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Cheese whizzes vie for grilling glory

It could just be the combination of the rough, crunchy exterior and the hot, gooey center that makes people go gaga for grilled cheese sandwiches. But for competitors and attendees at the Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles, this classic comfort food is so much more than bread, butter and cheese.
/ Source: TODAY staff

It could just be the combination of the rough, crunchy exterior and the hot, gooey center that makes people go gaga for grilled cheese sandwiches.

But for competitors and attendees at the 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational (that's really what it's called) in downtown Los Angeles Saturday, this classic comfort food is so much more than bread, butter and cheese.

“People subconsciously connect grilled cheese to their childhood,” said the competition’s founder, Tim Walker. “It’s a simple dish to which anyone can apply a signature style — everyone can make it their own.”

More than 6,100 attendees came out to revel in grilled cheese heaven, as 250 professional and amateur cooks showed off their sandwich-making skills. Chefs competed in three categories: Missionary (standard bread, butter and cheese); Kama Sutra (anything-goes gourmet grilled cheese), and Honey Pot (dessert sandwiches). Entries were rated on taste, presentation, creativity and “spaz” — the level of weirdness brought to the table.

Boozy brainstorm
The Cream Cheese Dream, grilled up by Dylan McDonald and Nicole Anderson for the Honey Pot category, was the highest-rated sammy, winning the chefs the title of grilled cheese champions. The dish featured cinnamon sugar along with cream cheese, with strawberries grilled into cinnabon bread.

“It was inspired by breakfast and my love of cheese,” Anderson explained.

Wassim Elkary had a different inspiration: His Canadian Maple Syrup Grilled Cheese featured a smorgasbord so strange it could only have been contrived while inebriated. Ingredients include Muenster cheese, maple syrup crème cookies, lychee juice, Funions, Extreme Hot Ranch Pringles, mozzarella cheese and cinnamon, all on buttermilk bread. The sammy garnered Elkary the Spaz award.

“I was drunk – that’s all I had in the house, so I put it together,” said Elkary, a 26-year-old engineer. “I tried it sober and it was still good, so I brought it to the competition.”

An ex-drug dealer turned grilled-cheese aficionado, Gago Avaneszadea grilled up his ricotta cheese, chocolate and cayenne pepper sandwich while wearing his hardhat to represent his fellow construction workers.

“Grilled cheese is the food of the common people,” he shouted to cheers from onlookers. “That’s why everyone loves it.”

Beyond Wonder Bread
The event, sponsored by Tillamook cheese, began in 2003 as a showdown among friends, bringing out about 80 to 100 fellow grilled cheese lovers. It has since grown exponentially, and Walker predicts that grilled cheese mania will only get more widespread.

“When we started this, it began dawning on people that grilled cheese could be so much more that Kraft Singles and Wonder Bread,” said Walker. “For so long, grilled cheese had been relegated to the kids’ menu. This gave us the permission slip to turn it into an adult meal and show that it’s earned its stripes.”

The public’s passion for the dish so intrigued documentary filmmaker Stephen Payne, 50, that he’s now producing a film about it.

“This is a sensation that’s sweeping the nation,” said Payne, who is from England. “I started talking to people about grilled cheese and their faces would just light up with excitement. I thought about how funny and interesting that was and wanted to learn more about it.”

Payne says that the dish’s accessibility and potential account for its popularity.

“Anyone with a frying pan can make grilled cheese, but people can and have taken it to a whole new level.”

From grill to gourmet
Heidi Gibson quit her job of 15 years as a Web designer to pursue her love of creating grilled cheese. Six years ago, she entered the GCI as a competitor and has done so every year since, winning more trophies than any other contender.

“I realized I didn’t want to be at a desk job anymore,” said Gibson, 38. “I decided last year that I wanted to open a restaurant dedicated to grilled cheese.” Gibson’s restaurant, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, is expected to open in two weeks in San Francisco and will feature eight or nine grilled cheese options, which will change seasonally.

“It’s such a great canvas with multiple textures, and can be made into anything, taking on components of other dishes,” Gibson said. Last year, her competition entry was inspired by butternut squash ravioli; this year, her sandwich, Sunday Brunch, was inspired by French toast and won her a judge’s choice award.

Gibson says she’s seen interest in grilled cheese grow over the past few years, adding that it’s part of a larger trend of gourmet-ing classic comfort foods like burgers, pizza, and macaroni and cheese.

“I think the trend is cyclical, based on what’s going on in our economy and culture,” she said. “When people feel unsettled and uneasy, they reach for comforting things — but their tastes have grown up, so they’re open to experimenting with different ingredients.”

John Mitchell, a college counselor who attended the event, agreed.

“In one word, grilled cheese is soothing,” he said. “Just like mom.”