GCI was the Big Cheese


You can’t possibly be thinking about how much alcohol you shouldn’t have consumed at the seventeen Halloween parties you went to this weekend, or what kind of witty and ironic costume you’re going to make for the ones you’ll attend on Wednesday (because lord knows you can’t show up in the same thing you wore all weekend). No, I’m sure what you’re really wondering is: how was Oakland’s first Grilled Cheese Invitational?

The answer: badass.

Everyone knows it isn't really a party until someone dons a horse head.

There were hipsters. There were burners. There were Oakland locals. Someone brought his mom. There were even paparazzi (well, local photojournalists, including someone from going.com and a freelancer who specializes in gourmet food). There were Miller High Life tallboys. And there were, of course, grilled cheese sandwiches.

Co-organizer (and Oakland version founder) Normal poses with Tim Walker, the Man Who Started It All.

I was a volunteer for the event, which meant I got my own paper lab coat (lab coats and paper hats being, of course, the identifying uniforms of organizers and helpers) and experienced the whole event from backstage. And this was no small task. I had to assemble numbered paper plates in 30 stacks, for each of the contestant teams. And once my assigned cooks started grilling, I had to be on hand to rush their freshly-made sandwiches to the judging table in the main room, where revelers stood in Disneyland-like lines for a chance to taste, and judge, their creations. All of this while also swilling beers, smoking cigarettes, socializing with friends who magically made it past the backstage barrier, and dodging other volunteers with arms full of their own teams’ molten cheese sculptures. Oh, and there was some tasting of sandwiches too. Poor, poor me.

So these might not have scored that high on appearance, but nothing looks good when it's in your stomach -- which is where these sammiches belong.

The best part was watching the various teams work. There was hipster argyle sweater boy, who grilled with a serious quietness that was almost disturbing. There was the team of cooks wearing pig noses, including one chef in a maid’s outfit, who spoke with French accents while heating croissant-based concoctions. And I particularly loved M., one of my assigned cooks, who wore hot pink hair, a matching hot pink fake-fur coat, and the most gorgeous red Fluevog boots I’ve ever seen.

Those cooks are pigs. Ha ha. (They also passed out recipe-appropriate stickers that said “Lavender makes me come.”)

But just because there’s a certain level of silliness that’s accepted – nay, expected – at the Grilled Cheese Invitational doesn’t mean the cooks didn’t take their sandwiches (or, in GCI speak, sammiches) seriously. No matter how much laughing and posturing was going on before it was time for a particular team to grill (such as one duo, who debated what to call their three-cheese sandwich and finally settled on Fromage a Trois), it was all focus and fried bread when it came time to cook.

The results? I can’t remember who won what, and the organizers haven’t posted winners online yet (probably because the founder of the Oaklnad version, Normal, is orchestrating a move back to L.A. – boo!), but I do remember what I thought of what I tasted. The lavender-infused croissant was interesting, but didn’t excite me. I tried several sweet options which were all inventive, but couldn’t hold a candle to any of the savory ones (not that they had to – they had their own category). And I found one version, a pancake with cheese sauce and a bit of fruit, a very very radical interpretation of the “grilled cheese” concept. But my favorite of all favorites was probably the simplest: cheese pressed between two pieces of bread that – here’s the clincher – was sprinkled with cheese itself. Something about that extra cheese just added the flavor and the crunch that catapulted this particular sandwich from good to we-all-remember-it-even-though-we-were-drunk.

Look at the trophy! Now that’s something Mom (yup, that’s his) can put on the mantle.

After my work was done, I finally got to join the crowd inside Eli’s for dancing – and the award ceremony. Like I said, I don’t much remember who won what. But I do remember the highlight of the evening -- GCI founder Timothy Walker presenting Normal with a special prize for organizing the first satellite GCI: a rubber horsehead, which she proceeded to wear while giving your “thank you” speech.

I have doubts that the event would impress any serious foodies – though there were whisperings of cave-aged cheddar and artisanal bread. But I don’t think it disappointed a single person who showed up, even after waiting in longer-than-expected lines to get in. Like I’ve said, you just can’t go wrong with grilled cheese.

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