Of all the Alpine clichés — yodeling, goats, snow-fringed chalets, nearly anything from The Sound of Music — the hearty tradition of eating gooey, melted cheese for dinner has transcended its origins to become a collective cultural experience.
Though fondue is a simple tradition of dunking bread into a hot pot of cheese, it conjures stronger associations than perhaps any other food, argues journalist David Sax. “You hear its name and picture ski lodges, a fog of stinky cheese, cracking fireplaces, shag carpets, and Burt Reynolds lying there, shirtless and with a long-stemmed fork in his hand,” Sax writes in his book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue. “It is not only a cultural anachronism, but a symbol of all cultural anachronisms, of the fate of forgotten food trends.”
Though the fondue parties of the 1960s may seem well in the past, there’s a melted cheese renaissance of sorts happening now in America. In recent years, restaurants around the country have been experimenting with raclette, a dish just as traditional if lesser known than fondue, where wheels of cheese are melted and scraped onto a plate of potatoes and other accompaniments. Some restaurateurs have even opened entire concepts focused on this molten wheel of cheese. So where in their long histories did these two Alpine traditions diverge — and where are they headed?
The Rise of Melted Cheese
It’s futile to pinpoint the exact time and place that humanity discovered the joy of smothering crusty bread or boiled potatoes in molten cheese. Depending whom you ask, fondue may have been discovered in the French or the Swiss Alps either centuries or millennia ago. Raclette — which hails from the mountainous Swiss canton of Valais — has a similarly roving date of discovery. But both of these rustic dishes seem to have taken on their modern resemblances in the late 1800s.
Over the course of the next century, Switzerland took ownership of both traditions. According to the Swiss Patrimoine Culinaire, raclette was first presented as a Valais delicacy during a 1909 regional culinary exhibition and later began its ascent to beloved dish in the 1964 National Exhibition. But while raclette was slowly rising in popularity, fondue was rocketing into a trend first in Europe and then the world.
Fondue owes its faddishness to the Swiss Cheese Union. In 1930, the union successfully pushed to have fondue named the Swiss national dish and worked for decades to promote production of Emmental, a hard cow’s milk cheese. Then, in the 1950s and ‘60s, hoping to boost demand, NPR reports that this “cartel” began selling the now-familiar dreamy image of fondue with “big ad campaigns of good-looking Swiss people in ski sweaters partying it up over pots of cheese.” With the rise of globalization, it didn’t take long for that message to hit the United States.
It was perfect timing. As Sax writes in his history of fondue, “[i]t is no coincidence that the fondue trend rose in concert with the budding sexual revolution in North America.” Fondue is a social meal. Cooking together over an open flame inspires conversation, if not also warmth and intimacy. (This interpretation of fondue has held through the years; in Marvel’s 2011 film, even Captain America uses fondue as a euphemism for sex.)
Swiss restaurants around the country began serving fondue. Sax writes that one of the earliest of these, New York City’s Chalet Suisse, was especially vigorous in promoting both cheese and oil style fondues (the latter for cooking meat) on The Tonight Show and in the New York Times. Seeing opportunity, kitchen stores began selling cheap fondue sets, and everyone and their neighbor had one.
Just as all fads must, the fondue craze crested. Sax writes that Americans began pulling away from fondue as they became more health-conscious in the 1970s. But even though the notion of fondue faded from white-hot to conspicuously old-fashioned, the dish itself was perhaps never more accessible than it became in the late 20th century.
Jason Miller, the executive chef of the Melting Pot, doesn’t think fondue ever really disappeared from the cultural landscape. “It’s like a lot of foods,” he says. “Sometimes people forget about them or relegate them to a certain time of year and don’t think of them as being current.” But Miller makes a compelling argument for fondue’s continued relevance since the 1970s.
In 1975, the Melting Pot was founded in Florida just as the fondue trend was winding down. The future fondue chain branded itself as a place for special occasion dining, with induction burners built directly into its tables. It was well-received in Florida, and growth started out slowly but steadily as the Melting Pot opened a total of 26 locations by 1995. But over the aggressive franchise-focused decade that followed, the chain picked up the pace, opening its 100th location in 2005.
“You don’t open 80 restaurants in 10 years just because a couple people feel nostalgic,” Miller says. “There has to be more to it.” Today, the Melting Pot uses gold medal-winning cheese from Emmi Roth USA and offers extra fondue options to choose from, too, if diners care to be particular. Miller spends much of his time dreaming up new recipes to appeal to the company’s diverse regional clientele. Just two months ago, he invented a Cuban fondue using a Swiss cheese base, beer, chopped garlic, chopped pickles, finely diced Spanish pork, tavern ham, and yellow mustard with Cuban bread as a dipper. “You have a Cuban sandwich in your mouth, but it’s still a fondue,” he says.
But fondue’s late ‘90s resurgence wasn’t just felt at the Melting Pot. Sax writes that the Trudeau Corporation sold a million fondue sets in Canada and the United States between 1996 and 2001, a growth of tenfold. “This fondue revival died down by the mid-2000s, pushed back to nostalgic territory for one reason or another,” he writes, “but it wasn’t hard to see how the fondue trend could reinvent itself every decade or so, melting and reforming with the flavors, ingredients, and influences of other trends in order to stay relevant.”
