makes his own blend of clarified European butter and mayonnaise), 200 pounds of pork and 110 loaves of bread. Stockholm has the bread shipped in from Chicago because he couldn’t find the Pain de Mie (a long, thin loaf that bakes with a lid, making it extra dense) locally.
On the road
You can often find the Papi Queso truck, along with plenty of tasty competition, at the weekly Food Truck Friday gatherings at Camden Road and Park Avenue in South End; 5-9 p.m. foodtruckfridaycharlotte.com.