It’s a fierce competition – one of extreme energy, exuberant creativity, outrageous flavors and evident comradery. It’s Chicago’s one and only Grilled Cheese Competition and it’s one of my favorite events of the year.
In it’s sixth year, the event has grown from a cute contest among friends within the confines of an apartment to an epic battle of butter, bread and cheese among some of the most talented grilled cheese chefs at extraordinary Chicago venues. This year, 16 teams stood their ground around a grill for a place in the Top 3 and a coveted #GrillChzComp spatula. Set your eye on this prize:
It was my third year competing in the competition. I had developed an unwarranted confidence in my abilities with a 2nd place win in my rookie year (It seems I forgot that I nearly disqualified Team Big Pimpin’ Spending Cheese by accidentally dumping our completed plate of sandwiches into dirty dishwater. I’m not kidding, and no, not one of my finest moments). Due largely in part to my partner Jimmy’s tucked-in tie, moving speech, and bacon jam – we took home a top spot.;
In my second year, my sister and brother-in-law came in from Michigan to take part in this cheesy conquest. The competition outgrew Ken and Elena’s apartment and they found a new arena at Calphalon Kitchen in West Loop. As my brother-in-law is a not certified but certainly qualified chef – I thought we had a pretty good shot at the top 3. We built a french toast grilled cheese featuring three french cheeses. Aptly named, Team Fromage a Trois, my sister presented our grilled cheese completely in French (I held up the cue cards). We didn’t end up placing in the competition, but c’est la vie – we had so much fun pulling it all together.
With both of my prior teams out of state, I was in search of a whole new team. My roommate Sam and friend Katie accepted the challenge. We arrived at the Jackson Junge Art Gallery in Wicker Park toting a magic bag of tricks. We knew it would take something real special to outplay these skilled competitors – so we turned to Walter White for the guidance we needed.
Team Breaking Bread:
As part of my 2015 new year resolutions, I gave up bread. I initially thought this disqualified me from the competition as bread is one of the three required ingredients. But, with a nudge from Ken and Elena I started to survey breadless options. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but we came across a recipe for a faux bread made of cauliflower. My first trial run wasn’t perfect – but it had potential. With a few tweaks, it was better than the real thing. See recipe here.
The rest of our sandwich took on a buffalo chicken theme. We made our own cheesy concoction out of buffalo cheddar, cream cheese, wing sauce, and grilled chicken. We spread it over our cauliflower toast and topped with chopped celery and green onions, more wing sauce and bleu cheese.
I totally loved our theme this year- especially the table tents, business cards and costumes. It was so much fun to create and prepare for. When it came down to presentation time, we were a little disappointed as the bread didn’t hold as well when cut into smaller pieces. Overall, we thought we still had a pretty good sandwich – but the competition brought it. Exhibit A: Grilled Cheese in a Box.
Some of the others that deserve an honorable mention were a Korean inspired grilled cheese that included homemade kimchi and pork belly, the 60s housewives grilled cheese made by “The Betty’s” served alongside a jello mold dessert, and a European delight that was served with some special sauce that everyone seemed to rave about. Unfortunately, as I couldn’t eat bread, I couldn’t try any of them in their complete state. But, it seemed like there were a whole heck of a lot of winners out there.
The real winners, are my pals Ken and Elena that put this on every year. They do this just for something unique and fun to do, and at no expense to any of the participants. In fact, instead of asking for any money at all – they encourage participants to donate what they can to the Chicago Food Bank. They are a pair of the most caring, creative and interesting people in this whole, wide world. And, I get to have them as a part of my world! How lucky am I?! For further evidence of their awesomeness – check out this post about their wedding at Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin.
It was another night for the record books. Want to see who took home the #1, #2 & #3 spot this year? Check out this video recap: