How to Throw a Ridiculously Indulgent Raclette Party
Block off a few hours, grab some friends, and bask in melted cheese.
A recent poll named raclette the favorite dish of the French. And it doesn’t take much head scratching to understand why. The Swiss-French winter classic—which consists of melted cheese, scraped over steaming potatoes, briny cornichons, and crunchy brassicas—is not only good for the soul, but requires minimal assembly. All that matters is that you’re in good company.
“I love it for its simplicity. There's no distraction in the raclette,” says Jess Shadbolt, chef and co-owner of New York City’s King. “It allows everything else to be a part of the moment—conversation, family, enjoying the sunshine on the Alps or wherever you are. It’s melted cheese. What more could you want?”
In the winter months, King—which specializes in carefully selected ingredients, artfully prepared—transforms into a raclette window on select Sundays. Droops of melted raclette are extracted from their wheels, blanketed over Prince of Orange potatoes and pickled pearl onions, and served in little cardboard boxes. If you’re lucky, paper cups filled with hot chocolate or mulled wine might come into play.
“It’s one of my favorite things that we do at King,” Shadbolt says. Raclette is a meal often enjoyed at the end of a ski, and Shadbolt grew up eating it on family vacations in the Swiss and French Alps. “From a really young age, I wasn’t particularly familiar with a pair of skis, but I was very familiar with a long lunch,” she jokes.
While the extended lunch is not exactly standard in the U.S., the European ski trip calls for that period of pause. “Taking off the ski boots, the ski jacket, and enjoying a delicious bottle of wine,” Shadbolt adds. Lunchtime was very much a part of the vacation’s identity and location. Up in the Alps, there’s not a lot of fresh produce available, especially in the wintertime. So products that last longer—aged cheese, potatoes, bread, and brassicas—really tend to shine.
“From a historical point of view, you can understand why the dish derived from mountain communities,” Shadbolt explains. “The legend goes that shepherds would be moving their herds from one pasture to another. They’d have this cheese and rest by a campfire, where it would melt and they’d scrape it off.”
The dish is very much a reward. “To enable yourself to have a meal like raclette, you kind of have to have earned it,” Shadbolt says. And because there hasn’t ever been an undertaking as strenuous as living through a pandemic, throwing a spur-of-the-moment raclette party with a few friends is perhaps the most justifiably hedonistic thing you can do right now.
“This has to be a kind of wild afternoon, lasting for hours, with kids nipping at your ankles,” Shadbolt says. “You always think you are done, and then you need to go in for one more scrape. In an ideal situation, you’d sit there for 3 or 4 hours, go through a few bottles of wine, and just languish.”
And the good news is, throwing a raclette party at home requires very little effort. “It’s a cheat’s way of having a great night,” Shadbolt says. All you have to do is get your hands on a raclette grill, source a wedge of fabulous cheese, and boil some vegetables. “I can be the laziest of at-home cooks, because I want to enjoy being with my friends and family,” she explains. “And raclette is embarrassingly simple.”
“This has to be a kind of wild afternoon, lasting for hours, with kids nipping at your ankles. You always think you are done, and then you need to go in for one more scrape.”
A traditional, at-home raclette grill will feature a main cooktop surrounded by smaller slots. While vegetables and meat grill on the top, each guest melts their own portion of cheese for scraping. You can find great options made by Boska, Swissmar, or Artesia. Shadbolt’s favorite site, RacletteCorner, carries a number of styles.
When it comes to the type of cheese, Shadbolt recommends sticking to tradition. Raclette is named as such because it makes use of raclette cheese, a Swiss-made, pasteurized cows’ milk cheese. “It’s made in mountain regions that give it some nice floral notes, but there’s also that nuttiness and sweetness,” she says. But if you can’t find raclette at your local cheese shop, Italian fontina will do just fine.
When melting the cheese, don’t be afraid to really char it. “No one ever colors the cheese enough. You want to make the cheese get some big, black, bubbly bits on top,” Shadbolt says. “Ultimately, color is flavor.”
Have the cheese be your biggest splurge, as the rest of the ingredients will be relatively affordable. Start with some bread, then move onto vegetables. Shadbolt suggests cornichons, pearl onions, romanesco, cauliflower, and even savoy cabbage. But potatoes are your best bet—just make sure you keep the skins on. And if you’d like to delve into meat, crispy pancetta makes a nice addition. “If you’ve got such richness and creaminess with the cheese, just think salty and acid on the other side,” she says.
The same thing goes when choosing a drink to wash down your meal. Shadbolt suggests a light, acidic wine to cut through the heaviness. Think a high-acid white wine, or a light red, like a beaujolais or pinot noir. You might even enjoy some sips of brandy, whether that be a Poire Wiliams or a kind of kirsch.
“But you might not ski home after that if you have to,” she jokes.