We know it's May and Grilled Cheese Month has passed, but we already miss it. While restaurants all over town celebrated our new favorite holiday, the highlight of April, of course, was the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, a huge cheesy blowout that the Mayor of Cheese, Los Angeles artist Tim Walker, started in 2003. Now it's bigger than ever, more anticipated, and filled with cheesy goodness from professional and amateur chefs alike.
This year didn't disappoint. There were hundreds of sandwiches griddled on the spot, with flavors that ran the gamut from classic orange cheese and white bread to over-the-top (sometimes too much so) gourmet concoctions. You don't have to be an Executive Judge to know that making a great grilled cheese isn't rocket science, but we're always impressed with what the amateur cooks come up with. Sometimes it's the flavor, sometimes it's the story, but here were five favorites from the day:
Mike Dundas, a Los Angeles-based attorney, got our interest with The Curd is the Word--a poutine grilled cheese. It had all the elements you need for proper poutine, Canada's decadent snack, with a California twist. The cheese curds came from Petaluma's Spring Hill Cheese Co.; the fries from downtown's beer-and-sausage hall, Wurstkuche; and the bread was from La Brea Bakery. Dundas smooshed the fries and cheese between two slices of bread, and topped it all with St. Hubert gravy (a Canadian staple). Delicious.
This was Cecilia Fabulich's, a retired grandmother from Marina del Rey, fourth year at the Invitational. I liked both her Bourbon BBQ Piggy sandwich (shredded barbecued pork with gruyere and a citrusy coleslaw on top) and her classic super cheesy grilled cheese in the new Love American Style heat--the competitors could only use white bread, orange cheese and butter.
Fabulich usually places at the Invitational: She won a first place trophy in 2008, and a judges' trophy in 2010. She told us that she does it for the fun, just loves participating in amateur cooking competitions. Last year, she won a noodle-off hosted by Crustacean, and was a finalist at Coral Tree Café's Panini-off. "When my kids moved out, I had to cook for someone," she says.
Making their second appearance for the national competition, Arlette Thibodeau and Joshua Smith from Oakland wowed us with their goat cheddar and goat jack cheese sandwich with jalapeno butter. It seems so simple, but it was packed with flavor. Thibodeau's recipe for the butter: Put two sticks of butter and two jalapenos (thinly sliced) in a crock pot and cook on low for four hours; take it out, puree it and strain through a sieve to remove seeds. It makes a great coating for grilled cheese, but we can see using it on popcorn, pasta...anything.
"I've been an intense foodie, even a SlowFoodLA member, since I was very young," says actor Sean Smith. "Especially where cheese is concerned." At least one movie credit is slightly food-themed: He played the maitre d' in Adam Sandler's restaurant in Spanglish, a movie world-renown chef, Thomas Keller, consulted on. Kind of food-connected, right?
Smith's sandwich was super high-brow, made with Epoisses, Tomme de Savoie and Gruyere cheese, plus red wine-braised rabbit with carrot-and-cumin slaw on challa bread. The rabbit was the starting point, and Smith determined the cheeses after he decided to braise the bunny in red wine instead of white. "Once the Burgundy came into play, the Epoisses (a Burgundian cheeses) seemed the natural fit. The other two cheeses complement the pungency and help tie the carrot salad into the mix."
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Michael Davidson's Charlie Sheenwich got us on sheer creativity alone. It's probably not fair to put him in the amateur category because Davidson, a scientist who started out as an amateur grilled-cheese griller at the San Francisco Invitational, has won so many regional and national titles, he now has to compete in the professional category. He even launched his own grilled cheese cart in Berkeley, where he resides.
But the crazy sandwich was still a favorite. For the Honey Pot category (dessert grilled cheese), he used "Tiger's Blood" (strawberry flavored) cream cheese, blueberry-cinnamon goat cheese and St. Andre brie on pan de mie. It was sprinkled with confectioner's sugar, of course.
Check out the full list of this year's Grilled Cheese Invitational winners.