One Saturday morning when Ben, my hubster, came into the kitchen he sat down at the island work table. It looked like a bomb had gone off…the table was laden with everything—cheeses, fruits, breads, greens, butter, meats, veggies. I knew what I was doing, but he didn’t. I’d seen a contest for a grilled cheese sandwich with Wisconsin Cheese and the Grilled Cheese Academy—the deadline was looming dangerous close. I said to myself ‘reeeeally, how difficult could it be to come up with an innovative cheese sandwich?’ I could kill two birds with one stone—Ben was hungry and needed something to eat, so I’d just do double duty—feed him and maybe create something winning.
That’s probably the best thing I did—I didn’t overthink this contest, unlike others! I really wanted to just use whatever I had in my pantry and refrigerator, put together a few different sandwiches, test them and see what might be ‘birthed.’ However, it’s difficult to even follow my own advice—perfect example round one of the Pillsbury Bake Off. One thing’s for sure with contests, you just don’t know what the judges may want, what might appeal—oh, yes, they give the ‘judging criteria’—things like creativity, taste, ease of preparation, use of the product(s), availability of products used—but, beyond that it’s all in the eyes of the beholder—just like beauty or anything else. So, could it be the clever name you give the recipe? Could it be the twist on the sponsor’s product that you’ve created. Could it be the combination of ingredients or the choice of unlikely paired ingredients? It’s really all a big crap shoot! You don’t know. So, you give it your best shot.
So this particular Saturday morning, I started buttering bread—different types of bread. I had some leftover cornbread from the previous night’s dinner. There were a couple of slices of rye, a loaf of sour dough, and a few slices left of a good oatmeal grain bread. The cornbread wedge, I thought, would be an interesting ‘grilled cheese’—I fried and crumbled some bacon, there were a few cherry tomatoes I could use and some fresh basil—oh, yeah, a country Italian BLT-like grilled cheese! Then I decided that I wanted some color, so instead of using a mozzarella or fancy cheese, I’d go with a good ol’ tangy sharp cheddar cheese—put it all together and slap that baby in the cast iron skillet. It was a tad bit tricky to flip and grill, and this didn’t make it ‘easy to prepare’ plus who had leftover cornbread sitting on the kitchen counter? It was really gorgeous, the cheese was ozzing from the sides, an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on top, and we were ready to dig in—next issue, how in the devil do you pick it up? We needed a fork and knife—nah, while this ‘grilled cheese sandwich’ had robust and fabulous flavors, texture, and looks, it was not technically a sandwich. We chowed down, critiqued it, like maybe had the cornbread been cut in a square or rectangle rather than a wedge would it have worked, then I moved on to several other options.
After another hour and a half or so of creating four more options, and Ben giving them all thumbs up for taste, I decided I’d enter one—some contests allow multiple entries, others don’t. We talked—which should I enter? Well, we parted ways on which one to enter—Ben’s choice was not my choice. Of course, I didn’t listen to him because I just had this gut feeling about my choice—and, I’ve always told Ben the only taste he has is in his mouth! The one I chose was unique, intoxicating, unexpected—it was full of color, flavor and unlikely combinations. I knew the name—it came to me that night in a dream—THE BEWITCHING! This sandwich had all the makings of being a winner!
My instincts were spot on—a few months later, I got an email from the marketing company associated with the ‘Grilled Cheese Academy’—I was the grand prize winner! As I talked to the person on the phone, I learned that my sandwich was selected by Chef Tory Miller, Executive Chef and Co-Proprietor of L’Etoile Restaurant, in Madison, Wisconsin, and the 2011 James Beard Midwest ‘Chef of the Year.’ There was no popular vote on Facebook or a website—this was a contest where the winning sandwich was judged and selected on its culinary and creative merits.
I suppose the moral of this story is that sometimes luck and ideas collide for winning results. I didn’t overthink this contest. I listened to my gut. I kept it simple. I flew by the seat of my pants. Next time, it might not work, and that’s the frustrating, yet intoxicating and ever addictive, part of the saga of being at the ‘high roller table’ of cooking contests. Now some cooking competitors wouldn’t dare give away their trademark secrets nor share with you the mindset and thoughts about cooking competitions~~I dare say that the playing field is rife with talented foodies and if I can make you better, then I’m better in the long run~~and, on that note, I say if you’ve been thinking of entering a cooking contest, go for it~~nothing to lose and everything to gain!