Tim Walker: The Grilled Cheese King
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Glendale, Tim Walker stands outside the Grilled Cheese Truck, describing its signature sandwich to a prospective customer the way a proud parent might describe his firstborn child: the Cheesy Mac and Rib, an insanely indulgent (and popular) combination of barbecued pulled pork, caramelized onions, sharp cheddar and, yes, macaroni and cheese, all stuffed between two slices of grilled French bread.
Walker, the founder and "Chief Instigator" of the Grilled Cheese Invitational and now a consultant for the Grilled Cheese Truck, concludes his rhapsody with a flourish: "And then they throw it at your face, and you catch it like a dog catches a Frisbee!"
The customer orders the Cheesy Mac and Rib.
To say the 40-year-old Walker is obsessed with grilled cheese "sammiches" (as he likes to call them) would be an understatement. Since founding the Grilled Cheese Invitational, his annual silly-yet-serious cooking competition, in 2003, he has become a madcap yet undeniably influential figure in the world of gourmet comfort food.
"It's crazy to see how something as ridiculous as a grilled cheese sandwich can change people's lives," he marvels, sitting on the curb to scarf down another Grilled Cheese Truck offering, the French Onion Soup sandwich (Gruyère with "onion soup" confit and Parmesan crust — Walker is a vegetarian, so it's a favorite of his). Even dressed casually in a khaki shirt and white sneakers, his dimpled chin, black-framed glasses and well-coiffed hair make him look like a Mad Men extra. "In a million years, this wasn't what I was expecting to do with my life."
When Walker held the first Grilled Cheese Invitational in his loft in 2003, he was a semiprofessional actor and comedy writer, part of a cult comedy troupe called the Ministry of Unknown Science. The troupe sold a pair of pilots (neither of which aired), but by 2007, he was beginning to realize that "being an actual performer wasn't gonna be in the cards for me."
But as his comedy career was ending, the Invitational was blowing up. In 2008, Walker moved the once-private event to Griffith Park, where 1,500 would-be judges showed up for 126 sandwich makers. (Judges, like competitors, now must register in advance.) "The year that it all changed was when we started doing trophies. That's when it went from being a party to people [being] dead serious about winning the event."
Among the competitors was Foundry chef Eric Greenspan, a 2008 Invitational champ who will open his long-awaited Greenspan's Grilled Cheese restaurant later this year.
"There's a whole society of cheese fiends in L.A. now," Walker proudly says. That includes his new boss, Grilled Cheese Truck founder Dave Danhi, who first competed in the Invitational in 2009. There are now three Grilled Cheese Trucks in Los Angeles and two in Phoenix; under Walker's direction, they hope to roll out additional trucks in Austin, Chicago and elsewhere around Southern California by year's end.
Walker says the Grilled Cheese Truck is "the most popular food truck in the world," based on Twitter and Facebook followers. But he doesn't attribute this to any marketing genius on his or Danhi's part. "It's because it's grilled cheese," he says simply. "Everybody loves grilled cheese.
"When you were sick, when you broke your arm or whatever — you ate a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup that your mom made. So I feel like the starting point for everybody is that. It's connecting you to that time when all you really needed to be happy was a sandwich."
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