I Scream. You All Scream. We All Scream...for Cheese???
Yes, as the title suggests, there was lots of screaming for cheese, specifically oooey-gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. So where was all this yelling and carousing happening? Well, at the The 1st 6th Annual National Grilled Cheese Invitational, which was held at Griffith Park this past Saturday. And why were people yelling and carousing? More on that later, but first, let's start our tale with a little bit of background.
Since 2003, organizers from behind the Burning Man festival have been organizing a rowdy grilled cheese sandwich making contest referred to as the Grilled Cheese Invitational. With the mantra, "Bread. Butter. Cheese. Victory!" spurring them on, both amateur and professional chefs would compete side-by-side in different categories to see who would reign supreme in hot cheesy goodness. This year, a new category was added for a strong, flirty foursome. You'll know what I mean by "flirty" when you see the names of the category below.
The Missionary Position: white bread, orange cheese (cheddar or American) and butter or margarine only.
(NEW Category) Spoons: any kind of white bread, any kind of butter and any kind of cheese (or combination of cheeses) but no additional ingredients
The Kama Sutra: any kind of bread, any kind of butter and any kind of cheese (or blend of cheeses) plus additional ingredients.
The Honey Pot: any kind of bread, any kind of butter, any kind of cheese (or blend of cheeses), and any additional ingredients, but a sandwich that is sweet in flavor, or would best be served as a dessert.
Initially, this event was on a smaller scale and much more underground. Most people heard about it through word of mouth. In fact, there was such an aura of mystery surrounding this event, similar to a rave, that the location address wouldn't be published until the week of the event itself and that's a tradition that continued this year as well.
As time went by, more and more cheeseheads wanted to get in the action. So this year's Grilled Cheese Invitational was the first one open to the eating public and with over 100 cheese chefs competing in one, two or all four categories, there was a lot of cheesy action that happened on the day of the event. Since the last 5 years haven't really been open to the public, that's why this year's event is referred to as the 1st 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational. Get it? Enough background! Let's get to the good stuff.
Once I got there, I canvassed the area. On one side of the park, there were picnic benches all grouped together, which were sectioned off primarily by tables covered with bright orange plastic covers. That area served as the general kitchen area. There were two competitors to a bench and each was allotted a portable burner to cook with, as well as given a gift bag that contained a frying pan, spatula and other items for their use.
Right next door to the kitchen area, there was a Kraft Cheese booth and they provided free grilled cheese sandwiches while Izze Sparkling Juice also had free offerings of their apple, grapefruit, pomengranate, blackberry and orange beverages from start to finish. My favorite Izze drinks were definitely the blackberry and apple. I found them light and refreshing and I think they went well with all the rich cheese offerings that were to be had.
Finally, the organizers took the stage and gave an introduction and quick explanation of how judging was going to happen. Basically, here's the breakdown of the process. Each competitor has to make enough sandwiches to make 20 portions for each category they choose to enter. The portions could vary from half size to quarter size to bigger or smaller. It didn't really matter just as long as there were enough for 20 people. Each portion is put on a paper plate which has a ballot stapled to it. As soon as you sample your sandwich, you fill out the ballot and drop it in ballot boxes being carried around by volunteer staff.
So are you wondering yet where the screaming comes in? Well, as the sandwiches are cooked, either the competitor or one of their runners would bring out the sandwiches to be distributed to the waiting cheese-a-holics waiting behind the tables in front of the cooking section. Just because these sandwiches are free, it didn't mean that you don't have to work for them. That's where the screaming came to play or should I say enthusiasm? Nah, there was a lot of screaming involved. If you wanted one of those sandwiches, you had to get yourself noticed or you'd passed by for the noisier person standing right next to you or even behind you.
Even with all the yelling, there's still no guarantee that you'll get a sandwich. If you came expecting to be stuffed with grilled cheese sandwiches, you would have been sorely disappointed. Even if you managed to get 4 or more sandwiches, the small portions were not going to fill you up by any means. It got to the point that if one generous person got a sandwich, they would sometimes share it with 2 or 3 other people who may not have gotten one at all, which meant for an even smaller sampling.
I managed to try one sandwich and vote on it, but after awhile, I opted to go into the cooking section where my friend, Cecilia, was competing in all four categories. The vibe was less frenetic, but still very busy as the cheese chefs were working hard to send their offerings out to the hungry crowd. At one point, I was recruited to be a runner. Now that was fun.
I'd have my plates of Cecilia's sandwiches and as I approached the crowd, eyes pointed towards me and soon symphonies of sound, like waves, crashed around me. There was pleading and yelling. One or two people got down on their knees begged. Small children were used by their parents - their big, round innocent eyes pleading with me. I even got a proposal of marriage thrown at me. The first couple of times it was a bit overwhelming and I thought to myself, "Did I look that crazed when the shoe was on the other foot?" I probably did.
Soon, I got the hang of the whole thing and even got on a bit of a power trip. I felt like a Greek Goddess trying to decide which sycophant to bless with my gift of cheese. Hmmm...was she worthy enough? Did he beg enough? Are those children cute enough? Ok, I wasn't that bad, but I could have been if I let it go to my head. In general, the reaction of the crowd was just so much fun..
What I liked being in the cooking section was seeing the real camaraderie among the competitors. They in turn, supported and egged each other on. There was also swappings of cheese sandwiches going on so that they could taste each other's creations. The competitors themselves were also a quirky lot. Between a very tall man wearing a red velvet dress and a green madhatter hat and someone in a gorilla outfit wearing an apron, quirky may still be too tame a description. Into the mix were also professional chefs. In fact, Cecilia shared her bench with the Artisan Cheese Gallery and the winner of the Kama Sutra category was Eric Greenspan, chef of The Foundry Restaurant.
Finally, after the heat of the competition was over, the awards ceremony were held that evening. As mentioned, Chef Greenspan took honors in the Kama Sutra category. My friend, Cecilia, first-time competitor, took first place in the Missionary Category. To see all the winners, click below:
To wrap it up, is the Grilled Cheese Invitational for everyone? Probably not. If you're expecting a more formal kind of judging where competitors are at individual stations that allow you to pick which sandwiches you want to sample and vote on, you'll be disappointed. If you're expecting to sample the majority of the sandwiches, if not all of them, you'll be crushed.
In the end, although the name of this event is the Grilled Cheese Invitational, there definitely weren't enough grilled cheese sandwiches to go around for everyone to try. I think what you get is actually beyond just the sandwiches themselves. What I saw was a fun and lively atmosphere. What I saw were generous people willing to split a quarter of a sandwich with 2 or 3 other people just so more people could have a taste. What I saw were competitors using their creativity and taking a simple comfort food to the next level. Whether it was a grilled cheese and anchovy sandwich or a dessert sandwich that consisted of guava jelly, marscarpone cheese and chocolate chips, these cheese chefs were limited only by their own imagination.
What I also saw was the spirit behind this event. How can you not appreciate all the hard work and time the organizers and volunteer staff put into something that was at no cost to the attendees? There aren't very many freebies in this world, especially when you consider that culinary events can cost as little as a $15 entrance fee to a food festival up to $400 for a 10 course tasting menu. Then there's the competitors who basically donated their time and money. They weren't given a stipend to pay for all the ingredients for their sandwiches. That was all their own money. I have to give them props as well for their generosity.
Overall, it wasn't what I expected; yet, it somehow also exceeded my expectations in a weird sort of way. I'm already looking forward to the 2nd 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational or is it 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational?
To see pics, go to: