6 hours, 82 sandwiches and one really bad lactose hangover, I survived another Grilled Cheese Invitational. Far better organized than last year's nightmare of an event, the 2010 GCI was bigger, cheesier and much tougher to win.
With over 230 competitors, your sandwich has to be more than tasty, it has to be memorable. I love bacon and caramelized onions as much as the next food nerd, but everyone's using bacon and caramelized onions in their sandwiches. A winning entry succeeds on three levels: originality, execution and visual appeal. And a losing sandwich? I only tasted one that required me to suppress my gag reflex: an inexplicable mix of blue cheese, chocolate and raspberries.
As an “executive judge,” I was able to step onto the cooking field and sample as many entries as my distended belly could handle. I also had the privilege of selecting a sandwich for my personal Judge's Award. At first glance, I recoiled from the nuclear red triangle that is The Jakester. The mashup of ingredients didn't improve its appeal: chorizo, grilled portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, some kind of cheese (I'd be lying if I said I could read my grease-stained notes) and a Flamin' Hot Cheeto crust. I was surprised to discover that, like The Pixies with their improbable mix of surf guitar and punk, this sandwich inexplicably and totally worked. And it was invented by 10-year-old Jake Ortiz Feldman, perhaps the youngest competitor in GCI history.
Last year's event was plagued by massive lines, a near inability to sample contestants' sandwiches and not much to do but queue for samples at the Kraft booth. This year, you could get free samples at the Tillamook booth (a new sponsor). You could purchase food from various food trucks including The Sweets Truck, Coolhaus, Border Grill, Worldfare bustaurant and, of course, The Grilled Cheese Truck. You could sample grilled cheese from restaurants like The Oaks Market and Oak Fire Pizzeria as well as professional chefs.
Chef Eric Greenspan, in addition to competing in the Pro Division (a new feature), was cooking up sandwiches at his booth. It was a chance to preview the sandwiches at The Grilled Cheesery, the restaurant he plans to open in late summer next to The Foundry. Perennial GCI winner Heidi Gibson brought two massive griddles and the crew from her upcoming San Francisco restaurant, American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, to the competition. After winning a Judge's Choice award for her Sunday Brunch sandwich, she let out her trademark scream.
Their forearms red from the hot sun, their fingertips burned from the hot sandwiches, the winners held their trophies aloft. A disturbing affection for curdled dairy products? Probably. A culinary achievement? Definitely.
Check out more pictures after the jump, and see more at the Guzzle & Nosh Flickr page.