Judging LA’s Grilled Cheese Invitational

by on April 25, 2011

The Mayor and Minister of Cheese

Greeting the Mayor and Minister of Cheese

The Grilled Cheese InvitationalWhat better way to conclude our celebration of Grilled Cheese Month on Panini Happy than with an inside look at a one-of-a-kind event that draws 300 amateur and professional competitors and thousands of grilled cheese fans annually: The Grilled Cheese Invitational.

The event, founded eight years ago by Tim Walker, started out as a friendly competition between friends. It has since blossomed into a full-blown national grilled cheese movement, with regional competitions across the country. I was honored to participate as an executive judge this past sun-filled Saturday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles. I had myself an absolute cheesy blast.

Competitors having some serious fun

This was my first time attending the Grilled Cheese Invitational and I have to say, being an executive judge for the event was definitely the way to go. I had the chance to chat up all of the competitors, watch them assemble their amazingly creative sandwiches and, at the end of the event, bestow a judge’s award on my favorite sandwich. Of course, I also got to do one heck of a lot of tasting. Like a lot!

Mark Peel and Barbara Fairchild

Mark Peel and Barbara Fairchild

Over the course of the five-hour competition I had the opportunity to meet and compare tasting notes with my fellow executive judges. In particular, it was a real treat to spend time with two food luminaries I’ve truly admired: Barbara Fairchild, the former longtime editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, and Mark Peel, chef-owner of Campanile in LA (and Top Chef Master!).

Grilled Cheese, Please! author Laura Werlin

Grilled Cheese, Please! author Laura Werlin

I also had the chance to get to know Laura Werlin, cheese expert and author of the recently released book Grilled Cheese, Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes. I’ll tell you one funny experience she and I had at the event. We approached a competitor who was laying out some baked cheddar cheese crisps in front of him. In unison, we exclaimed “Fricos!”, the name for these cheese crisps. Well, the quizzical response on the competitor’s face let me know right away he was unfamiliar with that term. He thought we were yelling, “Freak-o!” at him. Yikes. We smoothed that one over right away.

Swearing in members of the Judging Society

Swearing in the populist judges

Event attendees had the option of buying a special ticket that allowed them to be populist judges, which meant they could sample and vote on the competitors’ grilled cheese as well (their votes would comprise 60% of the competitors’ scores, while the executive judges accounted for the other 40%). They were, of course, sworn in at the outset.

Sandwich up!

Here’s how the judging went. When the competitors had a sandwich ready they waved their sign (or in this cheese king’s case, flag) to alert one of the volunteer runners to pick it up and distribute samples and ballots amongst the executive and populist judges. Most often, I obtained samples right off the grill from the competitors. We rated the sandwiches according to presentation, taste, “Wessonality” (style points) and “SPAZ” (weird factor).

Delivering samples to enthusiastic fans

Delivering samples to enthusiastic fans

I was asked to aim to taste around 33 sandwiches and I’m pretty sure I hit that target and then some. I did my best to take just one good bite each time, but sometimes I just had to go for a second…or third. They were often that good.

The People's Choice Winner: Chicken and Waffles with Cheddar and Bacon Crust, by Dave Danhi of the Grilled Cheese Truck

The People's Choice Winner: Chicken and Waffles with Cheddar and Bacon Crust, by Dave Danhi of the Grilled Cheese Truck

It didn’t surprise me that this one ended up winning the People’s Choice Award. Several people told me I had to go try the Chicken and Waffles with Cheddar and Bacon Crust sandwich that the guy from the Grilled Cheese Truck was making. I managed to nab a bite of his very last sandwich before the competition heat was over. The brilliant part of this sandwich was tucking the bacon bits into each crevice of the waffle and “sealing” them all in with cheese on the outside. I missed the maple syrup dipping sauce, but I can just imagine what an unreal combo that was.

Grilled Cheese Battle

Grilled Cheese Zombies

I forgot to write down the official name of this grilled cheese and tomato soup massacre, but I’m pretty sure those were supposed to be little zombies on top.

The Cheezy Nerdz

The Cheezy Nerdz

These guys call themselves the Cheezy Nerdz. They may be nerdy, but they can make a sandwich! They won a judge’s award from one of the event’s sponsors, Mendocino Farms.

The "Foe Cheesy", by the Cheezy Nerdz

The "Foe Cheesy", by the Cheezy Nerdz

I’m not sure whether the “Foe Cheesy” was the award-winning entry for the Cheezy Nerdz or not (I believe they competed in every heat), but it was pretty great. Cheese grilled on the outside of the sandwich was definitely a new-to-me trend I noticed often.

Always room for Nutella and bananas

Always room for Nutella and bananas

After four hours of ingesting grilled cheese (after the first two hours, it moved past “tasting” into “ingesting”) it took all the fortitude I could muster to rally for the fourth and final heat of the competition: the Honey Pot (aka, dessert round). My favorite in this round was one called the “Shirley Temple”: marscapone cheese mixed with strawberry jam, spread with crumbled candied bacon on cinnamon sugar toast.

I think this guy was looking to channel some divine grilling guidance

I think this guy was looking to channel some divine grilling guidance

There was really no shortage of interesting things to see at this competition.

