Bizarre as it sounds, the grilled cheese sandwich’s fame can be likened to that of Neil Patrick Harris. Both first resonated with a younger audience and were pigeonholed for a while — NPH as Doogie Howser and the grilled cheese as a cheap kid’s menu item.
But in recent years both have managed to surprise us and rise to even greater fame. Harris sings, dances, acts and hosts, and the grilled cheese sandwich now stars in imaginative and sophisticated roles on grown-up menus everywhere. And while NPH doesn’t have an event dedicated to him (yet), the grilled cheese does: the Grilled Cheese Invitational.
Started eight years ago as a party in a Downtown L.A. apartment, the Grilled Cheese Invitational has exploded into a massive meeting of chefs, foodies and grilled cheese lovers. This year’s event, arriving on April 24th at Los Angeles Center Studios, should be no different. The admission line for last year’s GCI stretched farther than a ton of melted Gruyère, as 5,400 people tried to gain access to an event prepared for 3,500 people. “That was one of the drawbacks of not having advanced ticket sales,” says organizer Tim Walker. “We’ve taken huge steps this year to make it more fun for everybody and less hassle.”
In the past the GCI was solely a cooking competition, with amateur and professional chefs battling in three categories: Missionary, pure, plain bread-and-cheese creations; Kama Sutra, a wide array of exotic cheese, bread, fillings and seasonings; and Honey Pot, the dessert offerings. While the categories remain, this year 50 chefs and 250 amateurs will compete separately for their own respective trophies to even the playing field, with the winner of the overall highest score receiving the grand prize.
A major change that should get guests to their grilled cheese glory more efficiently is advanced online ticket sales and judging registration, both of which Walker predicts will run out prior to the event. Something else to note is that there are judging spots for only 1,700 of the 8,000 people expected, but the GCI will be as much a festival as a judging event. “The contest is still going to be a big part of the event,” says Walker. “There’s only so many judges you can have because of the number of samples.”
Those unable to get a judging spot can partake of the offerings from at least 13 vendors serving grilled-cheese fare at reduced portions and prices, to encourage maximum sampling. Many of the merchants are food trucks, and anyone who has ever been to a food truck or who attended the densely populated First Annual LA Street Food Fest knows customers aren’t scarce, so small satellite kitchens will help prepare food quicker.
Dave Danhi and Michele Grant started the Grilled Cheese Truck after Danhi witnessed last year’s GCI hoopla, and now devotees flock to the truck like tweens to a Justin Bieber concert. The life-changing cheesy mac and rib melt debuted at the GCI and is now the truck’s most popular item. They’ll be at the festival this year, along with the Border Grill Truck, the Oaks Gourmet, the new food truck — er, bus — called the Bustaurant, CoolHaus and the Sweets Truck.
Past festival competitor Heidi Gibson, who will open the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco soon, is also on the roster, as are Hot Knives, an enthusiastic duo that usually perform demos at the GCI, and Foundry chef Eric Greenspan, who will have a pop-up restaurant.
“I’m looking forward to the sense of community that is the Grilled Cheese Invitational,” says Greenspan, who has judged and competed in past GCIs and is opening a grilled cheese restaurant this summer. “It’s a far more relaxed environment than I get to work in. It’s getting outside and having a good time; that’s what it’s about.” Greenspan knows a thing or two about good grilled cheese, creating the lauded Foundry sandwich that combines taleggio, raisin bread and apricot-caper puree — short ribs optional.
“Be creative but don’t sleep on technique, Greenspan advises competitors. “Food is a sensual experience. You are looking at it; you’re touching it to make sure it’s crispy; you’re smelling it to make sure they’re using a good funky cheese.”
Pre-sale tickets for the GCI are going up to $10 this year ($15 at the event if there are tickets left), but Tillamook will be disbursing thousands of free sandwiches and cheese samples, and other food and drink freebies will also be offered. A beer and wine garden will make its debut this year, with proceeds benefitting green-power nonprofit Black Rock Solar.
Walker advises getting there early, especially since the gates will likely open at 11:30 a.m. if a large line forms. It should be legen… wait for it… dary. Or in this case, dairy.
8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational
Saturday, April 24, noon – 6 p.m.
Los Angeles Center Studios, 1201 W. 5th St., Downtown
Buy tickets, register to judge or compete, and learn more at grilledcheeseinvitational.com