Tuesday, March 18, 2014

5 Questions With... The Grilled Cheese Invitational Founder On This Year's Final GCI

Twelve years ago a Los Angeleno by the name of Tim Walker had an ingenious idea: a celebration of grilled cheese and only grilled cheese. What started in his tiny apartment has grown over the years into an annual cheesy bacchanalia of thousands of competitors and grilled cheese tasters alike. However, like all great things, The Grilled Cheese Invitational will be coming to an end this year as Tim recently announced the April 12th GCI will be its last

As someone who has helped executive judge the past three GCIs I was greatly saddened by the news, yet I understood it. The GCI has grown so exponentially the past few years it was almost impossible to keep up with the demand. Tim and his crew have worked tirelessly to put on an amazing event - and they deserve a rest. That said, I am stoked for The Last Grilled Cheese Invitational and you should be too. Tim was generous enough to take the time to answer a few questions about the history of the event and what will make this final go around so special...

(Note: I threw in some of my favorite sandwiches from last year's events; photo cred: Aaron Horwitz)

1. Describe what the first GCI was like. Back then did you have any idea what it would become?

When I first started the event back in 2003, I really didn't know just how crazy it was going to become. At the beginning, it was a bunch of good friends, getting together for a party where we cooked and ate grilled cheese. That first time we had only 16 competitors and 90 people showed up to judge. Someone even showed up with a flamethrower to cook their grilled cheese (in my living room, no joke), which made us write our first rule of "No Flamethrowers!"

The event was a total blast and we all knew we were going to do a second event.

At the second event, we introduced trophies and that was the thing that made it take off. That's when it became bloodsport. 

Really, though, the moment that had the most effect on my was when we moved the event to Los Angeles Center Studios in 2010.

The crowd we had that year was sooo huge that it put me in to a state of shock as to just how crazy this thing had become.  From the very beginning, we've tried to make it as crazy and funny and FUN as we could and to be at that moment, where we had that many people who wanted to be a part of it was really an amazing thing.

2. Do you think there's something special about grilled cheese that transcends just being a sandwich?

I do. It's a gateway to gourmet. The Grilled Cheese sandwich was relegated, held prisoner even, to the kids menu at most restaurants.  Most everyone's first experience was with a grilled cheese that their mom made. It connects to the synapses in your brain where everything that ailed you, everything that you had to deal with at that time in your life, could be cured with something as simple and pure and good as a grilled cheese that your mom made for you.

Now that the marketplace has exploded with gourmet ingredients, one can build upon that experience and update it with a modern palate with unlimited possibilities and help serve as a spring board into more awesome fare.

3. What led you to decide this year would be the last Invitational?

This event has brought many people, myself included, an amazing amount of joy and craziness. When we started, the idea of gourmet grilled cheese didn't exist. 

Now the sandwich is more connected to the gourmet experience than the kids menu.

To change the course of food, to change the course of the american menu, is a crazy notion. 

The event has created empires. People who came to the event, competed and changed their lives forever, all because of a Grilled Cheese. The fact that you can get a damn good Grilled Cheese sandwich in pretty much every city across the country means we won the battle.

Most importantly, it's just....time. The event has been a backbreaking amount of work and each year it doesn't get any easier. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to take an underground and essentially illegal event and make it a real, public thing, without sacrificing the vibe and the original spirit with which the event was created. I think we've been largely successful with that. But it's come at a price. The event happens because of hundreds of volunteers and a key staff of volunteers who have put THOUSANDS of hours of sweat equity into the project. It's been a great time.  We've changed the world...and, well, we're all tired.

Initially, there wasn't going to be an event this year. We were all searching for the gumption and the reason to make it happen. I wasn't having any luck with sponsorship money, key staff were set on retiring, etc. so I had already called it as over.

But then I realized that it was unfair to do that to the fans, and everyone who helped make the event what it is. That in order to do this right, we should hold one, last Grilled Cheese Invitational and do so with the knowledge that it's the last and that we're here to celebrate our accomplishments and take a curtain call for what's been done.

4. What is your/are your favorite grilled cheeses from past GCIs?

Most of my favorites are from the dessert category, if only because before our event, the very notion of a dessert Grilled Cheese was Poppycock! In 2012, someone even candied actual $5 bills to add to the sandwich as accoutrement. Since the money was candied, it was technically not bribing the judges and we allowed it.

My most favorite Grilled Cheese was a dessert grilled cheese that my partner Gallagher won with in 2005.  It was homemade banana bread grilled in banana infused butter, with a frozen, rum infused ricotta cannoli filling and drizzled with homemade caramel. It was the Iced Italian Stallion, and it was out of this goddamn world.

5. Why should people -- both former attendees and newbies -- attend the last GCI?

People should still come to the event because it's still the craziest goddamn food based event, anywhere. It's not watching competitive eaters try for prize money, it's not a passive Rib Cook Off where all one is supposed to do is show up and eat, it's the Grilled Cheese Invitational! Where yelling is not only allowed, it's encouraged! It's the event where everyday people can transform into champions, all thanks to their creativity with the best damn sandwich America has ever seen.

Most importantly, though, you should buy tickets and come to the event to help me thank all the volunteers, all the key staff people, all the ordinary Joes and Josephines who spent a good amount of their valuable free time and effort to put on the cheesiest damn thing the world has ever seen.

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