March Fourth performed, stilted dancers and all

March Fourth performed, stilted dancers and all

And believe it or not, there was actually a whole lot more to see besides grilled cheese. In particular, I loved this really funky, eclectic marching band called March Fourth that performed. I couldn’t get over these guys dancing on stilts! There was also a costume contest, cheese calling contest and a well-attended beer garden.

Lines for the food trucks

Lines for the food trucks

In addition to the 30,000 sandwiches being prepared for judging there were also about twenty of LA’s finest food trucks positioned throughout the venue, each serving more grilled cheese to rather lengthy lines of attendees.

Last, but not least - the trophies

Last, but not least - the trophies

Finally, at the end of the day and once all the votes were tabulated, the winners were announced. As I mentioned earlier, in addition to the winners of the most votes in each category each executive judge also gave an award for their favorite sandwich. My favorite of the day was comprised of Berkshire country ham, caramelized onions, aged cheddar and Gruyère cheeses, and pickled apples on multigrain bread. What ultimately won me over were the pickled apples and the ham oil they rendered from cooking the ham and brushed onto the bread for extra flavor.

After handing the competitor his trophy, we shook hands and he told me his name was Paul. But amid all the applause and cheering I didn’t have a chance to find out where he worked (he was competing as a pro). Well, that mystery was cleared up once I saw this tweet from Chef Marcus Samuelsson (Top Chef Master 2010!):

Congrats to Paul Osher of Bean & Thyme!

Congrats to Paul Osher of Bean & Thyme!

I recognized my guy in the photo! So, a big congratulations to the recipient of my judge’s award: Chef Paul Osher of Bean & Thyme in Santa Monica.

* * *

As you can imagine, I am quite full of grilled cheese for a while. 🙂 Between a pilgrimage to the Grilled Cheese Truck, three grilled cheese recipes, funky grilled cheese crafts on Etsy, grilling halloumi on the outdoor grill and judging the Grilled Cheese Invitational it’s been quite a month. Thanks so much for joining me on the ride!





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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nate @ House of Annie April 25, 2011 at 10:26 pm

How amazingly fun! That chicken and waffle creation is quite unique.
Nate @ House of Annie´s last blog post ..In Memoriam- Edith Lee Lau 1918 – 2011

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2 Jennifer (Savor) April 26, 2011 at 3:58 am

Peronally, I think team that has the name ‘thyme’, should win. hehe. Looks like an amazing time!!
Jennifer (Savor)´s last blog post ..Happy Birthday Spa Party – Preparing the Spa and Covered Strawberries

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3 RJ Flamingo April 26, 2011 at 5:01 am

That sounds like an amazing day! And to think that I’m usually delighted if I can get someone to throw a slice of tomato on my grilled cheese sandwich! 😀
RJ Flamingo´s last blog post ..Coconut Lime Macaroons

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4 Alison @ Ingredients, Inc. April 26, 2011 at 6:24 am

This looks like a blast!

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5 Barbara Bakes April 26, 2011 at 6:49 am

What a fun event. I’m sure you were the perfect judge.
Barbara Bakes´s last blog post ..Dan Lepard Garlic Bread

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6 jah April 26, 2011 at 7:51 am

i attended the event. how do you become an executive judge?

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7 Kathy April 26, 2011 at 10:12 am

The executive judging panel is comprised mainly of those working in the food industry and food media.

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8 Julie April 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

Wow! Looks like a perfect day!

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9 Amy April 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

What fun. And the chicken waffles with bacon? Swoon.

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10 John April 26, 2011 at 10:02 am

Amazing! And I looked at this right before preparing lunch… Well, I know what I’m having… Thanks for the inspiration.

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11 Chelsea April 26, 2011 at 4:48 pm

So rad! And you are GORGEOUS! XOXO
Chelsea´s last blog post ..5 Secret Style Items You Need to Know About

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12 Mary @ Delightful Bitefuls April 28, 2011 at 8:42 am

Ohhh! This looks like SUCH a fun day!!!
Mary @ Delightful Bitefuls´s last blog post ..A few of my favs

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13 Julia @ DimpleArts April 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Grilled cheese sandwich galore! Too much of a good thing is still too much:) But I wouldn’t mind a grilled cheese sandwich right about now:)
Julia @ DimpleArts´s last blog post ..Cook and Tell- Vanilla Cupcakes with Blackberry Buttercream Frosting

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14 Tricia @ saving room for dessert April 29, 2011 at 11:40 am

What a great event and wonderful photos! Some girls have all the fun!

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15 Katrina @ In Katrina's Kitchen April 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Such cheesy goodness!! Jealous.

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16 Shaina April 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm

How cool, Kathy! Love this and that you were a judge. Definitely the way to go!
Shaina´s last blog post ..Eat Well- Spend Less Week 3 Wrap-Up and 50 Grocery Giveaway

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17 Amanda May 1, 2011 at 9:39 am

Wow what an absolute blast! The weather looks like it was amazing too!
Amanda´s last blog post ..Rosemary Garlic Pork Chops

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18 Emily May 1, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Love, love this post! You made me feel like I was there. I agree with you on that winning sandwich. It sounds amazing!

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19 Carolyn Jung May 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm

I’m glad your arteries made it through to the end! LOL What a fun even to judge. And those cheesy, bacon-y waffles definitely caught my attention. 😉

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