• News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment

Battling for the Grilled Cheese Crown

Rico Gagliano

Larger view
'Backdoor Bettys' Sweet Surprise'
(Kevin Rolly)
View the Slideshow
Grilled Cheese Invitiational 2007

For five years, the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational has been held in artist lofts in downtown Los Angeles. But on April 19, the event goes national, and outdoors -- 140 chefs from around the country will gather in Griffith Park near downtown Los Angeles to decide who among them is this year's grilled cheese champion.

How to make a gourmet grilled cheese

But this ain't your mama's sandwich cook-off. The competition categories are named after sexual positions, for starters. Then there's the potential for serious injury or death: One year, a competitor cooked his sandwiches with a flamethrower. And competition is fierce. Don't believe me? Several years ago, reporter Rico Gagliano followed one of the chefs -- the champion of the first cook-off -- as she sought to regain her title. He brings us this flashback:

Linda Williamson is a mother of two, but more importantly the winner of the first-ever Grilled Cheese Invitational. In her kitchen, she struggles to devise another champion recipe. She knows only it will involve broiled squash.

Linda Williamson: Maybe I should find a way to integrate burnt cheese into the sandwich.

Rico Gagliano: And you could call it "The Burnt Sandwich."

Williamson: No, I will not change the name of my sandwich.

Gagliano: Which is, once again?

Williamson: "The Gorgonzola Mind Controlla: It's a hyper-cheese brain freeze."

It is also, to Linda, an instrument of revenge: See, at the previous year's invitational, she partnered with her friend Kasey.

Williamson: And we thought we had a sure-fire winner.

Gagliano: And what happened?

Williamson: We were robbed.

The event's creator, Tim Walker, admits the problem wasn't the sandwich -- it was the judges.

Tim Walker: The sandwich used mascarpone. To the untrained palate, it tastes like whipped cream, and a lot of people didn't think there was any cheese in the sandwich. The other thing was that the person who actually ended up winning for the category was my boyfriend.

Boyfriend Gallagher Lawson -- 6 foot 1, 160 pounds, with a sandwich that hit your face like a ton of delicious bricks. And it undeniably had cheese in it.

Gagliano: Are you worried this year emotions will be running a little high, and something could go down?

Walker: I believe so. But that's why we're gonna provide alcohol.

(Sound of crowd)

Walker: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the second-annual Grilled Cheese Invitational... Let the grilling commence!

Holly Rose Larson: My name is Holly Rose Larson, and I am cooking a sandwich entitled "Lick It" -- white country potato bread, Kraft American singles and Hershey's chocolate syrup.

Mayor Jim: Hi, I'm Mayor Jim, I'm working here with Tigger. We are recreating Christo's "Gates" in grilled cheese.

Gagliano: OK, tell us what's about to happen.

Jessie: This guy is about to eat a sandwich with ground-up light bulbs in it. I don't get it.

Dr. Tano: I'm Dr. Tano, tonight I'm a celebrity judge.

Gagliano: What's in the lead?

Dr. Tano: The "Cheezus Crust" was really good. Nothing too fancy about it -- it was cut into a cross.

Gagliano: The big throw-down of the night between Linda Williamson and Gallagher Lawson is a grudge match. You have a feeling about one or the other?

Dr. Tano: Gallagher's looked good, it looked like a thick crust. I'll be interested to see if he makes it work.

Gagliano: Gallagher Lawson?

Gallagher Lawson: Yes.

Gagliano: So, have you had a chance to go over to Linda's table and see how she's possibly doing? You think that you have some competition tonight?

Lawson: I haven't been able to go over there, and I don't plan to. I'm staying away from her.

Williamson: Oh, there goes Gallagher. Well, I've certainly upstaged him in the sartorial department already.

Gagliano: What are you wearing tonight?

Williamson: A Velveeta-orange silk skirt, topped with a blouse featuring the colors of broiled squash and grilled cheese.

Tim Walker (into microphone): I've also been handed a grilled cheese haiku. And it goes like this:

Hot cheesy goodness
Mmm, hot cheesy goodness, mmm
Hot cheesy goodness.

Thank you.

Gagliano: To you, what does the Grilled Cheese Invitational mean?

Participant one: It means normal people taking something mundane and turning it into art.

Participant two: I think a lot of people have that innate childhood attachment to the grilled cheese, something they didn't get from their mother -- a grilled cheese that they really wanted when they were very young, that they didn't get. So that's something I would never withhold from my child, is Wonder Bread and American cheese. Because I think we've seen the kind of damage that can do... It leads to things like this.

Hours pass. Hundreds of onlookers consume wave after wave of cheese. After her turn at the grill, Linda stands in a corner, looking spent.

Gagliano: How you feeling?

Williamson: Umm... Shaky.

Gagliano: Are you serious?

Williamson: My hands were shaking as I was putting the sandwiches off the spatula, yeah.

And finally, Tim Walker, scotch in hand, doles out the final award:

Walker: And in first place, we have... sandwich number 15, by Dora Nathan and Sam Dorasonen! "The Monte Cheesmoo!" (Audience cheers)

Williamson: So it's over for another year -- and another year I didn't bring home a trophy. I did get an honorable mention, which is better than nothing. Earlier in the evening -- it was probably a combination of nerves and having my hands full -- I didn't eat very much, and I was actually hungry and I proceeded to make myself a grilled cheese sandwich. And Tano, the judge -- who had eaten 40 grilled cheese sandwiches -- joined me, and I split one with him. If there's one person who can truly be called a grilled cheese champion, it's gotta be him.

Gagliano: What happens to a person after he samples that much grilled cheese?
Tano: Uh... he wants more. (Laughs)

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Weekend America.


