Warmer weather and a mention in the recent Times article about New York coffee have meant that things have been busy at Birch Coffee lately, but not busy enough to cause Jeremy Lyman’s mind to stray far from thoughts of grilled cheese supremacy.
Lyman, who owns Birch with Paul Schlader, is planning to travel with Schlader and their chef, Evan Madden-Peister, to Los Angeles next month to attend the seventh-annual Grilled Cheese Invitational. Over 300 people are expected to compete at the April 24 event, and although the competition promises to be as typically fraught as any involving ambitious cooks with Sterno burners, Lyman sees it more as “just people getting together and having fun.”
How does one prepare for a grilled cheese invitational? By making a ton of grilled cheese sandwiches. Since Sunday, Lyman has been soliciting customer suggestions by way of comment cards, and has so far received about 20.
“Some of them are really, really interesting,” he says. “There’s one called the Burt Reynolds which is white Italian loaf with two slices of bacon, tomato, cheddar, munster, parmesan, and marinara sauce on the side. There’s another callled Peanut Butter and Jelly Time, which is 12-grain bread, Wisconsin cheddar, strawberry jam, and crunchy peanut butter. Then there’s another with dates, and another with gruyere, asparagus, and truffle oil.”
Lyman adds that Madden-Peister experimented with duck grilled cheese yesterday, and that recently, he himself burned through “a few hundred bucks on 15 different types of cheese” at Murray’s. Whatever the Birch crew likes best will be featured on the menu through the month of April, in addition to the cafe’s regular roster of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Competing at the invitational, Lyman explains, is not quite as simple as showing up and putting cheese on bread. There are three categories: in the Missionary, competitors are only given bread and butter, but can use any combination of cheese. In the Kama Sutra, competitors can do more or less anything, as long as their sandwiches are 60 percent cheese. And there’s the Honey Pot, which involves dessert sandwiches.
Competitors make four sandwiches from each category in 45 minutes, and their creations are scored by over 1,000 judges. “It’s intense,” Lyman says. “But I think we’ll have it by the end of the month.”
Whatever the outcome, he’s hardly complaining about the training schedule. “I think this is the coolest part of what we do,” he says. “This is my job. I get to out to California and compete in a grilled cheese competition. And write it off.”