Big Changes Bring Bigger, Cheesier Grilled Cheese Invitational

It started as a casual throwdown in Tim Walker's loft, but this year the Grilled Cheese Invitational is growing much bigger and much, much cheesier. After last year's invitational drew record crowds (and record annoyances), Walker (a.k.a. Captain Shady) decided to reboot the event and turn it into a more expansive celebration of grilled cheese rather than a simple cooking contest. For the 8th annual Grilled Cheese Invitational (Twitter: @grilldcheez), to be held the end of April, he's made some major changes by bringing on Tillamook as a sponsor, creating a competitive division solely for professional chefs, adding cheese-themed activities for spectators and bringing in vendors to sell grilled cheese sandwiches for $2-3. (Check out pictures from last year.)

Long lines -- to get in, to get samples and to try the entries cooked up by hundreds of contestants -- plagued last year's event, which drew 5,400 people. At this year's event, a complete reboot of the GCI concept, Walker expects to draw 8,000 to 10,000 people. "It grew so huge I couldn't effectively put it on and have the competition be the only event," Walker says. "We're only going to have 250 competitors. So if the event is going to continue to grow, I need to make it fun for everybody and not just for the 1,500 people lucky enough to register as judges." Look for cooking demos, a costume contest, standup comedy and 10,000 free sandwiches grilled up by Tillamook.

Short rib grilled cheese sandwich at 8 oz. Burger Bar
Short rib grilled cheese sandwich at 8 oz. Burger Bar

A thoroughly egalitarian affair -- it's grilled cheese, after all; how serious can you get? -- the winners of the amateur division will pit their sandwiches against the winners in the pro division. The overall champion will earn a trophy "that's probably bigger than they are," Walker says. As usual, the contest, for both pros and amateurs, will be divided into three categories Missionary (traditional sandwiches made with only bread, butter and cheese), Kama Sutra (anything goes) and Honey Pot (dessert sandwiches).

One more highlight, look for some kind of collaboration with the Grilled Cheese Truck. After all, it was at last year's Grilled Cheese Invitational that chef Dave Danhi was inspired to launch his truck. Also, look for an appearance by Heidi Gibson, the invitational's most lauded contestant. The six-time champion is in the final stages of prepping her restaurant, American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, to open in San Francisco.

The 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational will be held April 24 with registration starting April 1 (or possibly the last week of March if Walker gets his act together). The location will be announced in March. Tickets will cost $10 and must be purchased in advance. The first 1,500 people to buy tickets online can sign up to be judges. Judges will be able to try at least three different samples. And to cut through all the grease and starch, there will be a beer and wine garden with up to four breweries and four wineries.

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