For These Sandwich Lovers, the Cheese Stands Alone (video)


LOS ANGELES—Tim Walker, as a struggling comedy writer, came to appreciate the qualities of a reliable staple: the grilled cheese.

“It was the go-to cheap, easy-to-make sandwich,” he says. But he also found it “a gateway to gourmet food.” He experimented with a variety of preparations, including banana bread slices filled with ricotta. “There was a galaxy of possibilities though mostly grilled cheese was relegated to the children’s menu in restaurants.”

Over the years, his appetite and admiration grew, eventually culminating in the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, which attracts fans eager to display novel takes on the ultimate American comfort food.

The event is a testament to the nation’s grilled-cheese renaissance. That the humble gooey sandwich has gone gourmet is evidenced by trendy grilled-cheese trucks that tweet their whereabouts, the advent of top chefs divining grilled-cheese creations and the appearance of cookbooks devoted entirely to grilled-cheese recipes. The L.A. invitational has spawned regional competitions across the country.

“It’s the power of cheese,” says Mr. Walker, 38, unquestionably the Head Cheese at the invitational. “Cheese moves people,” he said, an orange fez on his head.

Many people have childhood memories of eating mom’s or grandma’s grilled sandwich: cheese singles shoved between two buttered slices of Wonder bread and suffused with TLC. In adult life, the classic is often a subsistence food for people like Mr. Walker.

What started in Mr. Walker’s living room eight years ago as a dare among friends has become an annual affair and migrated to ever-larger venues. This year’s event, held in a studio lot in downtown L.A., drew 221 contestants and 8,000 spectators. Creations bore such names as “Charlie’s Sheenwich” and “Jake the Snake,” after the pro wrestler.


Contestants could prepare sandwiches in categories ranging from only white bread, butter and cheese, to dessert grilled-cheese sandwiches.

In 50-minute heats, they grilled 20 samples, delivered by “cheese runners” to “spectator judges,” members of the public who paid $12 to attend, and “executive judges,” who included food critics, restaurant owners and cheese connoisseur Laura Werlin, who just published her second grilled-cheese cookbook.

“This brings grilled cheese to where it ought to be,” said Ms. Werlin. “It shouldn’t be haute cuisine,” she says.

Guillermo Macias, captain of the “Cheesy Nerdz” team built the “Whole Enchilada,” a grilled cheese, enchilada-style. He pressed minced chicken, mild and pepper jack cheddar between two potato-bread slices. Over the grilled sandwich, he added a dash of chives, olives and crumbled Mexican cheese, as well as a squirt of secret enchilada sauce.

“It’s the piñata of grilled cheese,” said Lee Berg, who attended the event.

Mr. Macias, assuming a nerdy air in a checkered button-down shirt, tie and oversize glasses, spoke tenderly of the essential ingredients: “bread, butter, cheese and loooove.”

In real life, he puts out forest fires. “I’m a fireman; don’t tell anybody,” he whispered, before noting that he used fellow firemen as guinea pigs for his cheesy concoctions.

Computer repairman Matt LaForest, decked out in a rubber-cheese crown and robe, prepared a sandwich of enriched white bread, three Kraft singles and butter. “If you don’t like this, you’re not American,” he said. His team, all residents of an apartment complex in Hollywood, christened the entry “Your Mom.”

Nearby, Maria Dimakos, who is of Greek descent, led a team called “My Big Fat Cheese Kitchen” that grilled a heart-shaped American-style sandwich.

As chefs grilled, amateur poets on stage recited verses: “I have a cheese disease. A burger without cheese is a blasphemy,” began one.

The invitational may have started on a lark, but it has changed the lives of some contestants. Repeat winner Heidi Gibson jettisoned her career as a web producer to open a restaurant, “American Grilled Cheese Kitchen,” in San Francisco.

Scientist Mike Davidson, who won a trophy in 2009, has since started a grilled-cheese mobile cart in Berkeley. The “GrilledCheezGuy,” as he’s known, also caters private events.

“I’m hoping to quit my job in medical diagnostics and do cheese full-time,” says Mr. Davidson.

His team’s winning entry this year was “The Brick is the Trick,” thanks to a technique passed to him by his French grandmother, who used a brick wrapped in foil to press her grilled-cheese sandwiches. (He used two bricks to press down on each sandwich.)

The invitational has a cult following among a hipster thirtysomething crowd, and Mr. Walker says he was able to attract 150 volunteers. “The event is done for the love of cheese, not money,” says Mr. Walker.

Since last year, Tillamook, an Oregon cheese-farmer cooperative, has been a sponsor. Mendocino Farms, a small local sandwich chain, donated $5,000 to the extravaganza.

All told, nearly 50 prizes were distributed to contestants.

The “Cheesy Nerdz” won several trophies, including a Judge’s Award for their “Whole Enchilada.” This week, the owners of Mendocino Farms will sell the sandwich for one week, with proceeds going to the American Red Cross for disaster relief in Japan.

The official grilled-cheese champion, for the highest scored sandwich, was a husband-wife team whose grilled-cheese dessert was assembled with ingredients including marshmallow Peeps. After savoring victory, “we’re going back to our day jobs,” said Brian Beecher, a lawyer, standing next to his wife, Crystal, who is a teacher.