Revenge of the Raclette
It’s been about a decade since that last fondue peak, and melted cheese seems to be on the upswing yet again. Only this time, raclette is finally breaking through to American diners. Raclette has proven to be a popular wintertime treat in Washington, DC, where Eater DC recently rounded up at least five restaurants offering a take on raclette. And restaurants featuring raclette — including it right in their names, no less — have opened in Montreal, Buffalo, and New York in the last couple of years.
“I’m trying to understand why it took so long,” says Edgar Villongco, owner of New York City phenom Raclette, which opened two years ago and has already expanded to bigger digs. Though raclette goes hand-in-hand with fondue, Villongco has a few theories why it originally struggled to find a U.S. audience.
One key factor is that, until recently, it wasn’t easy to import high-quality Swiss and French raclette cheeses. For years, the Valais region of Switzerland remained the sole and relatively small production center of raclette cheese. But in the early 2000s, production spread. As the Swiss Culinary Heritage Association notes, “In 1970, about 1,000 tons were produced in Valais and 1,000 tons in the rest of Switzerland; in the early 2000s, the proportion rose to 2,000 tons (Valais) and 10,000 tons (the rest of Switzerland).” Even so, Villongco still struggles to source some Swiss raclette cheeses.
Raclette is also a little more complex than fondue. While the latter takes only a bowl and a flame, raclette requires equipment. In Switzerland, homes might be outfitted with tabletop grills furnished with individual pans for melting just the right amount of cheese. In 2015, Villongco opened Raclette with a more utilitarian — and more theatrical — style. Rather than having diners cook their own cheese on a grill, Raclette imitates the raclette kiosks at European Christmas Markets; servers stop at each table with a wheel of cheese mounted near a flame and scrape a huge, oozing pile of cheese straight over a dish of accompaniments. (At Raclette, these are adapted for the American palate: Think roasted rather than boiled potatoes and arugula as a palate cleanser.) Those magnificent scrapes of cheese transformed Villongco’s small restaurant into a smash hit, expanding from five to 45 seats in about a year.
But there’s still quite a bit of work to be done when it comes to introducing raclette to American diners. Last year, Sandra Wilkins and her husband Paul opened a French restaurant named Raclettes in Buffalo, New York. “We when first announced the idea, everyone said that’s going to be a tough sell in Buffalo,” she says. “And it was.”
Anticipating those challenges, Wilkins went on the offensive. She did a demo for a local radio station, explaining the raclette process while listeners could hear the cheese sizzle on her grill. Wilkins also printed up laminated cards come with the menu (and can be found on Raclettes’s website) that tell people how it works. Raclettes also offers a regular dinner menu full of tartines, mussels, fondue, crepes, salads, and entrees like cassoulet and coq au vin. Though first-time diners gravitate toward these items, they often end up enviously eying neighboring tables topped with sizzling cheese grills. Those diners tend to come back for the raclette, Wilkins says.
Like the Melting Pot, Raclettes has also dabbled with its own innovations, like an Italian version made with Fontina cheese. This is the recipe the Wilkins family made at home when raclette couldn’t be found anywhere in Buffalo; it’s a potential gateway for diners who like the thought of melted cheese but are skeptical of raclette itself.
But once people know raclette, they like it. Wilkins says her restaurant doesn’t have the foot traffic to offer dramatic tableside scrapes like Raclette in New York, but it has been making inroads with diners in Buffalo. That has a lot to do with the same quality that made both fondue and raclette hits in the first place: sociability. When you’re making raclette, you’re not just cooking alongside your tablemates, but you’re also eating at a slower pace more conducive to conversation. “It’s so much fun,” Wilkins says.
The Future of Melted Cheese
These Alpine cheese traditions have a strong future in America. Business at the Melting Pot continues to grow, as the chain pushes into international markets like Canada, Mexico, and the Middle East with 125 franchises and growing. In 2015, Nation’s Restaurant News named the Melting Pot its top pick for casual dining, which Forbes pointed out is no fluke: The Melting Pot has found a new popularity among millennials attracted to its communal dining style and customizable ingredients.
The Melting Pot is even looking into the raclette trend, too. Though the needed equipment might prove too difficult to outfit to the growing chain, Miller says he’s going to be doing some splinter tests in his Florida restaurants to see if he can make it work. “We’re the Melting Pot. We own cheese,” he says. It may have some competition, though. Villongco is already looking to open another location of Raclette — either a second spot in New York City or in another city like Washington, D.C. Villongco thinks America is likely to start seeing raclette pop up on menus more and more. He’s already seen other French and Swiss restaurants copying his adaptations, adding arugula to their plates of melting cheese.
But as raclette and fondue gain relevance, Villongco cautions against straying too far from their origins as hearty Alpine peasant foods. “Although we have to make adaptations,” Villongco says, “[it’s very important] that we have to be respectful of tradition.”