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Grilled Cheese Invitational, briefly explained

April 22, 2009 |  2:50 pm

The 2008 Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles

More than mac 'n' cheese, meatloaf, burgers or cupcakes, the grilled cheese sandwich is the ultimate comfort food. It's the first meal many of us learn to cook and a staple of bachelor kitchens everywhere. Anyone can make a grilled cheese sandwich. But unlike most gentrified comfort foods, elevating this pinnacle of pragmatic American cooking into the realm of haute cuisine doesn't require a culinary degree or time spent behind a professional stove. That's the appeal of the Grilled Cheese Invitational; it allows amateur cooks to unleash their inner "Iron Chef."

"For the longest time the grilled cheese sandwich was held prisoner to the children's menu," says the event's founder and organizer, Tim Walker, a comedy writer and performer. "But there's such an amazing world of cheese out there that the possibilities of mixing cheese with bread are endless."

Held during National Grilled Cheese Month, this weekend's annual cook-off is expected to draw nearly 300 sandwich makers and 1,700 sandwich eaters to Los Angeles State Historic Park, where would-be champions can compete in three categories: Missionary Position (a true test of grilling skill, only bread, butter and cheese are allowed); Kama Sutra (a free-for-all of savory ingredients); or Honey Pot (dessert sandwiches).

It's all gouda to Walker. "One of the things I'm most happy to see is people considering grilled cheese as a dessert item. It's by far the most creative category in the event," he says. Though no one has yet mastered the grilled cheese crème brûlée, last year's winning dessert sandwich featured rum-flavored ricotta on homemade banana bread grilled in banana-infused butter and drizzled with caramel sauce.

Applying "a lot of Olympic hysteria" to an event that he cheerfully describes as "unnecessarily competitive," Walker has transformed what started in 2003 as a bragging competition between friends into a constantly expanding phenomenon with offshoots in San Francisco, Oakland, Austin and potentially Washington, D.C. Anyone who pays the $5 judging fee can have a say in this weekend's results, but you have to earn your samples by screaming, dancing or doing whatever works to get the competitors' attention. (You'll get two or three tickets for your $5, but each competitor is required to make only a handful of sandwiches, so there's no guarantee you'll get to try the one you want.) For those who prefer a tamer tasting, Kraft will be on hand dishing out as many free grilled cheese sandwiches as you can eat.

Evan George and Alex Brown, founders of the vegetarian cooking and beer blog Hot Knives, work hard to bring together the freaky and the gourmet. Concoctions like the Drunken Goat (aged goat cheese with a red wine rind and cipollini onions reduced in red wine and balsamic vinegar), the Italian Stallion (Taleggio with fresh oregano, thyme and rosemary on Parmesan-crusted bread) and the French Onion Soup (white onions braised in Belgian beer, slathered with cave-aged Gruyere and slapped between sourdough) have earned them more trophies than any other team -- five in the last three years.

"Some people go for the fancy cheeses and some go for the freak show ingredients. We try to combine the two," George says. "We wanted to invert French onion soup; the whole idea was that as you were eating the sandwich, you'd have to crunch and slurp."

After dominating the cook-off for three years running, they have, like Pele, graciously retired at the peak of their game. "A reigning champ never wants to be knocked out of the ring. But also, there was a sense we shouldn’t be greedy about it, that we should let some young whippersnappers step up and win a trophy." This year, George and Brown will be hosting a grilling demo and offering advice to potential competitors. Their biggest tip: Practice! If you want to win, don't show up on game day with a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese never having previously grilled that combo.

"Anyone can be competitive at sports or business" says Walker, "but it takes a certain kind of person to be a grilled cheese champion."

-- Elina Shatkin

Photos: Kevin Rolly

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