“Are you going to enter the Grilled Cheese Invitational this year?”
I got asked this question numerous times over the last month as the Grilled Cheese Invitational, which took place on April 24th, approached. Every single time, I answered with an emphatic “no.” Then I had to go into an explanation as to why I thought the event was a travesty. Last year, it too over two hours to get into the venue. Then there was another line to get into the beer garden. And yet another like to get a quarter grilled cheese sandwich made with Kraft individually-wrapped slices. The only thing that didn’t have a line was samples from the contestants. That involved an anarchic scrum that you fought through. Then you had to yell really obnoxiously or show boobies to get the attention of whoever was handing out grilled cheese samples. Needless to say, it was not fun.
It wasn’t that fun as a competitor either. Last year, I signed myself up to see how I’d do. I decided to sign up for the “Kama Sutra” division, which is the toughest one. Basically, anything goes. Meat, bread, accompaniments, whatever your imagination can come up with, it can go in the sandwich. The defending champion was Eric Greenspan, head chef at the Foundry and a competitor on The Next Iron Chef. He was the judge this time, but I entered the same competition as several professional chefs. I am not a professional, not even close. I did have three lovely assistants, Abigail, Ella and Hilary, and $200 with which to spend.
After a few weeks of deliberations, I decided on a Korean grilled cheese. It was when the Kogi BBQ trucks just got big, and I’m Korean, so I thought I had a decent chance to do well. After several test sandwiches at a dinner party hosted by my friends Mike and Becca, I decided on a sandwich based around galbi jjim, or braised Korean short ribs, Abondance cheese, a semi-hard raw cow’s milk cheese from France that tastes like a slightly more pungent Cheddar, and sesame bread. I actually stole the basic concept from Greenspan’s winning grilled cheese the previous year, which was braised short ribs and taleggio. Galbi jjim is a very traditional Korean dish, but it’s not too popular outside of Korean homes. Since the braising liquid is almost the same as a Korean BBQ marinade, I thought it’d be accessible enough. As for the cheese, Abigail got me in touch with Andrew’s Cheese Shop in Santa Monica and after several tastings, Abondance was the best choice. At the last moment, I decided to add pickled shallots, made to taste like white kimchi or the Japanese tsukemono, for some crunch and a sharp flavor to cut the richness of fatty meat and fatty cheese.
The sandwich turned out pretty good. I brought my own pan for the competition, but the gas burner was too weak to heat it in time, so I used the smaller, cheaper griddle the competition provided. Because of heat issues, I also undercooked quite a bit of sandwiches, and my friend Katie said she got one where the cheese was still shredded. It was chaotic in the beginning, but as the 30-minute time limit elapsed, we all settled into a rhythm. Abigail did prep work in back, Ella was a one-woman assembly line, Hilary worked the crowd and won votes, and I cooked and flipped. The last sandwich was for the judges, and for Mr. Greenspan himself. Despite the undercooked sandwiches beforehand, this was the one that mattered. I cooked it carefully to a crisp, golden finish, and the cheese properly fused the bread and meat together. I delivered it to Eric, who asked what it was. “It’s a Korean grilled cheese, with short ribs,” I answered. He looked at it, took a bite, and then proclaimed it “awesome.”
The sandwich was awesome, but not awesome enough to win. I lost to a sandwich that had rabbit confit slow-cooked in duck fat. There was another sandwich that used foie gras. It seems that bigger was better, and the more luxurious ingredients, the better the result. Even though I spent a little over $200, I could not and would not keep up with the grilled cheese arms race. Our sandwich was well received, and at the end we only had a one word compliment from Greenspan as a reward for all our time, money and effort we put in. Awesome indeed.
The recipe for my Korean grilled cheese will run tomorrow.