On National Grilled Cheese Day on Tuesday, Gayle Voss was celebrating.
The Union resident has a permanent home for her restaurant, “Gayle’s Best Ever Grilled Cheese,” which opened just over two months ago in the pedway at Block 37 at 108 N. State St. in Chicago, and she has been recognized in a Salute to Outstanding Women in the Culinary Arts by Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown and the clerk’s office women’s advisory committee.
“I have no idea how I was selected,” Voss said, noting her location by two L train stops brings an estimated 8,000 commuters by her restaurant every day, including many government workers among the regular business crowd who have grown fond of stopping in for a quick bite. “I suppose one of them must have nominated me. ... I was included with some incredible women.”
The patrons are a new type of clientele for Voss, who began selling cheese eight years ago to mostly families browsing Chicago farmers markets. A bookkeeper at the time, she made the move to sales rep and market vendor when offered the opportunity by a former client, Brian J. Gerloff, DVM, Ph.D., one of the owners of Prairie Pure Cheese.
After a couple of years, she decided to start making grilled cheese sandwiches to sell at the markets using ingredients sold by fellow vendors – the bread from Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston, the butter from Nordic Creamery in Westby, Wisconsin. The cheese that has become her signature in the center of the sandwiches comes from the milk provided by the dairy farm of Todd and Brenda Aves in Belvidere, who also are partners in Prairie Pure Cheese.
As her business has grown, she has expanded her selection from The Classic – Prairie Pure Butterkase cheese on fresh baked white sourdough bread with fresh butter – to include more local toppings provided first by other farmers market vendors and then from restaurants who use Prairie Pure Cheese. When they contribute an ingredient, she names a grilled cheese after them. For example, The Duke – swiss cheese, ham and beer mustard – is named after the mustard made and provided by Duke’s Alehouse & Kitchen in Crystal Lake.
All of her sandwiches are locally sourced, and the menu can vary depending on what ingredients are available.
Some options include fresh meat, such as applewood bacon, turkey or roast beef, breakfast favorites such as farm fresh eggs and maple syrup, produce such as spinach, honeycrisp apples and tomatoes, and a large variety of spreads, such as pestos, salsas, jams and marmalades. A specialty sandwich – The Sebastian – currently offered on Fridays, is made with her signature cheese and fresh lobster. And all of the ingredients are brought in from small businesses in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Her passion for supporting local businesses doesn’t stop with her sandwiches. She brings Smithwood BBQ thick-cut potato chips from Union, cookies from Chicago baker Cookie Yum and a selection of teas, coffees and sodas all made in Chicago. Even her business cards and menus are printed in Woodstock, and the shirts she gave away on National Grilled Cheese Day on Tuesday came from HyperStitch in Marengo.
“She’s doing so well,” said Voss’ mom, Shirley Osman of Huntley, adding that Voss has had a drive to help others since she was a former Union village clerk, though Voss said ultimately politics wasn’t for her.
“If I have an ability to help local farmers and small businesses grow and succeed, it’s worth it,” Voss said. “I like being the one who gives them that opportunity. ... I get that nurturing side from my parents.”
Shirley and Dave Osman proudly attended the award ceremony where Voss was recognized last month.
“I had to give a speech, and they were in the audience. ... Dad started welling up, and I started welling up, and I had to change my whole speech,” Voss said with a laugh. “They get so excited.”
Gone are the days of lugging panini presses to and from farmers markets across northern Illinois with the help of her husband, Randy, whom Voss calls “a dream” for being her support and sounding board through the years as well as helping behind the scenes, from hanging shelves to installing security cameras. But despite having a permanent spot for her restaurant, Voss stays moving. She will be able to use her kitchen in the Loop as a home base for attending three weekly Chicago farmers markets each summer, as well as for catering events such as graduations and weddings, where her grilled cheeses are a hit as late-night snacks for the guests.
She said she is able to use her two-hour round trip commute from Union to Chicago each day to slow down, enjoy her coffee and look ahead to more possibilities – thinking up new sandwiches, new collaborations and new ways to celebrate National Grilled Cheese Day next year.
“I’m already planning,” she said.