Why Sizzling Cheese Dishes Are Turning Heads in Restaurants Everywhere
From flaming kasseri to bubbling queso fundido, these theatrical plates are causing a chain reaction.
There's a revelrous atmosphere at Zou Zou’s, a Mediterranean restaurant that opened in Manhattan in 2021. “When the restaurant is full, bustling is almost understatement,” says the restaurant’s executive chef, Madeline Sperling. “There’s a lot of party energy.” It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most popular menu items is the kasseri cheese, which is served tableside and quite literally set on fire.
Most sizzling cheese dishes have a simple but winning formula: cheese, a splash of alcohol, and fire. Fixtures at restaurants across the United States, these dramatic favorites are getting renewed attention at destinations like Zou Zou's, Mandolin Taverna in Los Angeles, and others.
Sperling’s flaming kasseri at Zou Zou's hearkens to traditional cheese saganaki. In Greece, “saganaki” refers to dishes prepared in a two handled frying pan—the best known of which is the cheese saganaki, traditionally fried in butter or olive oil and served with lemon. It wasn’t until the now-closed Parthenon in Chicago that Greek-seeking diners in the United States came to know the flaming cheese dish. Waiters would set the cheese ablaze, shout “Opa!” and deliver it to awestruck guests (and the other guests followed suit). Even in the pre-Instagram days, people loved a spectacle.
When Sperling and her chef de cuisine, Juliana Latif, planned their menu, they knew they needed another hot appetizer. Latif suggested a flaming cheese dish. “We kind of looked at each other because it seemed kind of obvious,” Sperling says. “It's not a particularly creative dish by definition, but at the same time, it’s very crowd-pleasing to get a pan of hot cheese.”
To make the dish, they use a block of kasseri cheese (made from sheep’s milk) and dredge it in flour. It’s then seared and served bubbling in a small cast-iron pan with candied pumpkin seeds and Aleppo chili flakes. “At the table, we pour about an ounce of arak—a Lebanese anise-flavored liqueur with high alcohol—so that when we light it catches fire pretty dramatically,” Sperling explains. The dish is served with talami bread with arak-macerated golden raisins in it.
In Dallas, the Mexican restaurant Vidorra has been grabbing the attention of their diners with flaming queso fundido since 2018 (a second location opened in 2020). The dish features melted Oaxaca cheese (a white, semi-hard cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella) with a variety of topping options such as squash, chorizo, and chicken tinga. It’s given a splash of tequila and set on fire in a molcajete bowl, which reaches 400 degrees.
“When it goes through the dining room, obviously everyone's pointing and oohing and aahing,” says Rodman Shields, director of culinary experiences for Milkshake Concepts, which owns Vidorra). “We love everyone to take pictures of our stuff. We do a lot of presentations on authentic dishes that are tweaked our way to make them kind of eye-catching.”
When an order of flaming fundido leaves the kitchen, the chefs at Vidorra know that more orders will be placed, says Shields, who calls it the “fajita effect.” “When one goes out for the dining room, we sell a ton of queso. So when the waiter walks out of the kitchen with that, diners can see it and smell it and see the steam coming off and the bubbles,” says Shields. “It’s a number-one seller for sure.”
Sound is important to how we perceive the foods we eat, says Robin Dando, an associate professor of food science at Cornell University. But when it comes to the popularity of sizzling cheese dishes, it’s likely as simple as classical conditioning. “We all know about it from Pavlov, and really, I think that’s what's happening when somebody orders a dish like that,” Dando says. “Then you’ll start to see other people within the restaurant looking over, and then ordering the same dish, and starting some kind of cascade.”
Essentially, we associate a certain sound with a delicious taste ahead (that crackling of the cheese as it whirs past your table, the distinct crunch of potato chips). “We know that it’s going to be a crunchy, crispy, satisfying dish, because we’ve probably had it before at some point,” he says.
There’s a theatrical element to sizzling cheese dishes, too. The idea of theater is nothing new to Sperling, who previously worked at the Make It Nice Group, which offered a truffle-stuffed roast chicken carved tableside. “I definitely think that’s something people can be excited about when returning to restaurants after isolation,” says Sperling. “You can cook delicious food at home, but hospitality tableside service is something you can only get dining at a restaurant.”
After all, maybe setting cheese on fire should be left to the experts. “We definitely don’t want to do that at home,” she laughs.