4/22/2013 03:33:00 PM

Scenes From the Grilled Cheese Invitational + Our Winners!

There is no denying the beauty in a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich, one with a great cheese, good bread and just the right amount of butter. And what about a version with vanilla sprinkle challah, Rice Krispie treats, birthday cake crunchies, and American, blue, cheddar and goat cheeses? Mmm... not so much. But you get the full spectrum of sandwich creativity at the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, which took place last Saturday, an event that's part cooking competition (pro and amateur), part food-truck fest, part beer garden and all sorts of crazy.

This writer has willfully served as an Executive Judge for four years running, and it's a highlight of our year. Organizers Tim Walker, who dons an orange fez for the occasion, and the Mayor of Cheese, aka Montano Sokolow, have worked hard to improve what has become one of the funkier food fests in town. This year it returned to the Los Angeles Studios lot, which provides space (and shade!) for the cooking competition that's separated for us and the paying judges, the crowd who screams and chants for their chance to taste and vote on some of the grilled cheese creations, with room for a slew of food trucks and stands, live music, eating contests and beer. Everything 4/20 needs, right?

While there's a lot to eat around the event, the competition is definitely the highlight. You'd be amazed at what people deem a grilled cheese and how good (and downright awful) some combinations can be. There were three heats with about 80 people competing, each cooking on little pans set up along a few long tables. The categories range from the basic (cheese, bread and butter) to the wacky (any cheese, breadlike vehicle and fat). The exec judges pick their own winners for each heat to receive a trophy, and this year we had some fantastic-tasting sandwiches, both savory (beer bread with cheddar and bacon guacamole) and sweet (the Cheese Store of Beverly Hill's amazing "cannoli" made with homemade Hawaiian bread, ricotta and mascarpone, chocolate chips and Cap'n Crunch cereal).
Only judging one heat, we were personally torn between two Honey Pot, or dessert, sandwiches for our trophy. On one hand, two guys who won the Austin Grilled Cheese Invitational with a powdered sugar donut fried in butter and filled with mascarpone, a strip of crisp bacon and a dusting of crushed-up pistachios killed it for us. It was just so simple and in some crazy way, utterly delicious. But in the end we went with locals and first-time GCIers, Joe Harkenrider and TJ Peters, a couple of screenwriters who, in hipster nautical wear, cooked up the triple-decker Napoleon Fromage Homage: three layers of sandwich filled with creamy fontina, blueberry-studded sharp white cheddar and a chocolate cheese, served with a side of maple syrup.

A fellow judge made the excellent point that if you didn't get a bite of all three together, the sandwich was sort of meh, but we thought the cheeses were all perfectly melted, evenly divided and tasted great together. And to us it had excellent "Wessonality," meaning it was definitely unique and special. As in, have you ever had chocolate cheese? It was witty, cooked well and tasted pretty darn good. Winner-winner for us (PS: Harkenrider also took home 1st prize for the amateur Honey Pot competition, as voted in by the hungry hordes.) Check out the slide show for more highlights from the day, and look for the full list of winners on the GCI website soon.


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