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Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship - Take 2

Sunday, April 19, 2015

After months of brainstorming and carrying out practice rounds, the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship has officially come and gone, marking its 4th year.  For those not too familiar with the event, feel free to scan through last year's post about the event to learn about the different categories you can enter in, the main rules, and the general flow of the day.  For everyone else, let's delve into what's happened over the past few months, and more importantly, what happened yesterday at the competition.
Although it's been in the back of my mind since last April, I really didn't start coming up with a new idea until a couple months ago.  My first idea was a play on a caprese salad, incorporating the standard ingredients (and colors) into some Mascarpone, but I really wasn't a fan of the end product.  The second idea centered around thyme, roasted mushrooms, and caramelized onions, but no matter what I did, the flavors just didn't pop; so it too was out.  Probably a month ago now, I decided to carry out my original idea that I threw aside for whatever reason: a southwest grilled cheese.  I'd have to use a nice mix of roasted peppers, maybe incorporate lime, make some salted tortilla strips, and then find a nice blend of cheeses that complimented everything.  Flash-forward through a few taste testings at home and with some good friends at their place, as well as a fine-tuning session the night before the competition with some co-workers, and I finally had my entry.   My final sandwich consisted of the following:

  1. Roasted pepper and mole sauce, made from roasting jalapenos, poblanos, garlic cloves, onions, and tomatillos, blending everything with chipotles, adobo sauce, and mole sauce, simmering with cinnamon sticks and cloves, and passing everything through a sieve for a nice consistency.
  2. Bacon compote made from cooking diced bacon with some onions, garlic cloves, and peppers, and then combining with a few other ingredients to give it some acidity and sweetness.
  3. Crushed chocolate with cayenne and chili powder mixed in.
  4. Tomato-based salsa with lime zest and juice, red onion, and cilantro.
  5. Homemade salted tortilla strips.
  6. Pepper jack from Roth Kase of Monroe, Wisconsin.
  7. Monterey Jack with Chipotle from Babcock Dairy of Madison, Wisconsin.
  8. Queso Fresco from Roth Kase of Monroe, Wisconsin.
  9. Sourdough.
  10. Salted butter from PastureLand of Belleville, Wisconsin.
The sandwich was definitely original.  It had different textures going on.  It was savory yet sweet.  It had a nice layering effect going on with the different flavors.  And most importantly, it had three different types of cheese that each brought something different to the table.  After carefully assembling each ingredient between two honking big pieces of sourdough, grilling it perfectly with the help of some family friend's local butter, and I finally had a sandwich that I was happy with and ready to compete with.  After a long day of work on Friday and some additional hours working on the sandwich after work, I called it a night.

The day of the competition started out different than last year's due to the fact that I was competing with three other co-workers, rather than just by myself.  We all met up at work by 9am, packed up everything in a giant cooler, hit the road, and made it to Dodgeville by 10am.  Following a brief competitor's meeting and a few cold refreshments that hit the spot, the competition officially began.  Co-worker Steve started things off with the Professional Classic category, followed by head chef AJ with the Professional Plus One category, co-worker Nick and myself competing against eachother in the Professional Plus Extras category, and finally AJ finishing out the day in the Professional Dessert category.

Unlike last year, I now knew what to expect, so the nerves weren't quite as high, although they were still there.  I decided to have Steve as my "official helper" during the heat, so that helped out too.  By the end of the 15 minutes, I felt great about how it went.  I used the full time since I needed to warm the center of a pretty hefty sandwich, but was careful not to overdo the browning.  With a minute to go, I quartered one of the two sandwiches for the judges and garnished the second sandwich for the presentation aspect of the competition.

The results for my heat were announced sooner than I anticipated, and sadly, I didn't hear my name.  After looking at the final scores for everyone, there was a clear first and second place finisher, scoring 138 and 136 respectively.  And then the next four entrees read 127, 127, 126, and 126.  As you've pieced together by now, I shared the 126 with someone else, and thus was a point away from placing.

After the in-the-moment disappointment wore off, I was able to see past the numbers and see how today was still a success.  First off, I not only came up with an original sandwich that I was happy with but I also prepared it during the competition exactly as I hoped to.  This year I was able to experience the weeks leading up to the event as well as the actual competition with some co-workers of mine who kept everything fun yet competitive at the same time.  On a similar note, two great friends (and official grilled cheese taste testers), my younger sister, as well as my aunt all showed up to support me (in addition to texts from other family members wishing me luck the day of).  Despite not walking home with a trophy like last year, I can proudly say that I gave it my all and wouldn't have changed a thing.  Combine that outcome with support from friends and family and you've got yourself a pretty fun day.

With that, I now have 364 days left before the 5th Annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship.  Switching up to the Professional Dessert category sounds like a good place to start...

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2 comments

  1. You did excellent TJ. Not what you probably expected, but that 126 tells me that you are among the grilled cheese elite!

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