The Mussolini
Winner, Kama Sutra category
2007 Grilled Cheese Invitational
By Patrick Grover

This is a cheese-and-prosciutto sandwich featuring "bread" made of a deep-fried mixture of cheese and polenta.

Step One: The Polenta
(as adapted from "The Balthazar Cookbook")

2 cups chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
2 cups dry cornmeal polenta (fine-ground)
1 stick butter, cut in to pieces
1 cup mascarpone
1/2 lb parmesan
1/4 lb asagio
salt, pepper to taste
1 teaspoon italian herbs
2 eggs beaten (egg wash)
Italian bread crumbs or panko

Bring chicken stock to a boil and keep warm over low flame.

Bring milk and half and half to a slow simmer and begin adding polenta, stirring continually. When polenta begins to thicken, add chicken stock slowly, allowing polenta to absorb it until reaching the consistency of oatmeal.

Add mascarpone, parmesean, asagio, herbs, salt and pepper and stir until mixed through and thick. Remove from heat and pour into a greased sheet pan so polenta is 1/2 inch thick. Cover and chill overnight.

When polenta is cold and hard, cut into circular rounds the size of a small biscuit. Dredge in egg wash and coat with Italian bread crumbs. Let cool again in refrigerator for one hour.

After one hour, deep fry polenta rounds at 350 degrees F until golden, making sure polenta stays together. This is the tricky part: only do a couple at a time, and be gentle! Drain off excess oil. When all are done, place in refrigerator till cold and firm again.

Step Two: Sandwich assembly

Polenta rounds as prepared above
triple cream brie (St. Andre's is good)
fresh basil leaves
prosciutto slices, cut into halves
basil pesto (homemade or store bought)

In batches over medium heat, place four of the polenta rounds into a lightly greased saute pan and cook till warm, again taking care not to damage them. Don't let them stick! Set aside.

Fry pieces of prosciutto till lightly crisp and set aside.

Place one piece of polenta on plate and add a slice of triple cream brie, a fresh basil leaf and a slice of prosciutto. Top with another polenta round. Garnish with a dash of pesto on top.

Eat. Enjoy. See if you can finish it.

"The Backdoor Bettys' Sweet Surprise"
Winner, Honeypot category
2007 Grilled Cheese Invitational
by Linda Williamson and Kasey McMahon

This is a "dessert grilled cheese" featuring a sweet mascarpone mixture, angel food cake "bread" and berry sauce. It's served open-faced. This is the same recipe which, at the 2004 Invitational, earned zero points from a judge who refused to believe there was any cheese in it.

Step one: Cake

Prepare Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker Angel Food Cake Mix according to package directions, using two loaf pans.

Step two: Mascarpone mixture

2 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese
2 egg yolks
1+ tbsp vanilla (to taste)
1/2 - 3/4 cups superfine or baker's sugar (to taste)
lemon juice (to taste)

Blend all ingredients in mixer. Beat until smooth.

Step three: Champagne sabayon
(from the Los Angeles Times Food section, Aug. 22, 2001, "Mastering Sabayon's Variations" by Carolyn Weil)

6 egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
1 cup champagne
Dash salt
1 cup whipping cream

Prepare a bowl full of ice and water, one that is large enough for the bowl that you'll be cooking the sabayon in to nest inside.

Place a medium stainless steel bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should be 1 inch above the water so it gets warm.

Remove the bowl from the heat, add the yolks and the 1/2 cup sugar and whisk them together. Whisk in the champagne. Set the bowl over the simmering water and continue whisking until the mixture becomes foamy and then thickens to a soft ribbon and reaches 165 to 175 degrees; this takes 7 to 10 minutes depending on the original temperature of the ingredients. Remove from heat and immediately float the bowl on the iced water. Stir occasionally until cool, 5 to 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar until soft, then fold into the chilled sabayon mixture. Serve chilled.

Step four: Berry sauce

3 cups blackberries
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar (depending on sweetness of berries - less is generally better to maintain tartness)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice; vary according to tartness of berries

Puree 3 cups berries with sugar and lemon juice in a blender. Pour mixture into a pot and simmer until sauce starts to thicken, about 10-15 minutes.

Step five: Sandwich assembly

Slice the angel food cake into 3/4" slices. Melt a combination of half salted, half unsalted butter in a pan and grill the cake slices on both sides.

Top the still-warm grilled cake with the mascarpone mixture, then top the open-faced sandwich with sabayon and berry sauce.

Pour additional sabayon and berry sauce on the plate and swirl together for garnish.

Garnish plate with whole berries and mint sprigs.

  • Music Bridge:
    Return to Stage One
    Artist: Dub Syndicate
    CD: Pounding System (On U Sound)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Jacqueline Lovell

    From Novi, MI, 04/19/2008

    What a fun story! I was eating lunch while I listened to the segment, and, let me tell you, by the end, I was regretting that I had not made myself grilled cheese.

    By joe alfaro


    the event is full, if you have not already signed up for their email list dont bother going because you wont get in..... thats pretty gay planning

    By Christy Reynolds

    From Huntington, MA, 04/19/2008

    I just loved listening to this report. It is so refreshing to hear about fun, happy things that are going on in the world. Thank you for taking the time and resources to report the everyday happenings in this country. It gives me hope.

  • Post a Comment: Please be civil, brief and relevant.

    Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. All comments are moderated. Weekend America reserves the right to edit any comments on this site and to read them on the air if they are extra-interesting. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting.

      Form is no longer active


    You must be 13 or over to submit information to American Public Media. The information entered into this form will not be used to send unsolicited email and will not be sold to a third party. For more information see Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Download Weekend America

Weekend Weather

From the January 31 broadcast

Support American Public Media with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
 ©2015 American Public Media